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U.S.'s hulking new 'mothership' to make a statement in Middle East

An MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 22 flies above the amphibious transport dock ship USS Ponce (LPD 15).

Handout/U.S. Navy/Handout/U.S. Navy

By summer, U.S. Special Forces will have a new 'mothership' loitering near the Strait of Hormuz.

The hulking, U.S.S. Ponce, for decades an unglamorous home for U.S. Marines, was supposed to be scrapped after spending 40 years sailing the globe. Instead, the aging warship will be transformed into floating home for U.S. special forces. It will be perhaps the highest profile of new so-called 'lily pads,' small bases scattered around the globe for the secretive and deadly teams that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and rescued a pair of aid workers from Somali pirates.

President Barack Obama's preference for missile-firing drones and Special Forces, nimble, deadly, often-deniable attacks will add a new dimension to the president's emerging 21st-century war-fighting doctrine with the Special Forces 'mothership.'

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Under a special, hurry-up, no-bid contract costing millions, the U.S.S. Ponce will get sophisticated new equipment, including very fast launches, new helicopters, improved communication to turn it into a "Afloat Forward Staging Base' or, as it has been dubbed, a 'mothership.'

But a massive, grey-hulled warship – 16,000 tonnes and 170 metres long – is hardly a stealth vessel. So unlike most Special Forces operations, this one is designed to be visible and persistent. It will be an 'in-your-face' statement to Tehran's ruling mullahs.

For instance, the elite U.S. Navy Seals that parachuted into the Somali desert on last week's rescue and used special stealth helicopter to elude Pakistan's air defences also train to arrive by swimming from submerged submarines.

What the transformed Ponce brings will be presence. "The ship will be operated jointly by active-duty Navy officers and sailors, as well as government civilian mariners," said U.S. Navy spokesman Mike Kafka.

Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow waterway through which a stream of super-tankers deliver vital crude oil that fuels much of the world's economy.

With two massive aircraft carriers and more than a dozen warships bristling with guided missiles, the U.S. Navy has more than enough firepower in the region to defeat Iran's tiny fleet of fast launches and small submarines. But the carriers and other major warship are too valuable to leave loitering in the confined waters of Hormuz. Nor are they well-suited to close-quarters, at sea, dogfights.

The Ponce, with missile-firing helicopters and a flotilla of more than a dozen small, very fast, launches manned by sailors and Special Forces will give the president a new set of responses in the looming confrontation with Iran. On board will also be a full command center. And the Ponce will make a statement simply by being visible.

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U.S. Special Forces already operate in the Persian Gulf. Many are on board other warships and there is a base in Djibouti. But the visible presence of a 'mothership' able to deploy fast launches and attack helicopters, echoes an old, naval tradition – that of delivering a threatening message by 'sending a gunboat.' Whether Iran will be impressed remains to be seen.

Tehran has a long history of harassing U.S. warships with 'swarms' of fast launches manned by Revolutionary Guards. In 1988, a U.S. guided missile cruiser, the U.S.S. Vincennes, shot down an Iranian jetliner on an innocent flight over the Gulf when a trigger-happy commander believed it was an attacking warplane in the middle of a high-speed clash with Iranian fast launches.

In recent weeks, Iranian launches have closed in on U.S. warships and warning shots have been fired.

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About the Author
International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More

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