Sunday, January 29, 2012

New Floating Bases For U.S. Navy------Defense News

The U.S. amphibious ship USS Ponce is to be converted as a base for minesweeping helicopters, patrol boats and special forces based in the Persian Gulf.

Decades after the idea was broached for a floating, mobile base to support operating forces in the Persian Gulf, the concept has suddenly shifted into high gear, and a sense of urgency is driving both new U.S. ship construction and conversion of an existing vessel.
A new Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB) is mentioned almost in passing within the Pentagon budget briefing document made public Jan. 26. Development funding will be provided, the document said, for a new AFSB “that can be dedicated to support missions in areas where ground-based access is not available, such as countermine operations.”
Elsewhere, under “industrial base skills,” the documents noted that, “for example, adding the afloat forward staging base addresses urgent operational shortfalls and will help sustain the shipbuilding industry in the near-term and mitigate the impact of reducing ship procurement in the” budget.
What is all this verbiage code for?
“This fulfills a long-standing requirement from U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), going back to the Tanker Wars of the late 1980s,” said Capt. Chris Sims, a spokesman for U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, Va.
Sims was referring specifically to a recent decision to modify the amphibious transport dock ship Ponce — which had been scheduled to be decommissioned March 30 — into an interim AFSB able to support minesweeping MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters.
The ship will be operated jointly by active-duty Navy officers and sailors, and by government civilian mariners employed by Military Sealift Command (MSC) — a hybrid crew similar to those used on the Navy’s two submarine tenders and the command ship Mount Whitney.
Beyond the conversion, though, the Navy now plans to build at least one, and possibly two, AFSBs.
U.S. Navy officials would not publicly confirm the new construction, but sources confirmed the service plans to modify the Mobile Landing Platform (MLP) design to take on the AFSB role.
Three MLPs have been funded for construction at the General Dynamics National Steel and Shipbuilding (NASSCO) shipyard in San Diego. The ships are large, 765-foot-long vessels able to float off small landing craft, tugs or barges.
For the AFSB role, a fourth MLP hull would be modified with several decks, including a hangar, topped by a large flight deck able to operate the heavy H-53s in the airborne mine countermeasures role.
But the AFSB will also be able to carry Marines, support patrol and special operations craft, and fuel and arm other helicopters.
The ship is expected to be requested in 2014.
Sources also said the Navy might be considering modifying the third MLP to the AFSB mission. Construction of that ship, funded in the 2012 defense bill, is being negotiated between NASSCO and the Navy.
Conversion of the Ponce, meanwhile, is proceeding with alacrity. MSC issued requests for proposal (RFPs) on Jan. 24 to upgrade and refit the ship. Bids are to be submitted by Feb. 3, with work to begin in mid-month. The RFPs state that sea trials are to be carried out in mid-April.
The work includes upgrading the ship’s navigation systems, bringing habitability up to MSC standards and general refurbishment. No flight modifications are planned at this time, said MSC spokesman Tim Boulay.
Fleet Forces Command also has begun solicitations for 50 Navy personnel to help man the ship in its special mission role.
The Ponce had returned to Norfolk from its final cruise Dec. 2, and crewmembers had already begun the inactivation process when the order came down to keep the ship running.
Use of the ship, Sims said, was “seen as an opportunity to fulfill that longstanding CENTCOM request.”

China Plays Cool as U.S. and Philippine Ties grow-------Defense News

BEIJING — China on Jan. 29 called for greater efforts towards “peace and stability” in the region, after the Philippines offered to allow more U.S. troops on its territory.
Manila said Jan. 27 it planned to hold more joint exercises and to let more U.S. troops rotate through the Southeast Asian country — an offer welcomed by the United States as it seeks to expand its military power in Asia.
“We hope that relevant parties will make more effort towards peace and stability in the region,” China’s foreign ministry said in a brief statement faxed to AFP.
The government’s response was in sharp contrast to a blistering editorial in the Global Times — known for its nationalistic stance — which said Beijing should impose sanctions against the Philippines over the move.
China should use its “leverage to cut economic activities” between the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries and consider “cooling down” business links with its smaller neighbor, according to the editorial published in the Chinese and English versions of the newspaper.
“It should show China’s neighboring areas that balancing China by siding with the U.S. is not a good choice,” it said.
“Well-measured sanctions against the Philippines will make it ponder the choice of losing a friend such as China and being a vain partner with the U.S.”
China and the Philippines, along with Vietnam, have rival claims to parts of the South China Sea, home to some of the world’s most important shipping lanes and believed to hold vast deposits of fossil fuels.
Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia also have claims in the South China Sea.
Manila and Hanoi complained repeatedly last year of what they said were increasingly aggressive acts by China in the decades-long rift.
The alleged acts, which included a Chinese naval ship reportedly firing warning shots at Filipino fishermen, fueled fears among some nations in the region about China as its military and political strength grows.
The U.S. has been looking to increase its military presence across Asia Pacific in a strategic shift that has angered China.
U.S. President Barack Obama said in November the United States would deploy up to 2,500 Marines to northern Australia. The following month, a U.S. admiral wrote that the U.S. expected to station several combat ships in Singapore.

