Ordered by the U.S. Navy more than 45 years ago and cruising the world’s oceans since 1971, the USS Ponce (pronounced pon-say) was given a new lease on life in March of this year.It was almost literally pulled from the scrapyard, when CENTCOM Commander General James Mattis cancelled the Ponce’s decommissioning and ordered updates fitting its new role in the Persian Gulf.
Now listed as an Afloat Forward Staging Base, Interim — the former amphibious assault ship is the first U.S. floating base ever for military and humanitarian operations.
These are the things I knew before I arrived on deck of the Ponce early Friday morning packed into a MH-53 Sea Dragon helicopter with about a dozen other people from the media, and a handful of Navy public affairs officers.
What I learned while onboard, is that the Ponce is manned by a limited U.S. Navy crew almost entirely pulled from other commands and serving temporary duty to support the Ponce’s mission.
That mission seems largely to serve in support of the four permanent U.S. mine countermeasure ships in the Persian Gulf, but not entirely.
The Ponce also stores forward materiel for various branches of the U.S. military, according to civilian crew I spoke with. The ship is staffed largely by civilian seamen and one also told me he believes SEALs are a constant part of the crew.
When Navy officials were asked about the presence of SEALs onboard, they said they could neither confirm or deny the Navy special force’s presence.
But it makes sense, as the Ponce hosts many different training missions for many different groups within the Navy.
This week, that training mission is the IMCMEX 2012, reportedly the largest mine clearing effort ever performed in this part of the world.
Keeping the Persian Gulf, and the Strait of Hormuz, safe and free of underwater mines that could hamper commerce is part of the Ponce’s objective.
From what I saw, the military crew is in a state of constant training and readiness for mine countermeasures. From enlisted seamen in the well deck who told me they consistently train with anti-mine hardware, to oceanographers, who hold permanent positions that evaluate data picked up by sophisticated mine sweeping equipment.
They do it all on a ship that’s more than 40 years old, with what the Ponce’s Captain Rogers told us was a modest $60 million worth of upgrades.
To build a new ship to do the same thing, the Captain said, would cost billions. Capt. Rogers was good enough to allow us the run of his ship and personally guided us through spaces never before seen by the public.
The following photos show some of what we saw.
The USS Ponce has a long and fabled history that started during the heyday of Vietnam and almost concluded earlier this year
Snatched from the scrapyard at the last minute, the Ponce was retrofitted to become the US's first ever floating staging base that can support other ships, aircraft, and troops in their own missions
The only way onto the Ponce is by helicopter or small boat and we took a MH-53 helicopter from Bahrain
The Ponce brings on some troops, gear, and supplies from small boats and has cranes on both sides of the ship — this one for the larger boat
And this smaller crane for what's called the D-Rib — the smaller boat with inflatable sides and a hard bottom
And updated crew quarters, for a staff that hardly ever leaves the ship except when their tour is up
Made up mostly of civilians the crew's accommodations are clean and functional requiring care to maintain
The shower is started by turning the faucet and pushing a button on the white nozzle — the only truly cold water was the three inches in the bottom of the stall left by the crew before me
The ship is more than four decades old and maintaining it is a constant concern — these pipes are in a main hallway on the way to crew sleeping quarters
Marshall Anderson is one of the civilian crew — he retired from the Navy after 28 years in the mid-1990s and has a wife at home in the States
They don't mind the Ponce is a warship under constant threat because of assets like this Scan Eagle drone that monitors the surrounding seas for possible threats
Launched with pressurised air, the Ponce's Captain Rogers told us the drone can linger in the air for 20 hours on 1.5 gallons of gas
Captured by flying into these wire cables*, the Scan Eagle can be fitted with day and nighttime cameras
The drones are a key element in the ship's security and operated from this metal box on the deck by a mixed team of civilians and naval personnel
The drone's camera also displays here in the Captain's office — those small spots are boats several miles away in the Persian Gulf
And when fired together, at angles to each other, they're particularly effective at taking out incoming targets like the small swarming boats that Iran's famous for
And a pair of new 25mm laser guided cannons with high definition cameras mounted to the right under that small dome
The 25mm guns are controlled here from the Combat Information centre (CIC) through remote control by operators looking at these two screens
Like much of the Ponce, the CIC combines old school essentials like map reading and hand drawn coordinates in case of electrical failure
The front of the room is lined with monitors, one of them the Scan eagle video, and others with data that was turned off for our visit
There's a modern radar system for both surface ships and aircraft, along with a vessel identification system, but there is no sonar
I was told retrofitting sonar would be way too expensive even in the face of Iran's fleet of silent diesel electric submarines, and that ideally a US destroyer like this would be stationed with a ship like the Ponce
If the situation here becomes too much to handle, the CIC will call in the F-18s stationed on one of two aircraft carriers always stationed in the Gulf
And if missiles actually make their way to the Ponce, there is this chaff system designed to fool incoming rockets into exploding before they strike
Even the most cutting-edge technology only goes so far out here as many boats the ship encounters are made of wood and won't show up on radar — a large part of security is visual identification
Spotters take turns from the bridge here, to standing outside in the extraordinary heat with the binoculars — that's a brand new radar system in the forefront called ECDIS
This confluence of old and new is summed up here, with a 21st century navigation system beside an old engine order telegraph from the 1960s that tells the engine room how fast to power the ship through a series of bells
The well deck here is a large part of the reason the Ponce is fitted with all this new gear — it can hold all manner of mine sweeping equipment and troops — Saturday it was filled with international minesweeping divers
Allowing troops and equipment to get into and out of the water — here the divers have hauled their gear out over the slippery surface and are waiting for the ramp to drop them into the water
Which it does just seconds later, and they shoot off to their destination several miles away where they will be spotted by the Scan Eagle and shown to us in the Captain's office
What happens in the well deck happens largely in support of mine clearing efforts like this using specialised helicopters assigned to the ship
The choppers will lift off, fly to a mined area like the Strait of Hormuz, with one of several types of gear
And drag it behind attached to a cable, and oftentimes a video feed, that transmits various data to technicians in the air
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