US Navy’s first laser-equipped ship returns to US ahead of retiring

The US Navy’s afloat forward staging base-interim USS Ponce (AFSB(I) 15) returned to Naval Station Norfolk September 27 after spending over five years overseas.

The navy’s first laser-weapon system fitted ship returned from the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations and is set to be decommissioned and dismantled later this year.

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.

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 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.

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. 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.

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.