Amphibious ships of the Navy just aren’t sexy. They tend to be boxy, ugly and relatively slow. The destroyers and cruisers of the Navy seem like Ferraris to the ‘gator Navy’s minivans.
But since 1940, the US Navy has invested enormous resources into amphibious shipping. The largest shipbuilding programs of World War II were destroyers, or destroyer escorts. They were LSTs, attack transports, and landing craft. Stunning numbers of ships and craft were built, often in yards that had never built a naval vessel, and in many cases, any ships at all. Even in the post WWII years, the Navy has spent precious shipbuilding dollars to maintain an effective ability to land Marines on opposed beaches.
Ironically, the very specific characteristics of amphibious ships also makes them suitable for other roles. Good endurance, the ability to support large numbers of people and boats, good command and control facilities and planning spaces, and plenty of cargo and work space, and aviation support facilities means an amphibious ship may well find itself used for another purpose altogether, one not originally envisioned by the builders.
The assault transport dock ship USS Ponce (originally LPD-15) was slated to be decommissioned after long and faithful service. But the Navy needed a base to support operations in the Persian Gulf, particularly to conduct anti-mine warfare. The simple sea mine, in service for well over a century, is quite likely the most dangerous threat naval forces and merchant shipping in the Gulf face. And pretty much the cheapest as well. Just about any nation on earth has the industrial capacity to make at least some simple contact mines. And almost any vessel can lay mines in the shallow waters of the gulf. During Desert Storm, the USS Princeton and the USS Tripoli were both severely damaged by simple contact mines laid by the Iraqis. And during the Tanker Wars of the late 1980s, the Iranians often sent fishing boats and other simple craft to clandestinely lay mines in the Straits of Hormuz. The efforts to clear these mines were far, far more expensive than the cost to the Iranians. And if the current tensions between the West and Iran flare into open conflict, it is almost certain that Iran will again resort to mine warfare to attempt to close the straits.
With all that in mind, it’s hardly surprising the Western powers are currently holding a large scale mine-warfare exercise in the Persian Gulf. And the USS Ponce is at the center of it.
After winning a reprieve from the scrapyard, the USS Ponce was reborn through a rush retrofit earlier this year and turned into a floating base prowling the waters of the Persian Gulf. It is now getting its biggest workout since refurbishment as the centerpiece for sweeping anti-mine naval exercises under way that serve as a very public warning to Iran. The Islamic Republic has threatened to shut the Gulf’s entrance at the Strait of Hormuz, the route for a fifth of the world’s oil supplies, and would likely use mines to do so.
Anti-mine divers on practice drills deployed in small boats off the Ponce’s stern gate early Saturday, and MH-53 minesweeping helicopters launched from the ship kicked up sea spray as they hauled mine-detecting equipment through the water. Later in the day, a U.S. destroyer pulled alongside, fighter jets roared past and gunners fired thunderous rounds from .50 caliber machine guns during a simulated encounter with a hostile vessel.
This is hardly the first time amphibs have been used to support mine warfare. In fact, the USS Ponce has performed this role before, during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The ability of amphibious ships to be quickly adapted to other roles is a real strength. When we get around to writing about the LST, you’ll probably be surprised at just how many different roles the Large Slow Targets actually filled.
Far from being simple boxes built to haul Marines to and fro, ‘gators are some of the most versatile, valuable ships of the US Navy.