AFRICANGLOBE – The Navy’s newly christened mobile landing platform afloat forward staging base Lewis B. Puller could get early work positioning Marines off the coast of Africa.
Marine Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford alluded to a plan that would place the new vessel in the Corps’ seabasing arsenal during a panel discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies earlier this month. The Puller was christened in February, but has yet to be commissioned.
“In the European Command, we have a gap, in, frankly [U.S. Africa Command], we have a gap, in our ability to do crisis response from the sea,” Dunford said. “…[Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert] and I expect from both commanders a letter that will request a mobile landing platform afloat staging base to fill that gap.”
Dunford said Marine and Navy officials are in a dialogue with the commanders of EUCOM and AFRICOM to find ways to address equipment gaps for crisis response missions. The Marine Corps’ unit that responds to crises in Africa is currently based in Spain.
While the afloat forward staging base, a variant of the mobile landing platform, is a possible stopgap, there are multiple solutions under consideration, Dunford said.
“I mentioned one material solution; that’s not to limit the material solution,” he said. “But the point is trying to figure out how do we get Marines and sailors back into the Mediterranean … because there are obviously very real security challenges, and forward presence is a key piece of addressing those.”
Where an afloat forward staging base might eventually be positioned is unclear. While Dunford mentioned the Mediterranean, which abuts Africa’s northern coast, the assistant secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition told Congress in late February that the Gulf of Guinea, off Africa’s western coast to the south, might be the chosen staging place.
“We see a lot of capability as well as potential on [Lewis B. Puller], but once again, it’s going to have to be in a permissive environment,” said Sean Stackley at a Feb. 25 hearing before a House Armed Services subcommittee. “I’ve worked on [concepts of operation] for the commandant to have something we can possibly use maybe in the Gulf of Guinea to be able to expand our reach of the V-22s down in that southern region of Africa.”
The importance of finding a midpoint between Europe and Africa for positioning troops ahead of a crisis was illustrated during the Marines’ evacuation of U.S. Embassy personnel from Juba, South Sudan, early last year amid worsening security conditions on the ground.
It took nearly 16 hours to fly 250 Marines to from Morón, Spain, the headquarters base for Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Africa, to a forward position in Entebbe, Uganda, ahead of the evacuation.
At the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space Expo last year, Assistant Commandant Gen. John Paxton said the operation illustrated the capability gap commanders felt without a Marine Expeditionary Unit operating in the Mediterranean.
“We don’t have enough ships to handle the day-to-day presence out there,” he said. “This is the readiness aspect. This is the forward deployed, forward presence aspect that we talk about with our combatant commanders when we get together.”
Touted as an alternative to the additional amphibious ships Marine and Navy brass want but can’t afford to build, the mobile landing platform is designed like a civilian oil tanker with a center deck that submerges to receive landing craft and connectors, equipped to serve as a sort of forward operating base at sea. The afloat forward staging base is a variant of the MLP, with an added flight deck and other features.
While the AFSB platform does not have the built-in survivability of the Navy’s amphibious assault ships, it’s equipped to provide berthing to up to 250 troops, making it a potential key asset for the special purpose MAGTFs or special operations units.
The Navy has so far named three mobile landing platforms: the Montford Point, the John Glenn and the Puller.
Dunford attended the christening for the Puller, which is named for a legendary Marine Corps general. It was the first MLP to be designed as an AFSB, and it’s expected to be delivered to the Navy in the second quarter of this year. Its fate following Navy trials is far from certain; it is also rumored that the Puller will be sent to the Persian Gulf next year to replace the Ponce, an amphibious transport dock that has been serving as a retrofitted afloat forward staging base in the theater.
A yet-to-be-named fourth MLP, also planned to serve as an AFSB, is expected to be completed in 2018.
By: Hope Hodge Seck