NORFOLK (NNS) -- Afloat forward staging base-interim USS Ponce (AFSB(I) 15) returned to Naval Station Norfolk Sept. 27, after being forward deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations for more than five years.
Nicknamed "Proud Lion," Ponce was reclassified from an amphibious transport dock ship to an interim afloat forward staging base with a hybrid crew of Navy and Military Sealift Command personnel. They deployed to the Navy's U.S. 5th Fleet and had been forward-deployed there since July 2012. The reclassification was experimental and based on the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk's (CV 63) role as an afloat special operations staging base during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001.
"The U.S. Navy's 'Proud Lion' is America's proof of concept of innovative warfighting operations and a testament to unmatched professionalism," said Brig. Gen. Francis L. Donovan, commander, Naval Amphibious Forces, Task Force 51, 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade.
Following a mandate from the Chief of Naval Operations, U.S. Fleet Forces Command, in cooperation with the Military Sealift Command, coordinated efforts to provide Ponce as a response to a U.S. Central Command request for an afloat forward staging base to conduct a variety of in-theater sea operations. After successful implementation, Ponce remained in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations providing a platform capable of completing a variety of missions including humanitarian relief, special operations, mine countermeasure operations and serving as a command and control asset.
"The high standard you demonstrated throughout the deployment in direct support of real-world operations was critical to national interests of the United States," Donovan said, addressing Ponce's combined Navy-civilian mariner's team prior to their return.
"It's simply not possible to recount the extraordinary things Ponce has accomplished in her 46 years of service, but it is sufficient to say that the durability, flexibility and clarity of design inherent in Ponce will be missed," he continued, highlighting the history of the ship and its unique longevity when compared to other platforms. "This is well-reflected by the fact that Ponce has outlived whole classes of ships that were commissioned when Ponce was already 10 years old."
The ship was commissioned July 10, 1971, in Norfolk, as an Austin-class amphibious transport dock ship (LPD). She became a workhorse of the Atlantic Fleet, completing 27 North Atlantic, Caribbean, Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf deployments over the next 42 years. In 2011, the ship was selected for decommissioning after her final deployment and began deactivation in November 2011 for a March 30 decommissioning. Refitted as an afloat forward staging base (interim), the ship gained new life and a hybrid crew.
In 2014, Ponce tested the laser weapons system, the first of its kind to be employed aboard a deployed U.S. Navy warship. This system provided unmatched capabilities, enabling combatant commanders the ability to employ a new weapons system at the speed of light, undetected and completely silent against a variety of air and surface targets at long distances and at a cost of about a dollar a shot. Ponce's participation in the development of this system was essential to defining a generation of directed energy weapons currently in development.
During her time in the 5th Fleet, Ponce deployed throughout the Gulf of Aden, Horn of Africa, South Red Sea and Arabian Gulf to conduct expeditionary operations in support of diverse missions that included crisis response, airborne mine countermeasures, counter-piracy operations, maritime security operations and humanitarian aid/disaster relief missions. The crew regularly participated in operations and exercises with up to six foreign countries and shared expertise that built upon partner nation capabilities in order to increase regional stability and improve interoperability.
AFSB(I) 15 was the first ship to be fully realized and dedicated as an afloat forward staging base. The lessons learned from Ponce's employment will be incorporated in future expeditionary sea bases to be built over the next 15 years. Its performance in this role will be used as a model for concepts and developments across the 30-year shipbuilding plan. Additionally, the ship and its crew provided unmatched UAV, mine sweeping, multinational aircraft and amphibious support during TF 51/5-led missions.
Ponce was relieved in U.S 5th Fleet by the expeditionary sea base USS Lewis B. Puller (ESB 3), the first U.S. ship commissioned outside the United States and the first ship built specifically for the purpose of serving as an afloat, forward-staging base.
The ship is slated for decommissioning and dismantling later this year.
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