Navy Builds a New Class of Sea-Basing Ships

The Navy is making progress building a new class of ships configured for sea-basing and expeditionary missions as a way to help account for a shortage of amphibious assault ships and forward-position Marines, sailors, special operations forces, air assets and ship-to-shore connector vehicles, service officials said.

So far, the Navy has built and delivered two of five planned Mobile Landing Platforms, or MLPs — commercial oil ships re-engineered for military sea-basing and transport missions. In total, the service plans to build five MLPs with the last three termed Afloat Forward Staging Bases, or AFSBs – MLPs designed with a flight deck to support aviation operations.

“The delivery of MLPs 1 and 2 are complete.  MLP 3 is under construction and will be the first AFSB variant,” said Lt. Kat Dransfield, Navy spokeswoman.

The MLP is a massive 80,000-ton, 785 foot-long commercial Alaska-class crude oil carrier configured to perform a range of military missions such as amphibious cargo on-load/off-load and logistics support. The MLP can reach speeds of 15 knots, has a draft of 29-feet and can carry a crew of 34.

The ship is engineered to ballast down and lower into the water, allowing three Landing Craft Air Cushion, or LCAC, lanes for amphibious loading and unloading and equipment transport such as vehicles and large land equipment and weapons.  The MLP has as much as 25,000 square feet of vehicle and equipment storage space on deck, Navy officials said explained.

“It’s a big ship. It has a huge amount of acreage on it. It looks like an oil tanker but it can ballast down. We’ve been splashing Navy hovercraft on it and bringing LCACs on it. We’ve also splashed amphibious assault vehicles off of it,” Vice Adm. Phillip Cullom, deputy chief of Naval operations for fleet readiness and logistics, said at the Surface Navy Association annual symposium, Arlington, Va.

The contract for MLP 4 has been awarded, and MLP 5 will be procured in fiscal year 2017, said Dransfield.

MLP 1, called the USNS Montford Point, was put under contract for construction by the Navy in April 2011, resulting in a  deal to National Steel and Shipbuilding Company, or NASSCO, in San Diego, Calif. MLP 1 was slated to cost about $500 million, Navy officials said.

The ship was delivered in May of 2013 and is expected to be operational in the Spring of this year. The Montford Point demonstrated its capabilities during the 2014 Rim of the Pacific exercise and served as the centerpiece of the Pacific Horizon 2015 exercise last fall.

MLP 2, the USNS John Glenn, was delivered in March of last year. MLP 2 was expected to cost $440 million and was put on contract with NASSCO in April, 2011.

“The John Glenn is currently layberthed in the Pacific Northwest.  After completing a Post Shakedown Availability, it will be ready for tasking in late June 2015, James Marconi, spokesman for the Navy’s Military Sealift Command, said in a written statement. MLP 2 is scheduled to join a maritime prepositioning ship squadron in fiscal year 2016, he added.

The MLPs can also connect to large cargo ships while at sea using a drivable ramp, allowing equipment to move from a cargo ship to the MLP for transport to shore. Navy leaders explained that MLPs are designed to augment amphibious assault ships and help move large conventional forces from ship to shore – in the event they are needed.  The MLPs are designed to assist forward-positioned equipment and cargo ships called Maritime Prepositioning Ship Squadrons.

“The MLP is an extremely versatile ship with its large, open, reconfigurable mission deck.   MLPs 1 and 2 as part of the MPF will contribute to four core capabilities of deterrence, power projection, maritime security, and humanitarian assistance and disaster response,” Dransfield said.

MLP 3 is the first Afloat Forward Staging Base, or AFSB, which includes re-configured MLP with command and control technologies and a flight deck added on for maritime air operations.  The need for the AFSB emerged out of a requirement from Central Command for countermine and Special Operations Forces staging in the Persian Gulf area, Navy officials said.

MLP 3 is slated for delivery in the Fall of this year, Dransfield added. A deal for MLP 3, called USNS Lewis B. Puller, was signed in Feb., 2012, Navy officials said. The cost for MLP 3 was estimated by Navy officials to be about $623 million.

“The MLP AFSB will primarily support mine countermeasure (MCM) and special operations force (SOF) missions. Its ability to act as a mother ship in support of MCM operations and loiter for extended periods supporting SOF operations provides a dual purpose capability addressing multiple strategic requirements,” Dransfield explained.

With a decade of land war winding down or ending and the U.S. military rebalancing to the vast waterways of the Pacific, the Navy and Marine Corps have been examining their expeditionary strategy and concepts of operation, Navy leaders explained. They are hoping to increase forward presence, improve amphibious equipment transport and landing ability and provide new platforms for sea-basing air and maritime assets. The development of MLPs is a cherished aspect of this broader strategy.

Furthermore, with combatant commanders’ requests for amphibious assault ships far exceeding the actual number of ships available, MLPs can meet some of the additional demand for expeditionary and maritime operations. The Navy currently operates 31 amphibious assault ships and plans to bring the amphib fleet up to 33, Dransfield added.

Also, as a derivative of a commercially-available ship, MLPs can be delivered and made available to the Navy and the Marines much more quickly than new-start developmental ships often take well over a decade to construct.

“MLP is indeed a new class of ship that brings the concept of sea-basing to reality. The platform has two primary capabilities: transfer of vehicles, equipment, personnel and sustainment at-sea from large Navy cargo ships, and delivery of these vehicles and equipment ashore with amphibious connectors. MLPs will provide capability to the U.S. military for large-scale logistics movements from sea to shore, reducing dependency on foreign ports,” Marconi said.