Watch out, that freighter may actually be a warship

By David Axe
July 9, 2014

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U.S. military operations now increasingly begin and end at sea — aboard a growing fleet of vessels that the Pentagon has specifically outfitted as floating command facilities, barracks and launch pads.

The daring U.S. commando raid into Libya to capture Ahmed Abu Khatallah, the Benghazi terror suspect, opened a window into Washington’s new approach to war and counterterrorism. The Navy warship New York was central to the military’s mission in seizing Khatallah and transporting him to the United States for trial.

New York and other “sea bases,” as the military calls them, are more mobile, better defended and potentially cheaper than long-term U.S. facilities built on foreign soil. These ships sail and anchor in international waters, so they offer legal and diplomatic advantages over former land bases.

The USS New York sails underneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge into New York HarborSome sea-base ships are high-profile military projects costing billions of dollars. Others are civilian vessels that the Defense Department quietly charters, modifies and staffs with non-military crews to function as secretive special operations bases on classified missions.

The capture of Khatallah demonstrates what this could look like. When U.S. Special Operations Forces seized him on June 15, the commandos and an accompanying FBI team reportedly traveled by car and then boat to deliver the suspected terrorist to the New York, waiting off the Libyan coast. The 690-foot vessel, which has steel salvaged from the World Trade Center forged into its bow, then set course for the United States.

Its two-week trans-Atlantic crossing gave FBI agents time to question Khatallah and to read him his rights before they handed him over to law-enforcement officials in the United States. He pleaded not guilty to one count of providing material support to terrorists in federal court in Washington on June 28.

Staging aboard New York allowed the Pentagon to avoid complicated legal entanglements. Transporting Khatallah by air from Libya or a nearby country would have required the host government’s approval, as well as approval from all the countries that the plane flew over. Libyan officials objected to the Khatallah raid, but they could not interfere since the suspect was aboard New York by the time the news broke.

The USS New York LPD21 built with 7.5 tons of steel from the World Trade Center in her bow pauses on the Hudson River near the site of the former collapsed towers in New YorkThe technologically advanced New York is an ideal sea base. The ship is large and flexible, with an expansive flight deck for launching and landing helicopters, and facilities for handling a wide range of boats. It boasts a wide range of sophisticated communications equipment including radios, encrypted satellite phones and encrypted Internet — plus plenty of living space for commandos and law-enforcement agents. Not to mention rooms that can double as jail cells.

New York is not alone. The Pentagon is designing many new ships that include plenty of flexible spaces, multiple ways of getting on board and off and flexible systems that can handle lots of different tasks. Just like land bases — except movable.

Counting older ships and those still under construction, the military has scores of large vessels that can serve as sea bases, each housing potentially hundreds of military personnel, all their gear and their boats and helicopters.

The biggest and most sophisticated sea-base ships are about to enter service. One is Cragside, a 633-foot merchant vessel that the Navy leased in late 2013 from civilian shipper Maersk Lines for an initial $73 million, covering modification costs and the first year’s rental fee. Additional years are roughly $5 million annually. The military has been tight-lipped about the vessel’s modifications and missions, but it’s apparent that it’s a sea base for Special Operations Forces — like those who captured Khatallah.

The Navy’s official list of requirements for Cragside included secure communications facilities that are specially shielded to prevent electronic eavesdropping, an armory for storing weapons, a gym and accommodations for up to 200 troops plus compatibility with the Navy SEALs’ jet skis and most of the major helicopter types that Special Operations uses.

“This is going to be a seriously capable ship,” said Tim Colton, a maritime consultant who writes about maritime issues here.

U.S. Navy handout file photo of the USS Ponce in the Red SeaCragside could have all the amenities of a land base — but with the added advantages of mobility, secrecy and legal cover. Sailing from hot spot to hot spot, the ship could quickly put commandos within striking distance of any coastal country, operating literally below the radar.

Cragside could deploy for its first missions late this year, joining the scores of floating prisons, hospitals, supply bases and drone- and helicopter-launch pads that comprise America’s growing sea-base fleet.

They are the mobile infrastructure for a new American way of war — one that avoids the complications of foreign land bases.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ultimately accelerated development of sea bases. Washington and its allies built sprawling, fortified ground bases to sustain the years-long occupations in the two countries. But the bases were expensive, vulnerable to attack and fueled strong resentment in local populations.

