Chesty Puller is back at the center of the action.
The U.S. Navy recently commissioned a first-in-its-class Expeditionary Sea Base to be named after the most storied Marine in the Corps’ history.
The Puller will provide a floating staging base for U.S. operations in the Central Command Region, an asset that is uniquely suited to facilitate special operations missions.
The ship became the first U.S. vessel to be commissioned outside of the United States on Aug. 17 during a ceremony in Bahrain. The ship was previously designated as a USNS, or United States Naval Service civilian-crewed ship. Now a warship, it will replace the amphibious assault dock Ponce.
The Ponce, originally designed as an amphibious assault ship, has provided similar afloat staging base capabilities during the past several years. But the Puller is the first ship built specifically for this mission.
The Puller has the third-largest flight deck in the Navy — after aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships — from which four CH-53 helicopters or MV-22s can operate at a time.
It can also launch small boats or unmanned surface vehicles from its mission deck, and has a unique modular design so it can be reconfigured with various 20-foot containers to “support any mission you like,” said Capt. Adan Cruz, the commander of the ship.
The ship has an unusual look: In addition to the empty space available for containers, there are no sides between the mission deck and flight deck.
And though it will replace a ship that has been operating in the region for about five years, it has different capabilities.
The Puller is designed to support amphibious operations, special operations and mine countermeasure operations, and will fall under the command of Brig. Gen. Francis Donovan, commander of Naval Amphibious Force Task Force 51/5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, known as 51/5.
“It’s a force enabler,” Donovan said. “It complements and enhances our capability.”
Donovan’s unit is an integrated Navy-Marine Corps staff based in Bahrain with responsibility for crisis response in the Central Command area, including command and control of the region’s Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force and any Amphibious Readiness Group-Marine Expeditionary Unit operating in the region.
The Puller “gives us more options,” he said, because of the large flight deck, the ability to perform maintenance, and the ability to house about 150 Marines and sailors.
“On a day-to-day basis, our forces, between our shore-based MAGTF, which is the SPMAGTF, and our sea-based MAGTF, which is the ARG-MEU, they’re distributed across the CENTCOM region. So as we look every day at potential crisis points, it’s like a game of chess,” Donovan said.
Now, he said, the unit can send the Puller to additional locations with the necessary assets— whether that’s to be first to the scene of a crisis or arrive later with additional troops and capabilities.
“It gives us more flexibility, more freedom, more adaptability, and really at the end of the day, the most important: more ability to project power ashore,” Donovan said.
The ship is technically home ported in Norfolk, Virginia, but will be forward deployed to CENTCOM indefinitely, to support operations in the region.
“Often we talk about … military forces being able to enhance peace and stability in the region. Here we have to be very honest: We have four active conflicts going on in this region,” said Vice Adm. Kevin Donegan, commander of the Navy’s 5th Fleet.
Because of the changing nature of warfare and the constant state of flux in the area, the Navy built “tremendous growth potential” into the ship, allowing it to “really expand on what she does, in support of amphibious missions, in support of naval missions, in support of reconnaissance missions, and in support of special operations forces,” Donegan said.
The Ponce was limited by the way it was constructed, so that when the Navy “put the first directed energy laser system ever deployed on a ship” aboard the Ponce, “we had to take something off to do that,” Donegan said. “It’s not going to be the case here.”
During the brief indoor commissioning ceremony aboard the ship, Lt. Gen. William Beydler, commander of Marine Corps Forces Central Command, noted that the ship’s namesake served 26 of his 37 years in the Marine Corps away from home — mainly in the Pacific.
“I would argue that if he lived in our era, he would have spent the majority of time in this region, in the Middle East, in the CENTCOM AOR, because that’s where the fight has been, that’s where the fight is, and that’s where the fight will be in the near time,” he said.
Puller’s strength was “being deployed overseas in the points of friction for the nation when it called,” Donovan said. “And that’s what we intend to do also.