Big, Boxy & Cheap, Naval Seabases Are All the Rage
After 70 years of experimentation, U.S. Navy wants more ships as floating outposts
When most people think “warship,” they imagine a sleek, speedy, heavily-armed vessel. A destroyer, cruiser, submarine or aircraft carrier. But arguably the most important naval vessels in coming years are the very opposite of sleek, speedy and heavily-armed.
They’re blocky, slow and equipped only with a few weapons for self-defense. These ships are basically big, empty, floating boxes for housing troops and launching helicopters and small boats in pursuit of pirates, insurgents and terrorists. And doing it cheaply.
They’re what the U.S. Navy calls “seabases.” Compared to land bases, they’re a less diplomatically complicated way of concentrating American troops near enemy territory. They’re also potentially much cheaper than big ground installations—and also less costly than specialized amphibious assault ships.
The Navy has more than a dozen seabase ships—some modified for the role, others purpose-built. And while they’re growing more important by the day, seabases in fact date back to at least World War II. “The United States of America has a long history of seabasing,” says Robert Caruso, a former Navy planner.
Seabases, he says, represent an “unfair advantage” for the U.S.
Bobbing repair shops
During the Pacific campaign from 1941 to ’45, the Navy established a logistics system that stretched across the vast ocean. Civilian and Navy crews mixed aboard cargo ships modified as floating warehouses and repair shops. In essence, the first seabases.
One highly-secret effort brought aviation maintenance closer to the Pacific battlefields. Operation Ivory Soap converted six Liberty cargo ships and 18 smaller Aircraft Maintenance Unit vessels to carry engines and parts for the Army Air Corps B-29 bombers and P-51 fighters pummeling Japan.
The 5,000 men aboard these 24 ships did repair work that otherwise would have involved costly and time-consuming shipment back to the mainland U.S.
The Liberty ships also performed some of the very first wartime helicopter operations, laying the foundation for much more intensive rotary-wing flights from future seabases. Sikorsky R-4Bs, originally meant for hauling supplies between vessels, flew emergency medical evacuation missions in The Philippines in 1945. They were the first American helicopters to see combat.
Two decades later, seabases proved vital in another Asian air war. During the Vietnam War, the Army, Navy and civilian mariners teamed up to convert the old flying-boat tender Albemarle into the helicopter repair ship Corpus Christi Bay, pictured.
Navy and civilian crew operated the ship while an Army aviation maintenance group staffed the on-board shops and labs. Corpus Christi Bay received damaged Army helicopters from Vietnam, fixed them up and quickly sent them right back into combat.
During the 1980s “tanker wars,” the Navy deployed at least two seabases in the Persian Gulf—the modified barges Hercules and Wimborn. The vessels housed Navy SEALs, fast boat units and bomb squads, Marine security forces and Army attack helicopters.
Not all seabases are converted transports and barges. Aircraft carriers embody the seabase concept most grandly. Essentially big, empty containers with runways on top, carriers aren’t limited to hauling around the standard Navy air wings with their fighters and radar planes.
In the weeks after 9/11, the crew of the flattop Kitty Hawk cleared the giant vessel’s hangars and flight deck and welcomed on board a contingent of Army Special Forces and their helicopters. The seabase Kitty Hawk launched some of the first air assaults into Afghanistan.
More recently, the Navy and the quasi-civilian Military Sealift Command refitted the old decommissioned amphibious ship Ponce with extra berthing, storage and equipment for a second career as an Afloat Forward Staging Base, the sailing branch’s new technical term for a seabase.
The renovated Ponce, 570 feet from bow to stern, bobs in international waters in the Persian Gulf, functioning just like a land base but with fewer diplomatic and logistical headaches. She supports minesweeping copters and their crews and, presumably, Special Operations Forces.
The Navy is even installing a prototype laser weapon for tests.
Then there’s Cragside, Military Sealift Command’s secretive commando seabase, scheduled for initial deployment in November 2014 following months of modification costing tens of millions of dollars.
Cragside, a 633-foot converted merchant vessel, is like a bigger, more modern Ponce. Able to blend in with civilian maritime traffic, the roomy Cragside could surreptitiously insert Special Operations Forces into conflict zones via boat and helicopter.
For more routine seabasing ops, the Navy sometimes enlists Military Sealift Command’s 14 T-AKE supply ships. The 689-foot T-AKEs spend most of their time shuttling fuel, parts and munitions to front-line warships, but with minimal changes they can haul people and helicopters, instead.
In 2009, Lewis and Clark, the first T-AKE, joined a Navy counter-piracy expedition in the Gulf of Aden, launching copters and security teams and even housing suspected pirates in a makeshift jail. “Lewis and Clark is an incredibly flexible and adaptable platform,” said Capt. Bill McCarthy, the ship’s master.
After decades of improvisation, the Navy is finally building dedicated seabase ships from the keel up. The four ships of the Montford Point class include two so-called “mobile landing platforms” plus two slightly more specialized Afloat Forward Staging Bases, all assembled by NASSCO in San Diego.
The lead ship, pictured, joined Military Sealift Command last year.
The $500-million Montford Points look like someone took a nearly 900-foot-long tanker and cut out half the upper hull. By filling ballast tanks, the crew can submerge the deck deep enough for hovercraft and boats to come and go.
Raise the deck higher and it becomes a big flat space to park vehicles and spread out equipment and containers. The third and fourth Montford Points, still under construction, have an extra-long flight deck and other enhancements in order to qualify as Afloat Forward Staging Bases, but in fact all four vessels are more-than-adequate seabases.
The Navy—not to mention the Marine Corps and the other military branches that might use the ships—is so excited about the Montford Points that it wants to buy a fifth copy, should funds become available. The Marines are talking about the Montford Points filling in for multi-billion-dollar amphibious ships on missions that don’t require the amphibs’ heavier armor and weaponry.
“We are just starting to scratch the surface of what we can do with platforms like this,” said Rear Adm. T. K. Shannon, Military Sealift Command’s top officer.