“Getting basing rights is tough,” said Lieutenant General Kenneth J. Glueck Jr., head of the Marine Corps’ weapons development command. “We’ve been kicked out of a lot of places.”

The military brass realized it could no longer expect easily available land bases in foreign countries. “Allies are going to want to train with us, but they’re not going to want us to build bases,” said General James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant. “Those days are gone.”

As U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan wound down in 2009, the Pentagon began pouring more energy into the sea-basing concept.

120524-N-XO959- 023Between 2001 and 2012, the Navy bought 14 Lewis and Clark-class cargo ships for roughly $500 million apiece. Each of the blocky, 690-foot-long vessels includes expansive flight decks and vast internal capacity — more than one million cubic feet of what the Navy calls “reconfigurable spaces.” These warehouse-style areas have moveable walls that can function as office cubicles for the military — on an industrial scale.

With a quick breakdown of interior walls, crews can turn the ships into huge floating storage facilities. Adding more walls transforms the vessels into virtual bases for potentially hundreds of U.S. troops, law-enforcement officials or aid workers.

Presaging New York‘s mission off Libya, in 2009 one Lewis and Clark-class cargo vessel served as a temporary floating prison for Somali pirates whom the Navy had captured in the Indian Ocean.

Counting cargo ships and amphibious assault ships with innate potential as sea bases, the Navy now has more than a hundred sea-basing vessels — and enough new and improved lighterage, the floating bridges that connect ships,  to link together several at a time. The sailing branch is in the process of building as many as four huge new ships that could vastly expand U.S. sea-basing capacity in coming years.

Designated Mobile Landing Platforms, the roughly $500-million vessels are largely raw space, easily transformed for specific, temporary requirements. A flat, featureless deck stretches most of their 840-foot length. The ships can even partially submerge to allow boats to motor onto and off of the deck.

140428-N-BD629-280Some of the Navy’s most secretive sea bases are actually older ships that the sailing branch has modified. In early 2012, the sailing branch spent $60 million upgrading the 1960s-vintage amphibious ship Ponce — then due for decommissioning — into a permanent sea base.

The 570-foot Ponce was fitted out with better accommodations, catapult-launched surveillance drones and extra defensive weapons, including guns and an experimental laser cannon.

Today Ponce sails tight circles in the Persian Gulf close to Iran, staying in international waters to avoid diplomatic complications. It hosts divers and helicopters for hunting Iranian mines, analysts to monitor drone footage presumably of Iranian military activities and, reportedly, Nav y SEAL commandos on secret missions.

Ponce could remain in the Gulf for several more years, at which point the Navy plans to replace it with one of the new Mobile Landing Platforms.

The Navy has not said what it intends to do with Cragside, the new and secretive commercial ship that the sailing branch is modifying as a home for up to 200 Special Operations Forces.  “We can’t provide details relating to the ship’s mission,” military spokesman Jim Marconi told Seapower magazine.

But if in the near future the military needs to capture and transport another suspected terrorist like Khatallah, don’t be surprised if the operation begins and ends aboard Cragside or another high-tech sea base.

 

PHOTO (TOP): The USS New York arrives at its new homeport at Naval Station Mayport, December 6, 2013. U.S. NAVY/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Marcus L. Stanley/Handout

PHOTO (INSERT 1): The USS New York sails under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge into New York Harbor November 2, 2009. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

PHOTO (INSERT 2): The USS New York (LPD21), an amphibious transport dock ship pauses on the Hudson River near the site of the former collapsed towers in New York, November 2, 2009. REUTERS/Gary Hershorn

PHOTO (INSERT 3): The amphibious transport dock ship USS Ponce is seen underway in the U.S. 5th fleet area of responsibility in the Red Sea, February 16, 2011. REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Scott Pittman/Handout

PHOTO (INSERT 4): The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Sterett (L), the Military Sealift Command Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS Charles Drew (C) and the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Cape St. George conduct a replenishment at sea, May 24,2012. U.S. NAVY/ Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Amanda L. Kilpatrick/Handout

 PHOTO (INSERT 5): The Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim) USS Ponce is boarded by Sailors and Marines from the amphibious transport dock ship USS Mesa Verde during an enhanced vessel board, search and seizure drill, April 28, 2014. U.S. NAVY/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Shannon M. Smith/Handout

 

12 comments

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But… As all of us who have been in the USN know,any ship is one missile or torpedo away from being a reef.

