Incoming: Floating Bases Are an Old Idea Whose Time May Have Come Again
Every day in the South China Sea, the Chinese are slowly adding to what Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Harry Harris, USN, has called the Great Wall of sand. This is a series of artificial islands and floating platforms, some of them large enough to have big airfields and significant numbers of troops. The Chinese are doing this to stretch their operational reach and, above all, to buttress their claims of sovereignty out to the far reaches of the so-called “nine-dash line.”
The idea of using floating bases to create operational and legal advantages has been around for centuries, but it has strengthened as technology has provided the ability to build significant platforms at sea.
During the Vietnam War, the United States used tank landing ships (LST class) from World War II in the rivers and tributaries of the Mekong Delta to service the brown-water Navy. In the late 1980s, the U.S. Navy was required, on short notice, to conduct tanker escort operations in the Persian Gulf. Dubbed Operation Earnest Will, the mission included protective SEAL detachments operating from relatively short-legged MK III patrol boats (PBs). To create operational reach throughout the Gulf, the Navy lashed together barges and used them to resupply and refurbish the PB MK IIIs. Known as the Hercules and William Brown platforms, they also were used for aviation operations, maintenance and contractor support.
Ten years later, in the mid-1990s, Haiti was in turmoil. The solution was to use a conventional aircraft carrier, the USS America, as an afloat forward staging base (AFSB). On board was not the standard aircraft wing, but rather a highly eclectic mix of U.S. Army, Air Force and Navy personnel and assets. Special operations forces, nearly 2,000 strong, with their assorted specialized aircraft operated from the carrier’s deck.
After September 11, 2001, the Navy-Marine Corps team did essentially the same thing, using the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk to support operations attendant to the invasion of Afghanistan. The AFSB concept was well proven in this instance, which then led to the present use of the USS Ponce in the Strait of Hormuz to support patrol craft (PC) and minesweeper operations. The ship will be relieved in turn by the recently commissioned USNS Lewis B. Puller (T-MLP-3/T-AFSB-1), which is the first dedicated AFSB.
Appropriately named after famous Marine Corps hero Lewis “Chesty” Puller, the AFSB has terrific capability for its assigned mission. These are big ships, some 764 feet in length and more than 160 feet at the beam. Weighing nearly 90,000 tons and capable of operating four of the largest MH-53 helicopters, the ship has full accommodations for 250 special operations forces in addition to the crew. While quite slow at only 15 knots, the ships have significant armories, maintenance and refurbishment along with some command and control facilities. At around $200 million, they are relatively low cost in the context of purpose-built ships today. At least three are planned, and Gen. Joe Dunford, USMC, then-new commandant of the Marine Corps, went out of his way to laud the ships at a recent event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
What is interesting to consider are the potential scenarios for using these ships and whether another model—a private-public venture of sorts—might provide a path for an even lower-cost concept, making more hulls quickly available.
First, how might these ships be used? In an increasing number of spots globally, it is very hard to convince host governments to permit the establishment of bases even for routine training and operations. There are difficulties agreeing on status of forces agreements, the rules of engagement and involvement of civilians as well as disputes over cost and logistics—all of which are alleviated by the use of the AFSBs. Current locations where such a ship could be used instantly include the Persian Gulf, the Horn of Africa and much of littoral Africa—the Gulf of Guinea and the waters off Kenya. Likewise, such ships could be very useful in training operations in Latin America and the Caribbean and many parts of Southeast Asia, such as the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.
Second, in a crisis, the ability to move such a platform—protected adequately, of course—near a “hot zone” could be crucial. In particular, the use of such floating bases in noncombatant evacuation operations would be key. When I was the commander of U.S. European Command, I constantly worried about removing Americans from Lebanon. The current commanders of the U.S. Central Command and the U.S. Africa Command need such bases to operate off places such as Yemen or Kenya in the event of terrorist strikes, for example.
Finally, the AFSBs could play strong roles in disaster-relief operations and in counternarcotics. These types of international and interagency missions would be extremely helpful to the U.S. Southern Command and the U.S. Pacific Command, which routinely conduct such operations.
Given the uses for the concept, it is worth considering any commercial version that could be purchased for even less than the military’s AFSBs. While they would have somewhat less capability, their numbers would provide far more flexibility in distributing them among the regional combatant commanders. They could be manned by active-duty sailors, contractors or a mix of the two. Such commercial variants would be inexpensive to purchase and relatively less costly to operate. Hulls that have these capabilities—far smaller than the huge military AFSBs—would be very useful.
Both the newly commissioned, full-up AFSBs and a smaller commercial variant that could be government-owned but contractor-operated may have a role to play as the need for this capability grows. We should examine all options to meet the demand from the combatant commanders.
Adm. James Stavridis, USN (Ret.), was the 16th Supreme Allied Commander for NATO from 2009-2013. He is the 12th dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, from which he holds a Ph.D. in international law, and he is chairman of the U.S. Naval Institute’s board of directors.