The first-in-class Expeditionary Sea Base USNS Lewis B. Puller (T-ESB-3) departed Norfolk on Monday for the Middle East for its first full operational deployment.
The ESB ship is a derivative of the Expeditionary Transport Dock (ESD) ship, but rather than ballast down to allow for surface connector operations like the original ESD design, it has a flight deck to support helicopter operations. Chesty Puller was originally built to support mine countermeasures operations using the MH-53E helicopter but has since been upgraded to support V-22 Osprey operations by Special Operations Forces.
The U.S. 5th Fleet commander will decide how to best use the ship once it arrives in the Middle East, but the Marine Corps has been vocal about its excitement to use Puller and future ESBs. The Marines use a CH-53E heavy-lift helicopter similar to the ones used for Navy airborne mine countermeasures, and it uses the MV-22 Osprey similar to the SOF-variant CV-22.
In December 2016 Marine Corps Deputy Commandant for Plans, Policies and Operations Lt. Gen. Ronald Bailey told USNI News that the service would continue working with “alternate platforms” – ships beyond the traditional amphibious warships Marines deploy on – and specifically naming the Puller, to understand what other opportunities exist to get Marines and in particular their MV-22s out to sea. The service also worked with the Navy to certify the ESB to operate all Marine Corps unmanned aerial vehicles, creating even more opportunities for the Marines to leverage this new type of ship.
Puller conducted operations in North and South America during its transit from the San Diego-based General Dynamics NASSCO shipyard to its homeport in Norfolk. The ship departed San Diego after its June 2015 delivery to the Navy, sailed down to the Straits of Magellan at the southern tip of South America, and then returned back north to Norfolk, stopping along the way to conduct exercises with partner nations.
The Navy previously stated that Puller would replace the interim Afloat Forward Staging Base USS Ponce (AFSB(I)-15), which has been serving a similar role in the Middle East since 2012, when it arrived in the Middle East. This week, however, the Navy would not discuss Puller and Ponce other than to issue a short statement: “USNS Puller departed Norfolk [Monday] for a scheduled deployment to [Commander, U.S. 5th Fleet]. USS Ponce continues to operate in the Fifth Fleet Area of Operations. We’re not going to talk about Ponce’s future operational schedule.”
The Navy’s second ESB, the Hershel Williams (T-ESB-4), and third, ESB-5, are under construction at NASSCO. Lawmakers are in the midst of developing the Navy’s 2018 spending plan, and so far there has been some support for procuring an ESB-6 next year.