Posted by Poalima | Report as abusive

SpecFor is going to be bearing the brunt of the US .mil operations for the foreseeable future. The Navy has been doing this to submarines for decades, with boats like the Kamehameha and now conversion of early Ohio-class submarines.

Posted by pruckels | Report as abusive

The profits will likely be less with a lower cost option. So why even broach the subject when you know that the profiteers control our military. Step back and address the real issue that we do war for money, not for defense or foreign policy designed to bring about a more just world. Money. We kill for money and everyone except the most imbecilic children know this. The rationalization of our defense structure will be a trivial thing if we set our goals to really be what we say in our propoganda.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

The are 6 photos attached to this story, and not a single large vessel on any of those looks like anything but a warship. So either the title is a bit off, or the pictures are.

Posted by amd65 | Report as abusive

Works for me. The US has all these little bases everywhere, but they don’t amount to anything when the fighting starts. Wars are fought by naval battle groups backed up by long-range strat bombers and cruise missiles, so the only permanent real estate the US needs is Ramstein, one of the Japanese airfields, and a purpose-built facility in Iraq or Afghanistan, all beefed up to accommodate 30k ground troops or so for rapid response (the full might of the eagle’s talons can be brought in by commandeered airliners within 48h). Heck, triple it for redundancy and we’ve still cut the overseas US military presence by 90 percent. Plow half the savings into more and better-defended naval assets, and return the rest to the good citizens of America to spend as they see fit.

Posted by CppThis | Report as abusive

@brotherkenny,

“…you know that the profiteers control our military…”. Who knows this? You? Most opinions you express here are too silly for anyone to consider credible.

“…we do war for money, not for defense or foreign policy designed to bring about a more just world. Money. We kill for money…”. We who? Me? My neighbors? Politicians? Lobbyists? Our government doesn’t “kill for money”…they don’t have to. They print all they need and then some. Be specific or stifle.

“…everyone except the most imbecilic children know this…”. Actually it is the words you spew forth here in public that seem most imbecilic of all. You don’t think America has a need for it’s own defense, our foreign policy is unintelligible at present because of an almost universal abdication of leadership of all parties.

To “…set out to “bring about a more just world” would be shooting ourselves in the collective foot. Every American would have to voluntarily step forward and take more than a 75% reduction in take-home pay to achieve the necessary “downsizing” of global resources we consume. Maybe those you associate with are that stupid, but those I associate with certainly aren’t.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

As President Eisenhower worried in 1955, America is a military/industrial economy. Today more than 35% of its industry is defence. Question: Where are its enemies brave enough to launch an attack? What a tragically negative approach to the well-being of its people.

Posted by expat75 | Report as abusive

@amd65 Perhaps you didn’t read the article; the writer noted that the navy has leased several freighters from Maersk to use as an offshore base. Obviously the navy doesn’t want everyone to know which ship is being covertly used by the military.

Posted by BenRo | Report as abusive

So these floating bases are supposed to replace the 40 or so military bases that the U.S. has in the Middle East? So how many military bases has the military actually shut down?

I wonder if this is another one of those competitions between the armed services? The army has its own bases. The air force has its own bases. And now the navy has its own floating bases. And nothing gets shut down.

Posted by nose2066 | Report as abusive

Hogwash. PR for the ridiculous US Navy budget. The only question should be – is this crap article bought and paid for?

Posted by Eideard | Report as abusive

Overall, not a bad plan – on its ‘surface.’ This ‘program’ is similar to the airline industry CRAF (Civilian Reserve Air Fleet) program – which pays the participating airlines & air freight companies (not necessarily “American” companies) to beef up their aircraft to meet the demands of U.S. military transport of cargo & troops, via (very lucrative) “military charters.”

The first-up “rub” in this ‘freighter’ article is in the associated profitering. (Seriously, “… follow the money.” Why would Maersk be favored by the U.S. Navy; enen if they do have a ‘division’ in the USA?)

Add that the associated vessels/aircraft/crew probably exceed the protections of the Geneva Conventions. (Does anyone remember the fate of the “Lusitania,” of W.W. I fame?)

Granted, the current U.S. “politics” assumes that there will ever be few, if any, American POWs in any current or future ‘wars.’ (The term “POW” has almost been eliminated from the U.S. military lexicon; versus “…whereabouts unknown.”)