Early French Departure is a Mistake---------Defense News

KABUL, Afghanistan — France’s decision to pull its forces out of Afghanistan early has been condemned by an Afghan lawmaker and analysts who called it a “mistake” that would benefit only the Taliban.
Tahira Mojaddidi, a member of parliament from the eastern province of Kapisa where most of the 3,600-strong French contingent is based, said Afghan forces were insufficiently prepared to take on the Taliban on their own.
“We absolutely disagree with the remarks of the French president that he would pull his forces out of Afghanistan by the end of 2013,” she said Jan. 28. “I think this is a mistake because the Afghan forces are not well equipped and well trained in the province of Kapisa.”
Mojaddidi said Afghan forces needed training and equipment.
“Presently the Taliban hold sway in the Tagab district of Kapisa and there are no Afghan forces there. If France leaves in 2013, Kapisa province will fall to the insurgents,” she said.
After meeting Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Paris on Jan. 27, Sarkozy said France had decided to transfer security in Kapisa to Afghan forces from March.
The decision came a week after the killing of four French servicemen by a renegade Afghan soldier there.
“The pursuit of the transition and this gradual transfer of combat responsibilities will allow us to plan for a return of all our combat forces by the end of 2013,” Sarkozy said, adding that 1,000 troops would return in 2012.
“A few hundred” French troops will stay on after 2013 to train Afghan troops, Sarkozy said.
He will also encourage NATO to consider transferring all its combat operations to Afghan forces in 2013, instead of the scheduled deadline of the end of 2014.
Political analyst Wahid Taqat said the decision would be a boost for the Taliban.
“The withdrawal ... will demoralize the other international forces in Afghanistan as well as Afghan forces. Instead of a rushed withdrawal, France should have strengthened their position and forces in Afghanistan,” Taqat said. “It gives a lot of morale to Taliban but demoralizes the Afghan security forces.”
Taqat condemned the move as a capitulation.
“[It makes them look] like a country that is afraid of terrorists. It is a bit shameful for the French,” he said.
“The Taliban will definitely use this as winning propaganda for their future operations in Afghanistan.”
Karzai is on a five-day European trip to sign long-term strategic partnership agreements aimed at bolstering support for Afghanistan’s reconstruction and development.
Political analyst Ahmad Saeedi accused the French of taking a hasty decision following last week’s shooting.
“He was angry and the announcement was made in a rush,” he said. “The only winner in this announcement is Mr. Sarkozy, who has his elections on the way [in April and May], and the Taliban who could use this announcement for their propaganda.”
Sarkozy warned after the attacks that he might accelerate France’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, prompting NATO’s chief to call on contributing nations to remain committed to the security transition.
The United States, Britain, Germany and Italy are the main contributors to the NATO-led force of some 130,000 troops fighting a 10-year insurgency by hard-line Islamist Taliban forces ousted from power after the 9/11 attacks.
A total of 82 French troops have been killed in Afghanistan since the start of their deployment in 2001.

U.S. Navy fires LCS manager--Defense News

The program manager for the U.S. Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship program was fired Jan. 26 due to allegations of inappropriate behavior, according to Naval Sea Systems Command.
Capt. Jeffrey Riedel was reassigned by LCS Program Executive Officer Rear Adm. James Murdoch, pending an investigation into the allegations.
“He will not be reporting back to this command,” NAVSEA spokesman Chris Johnson said Friday.
Johnson said he could not comment on the allegations or the nature of the investigation except to say it would be done by NAVSEA.
Edward Foster will serve as the acting program manager until the investigation is complete, a NAVSEA statement said.
Riedel is the first senior Navy official fired in 2012; there were 22 commanding officers fired in 2011.
It’s not the first time the LCS program manager has been fired. In January 2007, Capt. Donald Babcock was fired for a “loss of confidence in his ability to command” amid program cost overruns.