The converted amphibious warship that served as an experimental platform for special operations forces, minehunting helicopters and the Navy’s first operational laser weapon is back in the U.S. after more than five years operating in the Middle East.
USS Ponce (AFSB(I)-15), a former Austin-class landing platform dock, had served since 2012 as the service’s interim afloat forward staging base operating in U.S. 5th Fleet until its return on Wednesday.“It’s simply not possible to recount the extraordinary things Ponce has accomplished in her 46 years of service, but it is sufficient to say that the durability, flexibility and clarity of design inherent in Ponce will be missed,” Brig. Gen. Francis L. Donovan, commander, Naval Amphibious Forces, Task Force 51, 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade said in a statement.
“The high standard you demonstrated throughout the deployment in direct support of real-world operations was critical to national interests of the United States.”
The ship was relieved in the Middle East by the purpose-built expeditionary mobile base, USS Lewis Puller (ESB-3), earlier this month.
In addition to hosting mine countermeasure (MCM) MH-53 Sea Dragons, unmanned minehuntung underwater vehicles, Ponce fielded the service’s first operational laser– the 30 kilowatt Laser Weapon System (LaWS) which was first approved to be used in 2014, then-Office of Naval Research chief Rear Adm. Matt Klunder told reporters at the time.
The system will not be transferred to Puller.
“While LaWS on Ponce provided the Navy some initial learning in an operational environment, including how to maintain such a system in the stressing maritime environment, there are no plans to incorporate LaWS on Lewis B. Puller at this time. The Navy will continue to explore options for incorporating directed energy (DE) weapons aboard Navy assets,” the service said in a statement last month.
As an Austin-class LPD, the ship conducted 27 deployments since its commissioning in 1971 before its conversion to the AFSB.
“During her time in the 5th Fleet, Ponce deployed throughout the Gulf of Aden, Horn of Africa, South Red Sea and [Persian] 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,” read a statement from the service.
Now with the ship back in the U.S., it’s set for decommissioning and dismantling later this year.