Granted, also, that the current U.S. (“Might Makes Right”) politics assumes that there is no significant risk that American (“NATO”) aircraft & ships will ever fall to the reversed-concept of “…dual use targets,” ala the Balkan invasion. (If so reversed, that would be “terrorism.”)

Consider also ….

In the history of the “First Gulf War,” the U.S. Air Force awarded military medals to the pilots who flew “CRAF missions.” Thus, with that history as a ‘precedent,’ it isn’t any ‘stretch’ for an ‘opposing force’ to assert that the associated “… so-called civilians” are “… unlawful enemy combatants.” (Even bin Laden’s driver was kidnapped in the claim that he was an “unlawful combatant.”)

Accordingly, imagine American ‘civilian’ flight crews (or Merchant Mariners) being kidnapped & charged by an ‘opposing force;’ or just being ‘executed’ in their layover hotel rooms in London, Frankfurt or Paris – with the same fate awaiting Merchant Mariners in any given port city.

Otherwise, assuming that these freighters “… fly the American Flag,” this freighter conversion-adaptation sounds like a great plan; serving U.S. military convenience, stealth, economy and time-savings.

In the periphery, also …

As time & events pass, the global ‘traditions’ such as the Geneva Conventions are being incrementally renderd into the status of “historic artifacts” – including the U.S. Constitution; and the associated ‘Constitutional extensions’ in the form of international treaties, such as the Geneva Conventions, the UN Charter (which embeds ALL versions of the Geneva Conventions). Add, of course, international treaties concerning torture, etc. (For the uninformed, the U.S. Constitution holds International Treaties as being an integral part of the U.S. Constitution.)

[In the deeper background, just in the U.S. public education system, within the mandatory "Core Curriculum," (educational 'standard; or 'propaganda?') the U.S. Constitution is all but "missing." (But, corporate "third parties" are making a killing in theproduction & implementation of the "Core Curriculum.") So, in the proverbial land of the free, how much do "Americans" know about the truly pertinent matters? Acccordingly, who remains to "protest?"]

So, while the typical (selectively ignorant)’American’ reader, in particular, who has also been conditioned to ONLY examine the [media presented] “surface information” [with the "sale" of the official account of "911" as a glaring example - add the War Crime invasion & occupation of Iraq] might view and accept this freighter conversion-adaptation “strategy” as being some form of clever and efficient; its risks should also be considered.

Being in International Waters doesn’t assure safety for these ‘freighters.’ It shouldn’t be forgotten that as time goes on, “drones” are increasingly becoming the tools of almost any military/militant force – some drones being admittedly more sophisticated than others. If not a “drone;” there is always the risk of a ‘Kamikaze’ pilot.

With the world’s “major powers” trending toward International Anarchy, what happens when ANY freighter is ‘perceived’ as a legitimate target? Between thin hulls and a lack of protective radar/armament, these ‘freighters’ could become so much “collateral damage;” aka, ‘floating coffins.’

Next, just given the ‘success model’ of the “Somali Pirates,” is it that far-fetched to think that these freighter conversions-adaptations are not a magnet for an unforeseen disaster? What does it take for a “fishing boat” to be outfitted with missiles and/or torpedoes? For that matter, can ‘freighters’ be seriously damaged or sunk with the current generation of RPGs?

Consider also, by way of precedent, if the Israelis – even the U.S. Navy SEALs – can conduct “defensive piracy” in International Waters, what ‘government’ – or ’cause’ can be precluded from doing the same; or later be prosecuted? The affected crew members & their families might get a nasty surprise.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that the USA isn’t a party to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Thus, the U.S. conducts ‘convenient’ drone strikes (even against “suspected” U.S. cvitizens); and sends the SEALs and Delta Force to kidnap/kill targeted individuals. BUT, how long will that U.S. “vicarious justice” be allowed to continue? ‘Justice’ aside, the domestic U.S., in particular, is already awaiting “… the day of the avenger/terrorist.”

Again, this freighter conversion-adaptation sounds like a really great plan; serving U.S. military convenience, stealth, economy and time-savings – “… on the surface.”

In the interim, it’s well worth asking: “Who, exactly, in the New World Order does this arrangement benefit?”

Posted by SKYDRIFTER | Report as abusive

Well said SKYDRIFTER!! It gives me some semblance of ease knowing there are folks out there who aren’t “selectively ignorant” or conveniently uninformed. The real question is how much longer are the good people of the United States of America going to keep their heads in the sand or look the other way?

Posted by GUYFAWKS | Report as abusive

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