WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is rushing to send a large floating base for commando teams to the Middle East as tensions rise with Iran, al-Qaida in Yemen and Somali pirates, among other threats.
In response to requests from the U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, the Navy is converting an aging warship it had planned to decommission into a staging base for the commandos. Unofficially dubbed a "mothership," the converted USS Ponce could accommodate smaller high-speed boats and helicopters commonly used by Navy SEALs, procurement documents show.
Special operations forces are a key part of the Obama administration's strategy to make the military leaner and more agile as the Pentagon confronts at least $487 billion in spending cuts over the next decade.
Lt. Cmdr. Mike Kafka, a spokesman for the Navy's Fleet Forces Command, declined to elaborate on the floating base's purpose or to say where it will be deployed in the Middle East. Other Navy officials acknowledged that they were moving with unusual haste to complete the conversion and send the ship to the region by early summer.
Navy documents indicate that it could be headed to the Persian Gulf, where Iran has threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial shipping route for much of the world's oil supply. A market survey proposal from the Military Sealift Command, dated Dec. 22 and posted online, states that the floating base needed to be delivered to the Persian Gulf.
Other contract documents do not specify a location but say the mothership would be used to "support mine countermeasure" missions. Defense officials have said that if Iran did attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz, it would rely on mines to obstruct the waterway.
With a large naval base in Bahrain, and one or two aircraft carrier groups usually assigned to the region, the Navy has a substantial presence in the Persian Gulf and surrounding waters. Adding the mothership would do relatively little to bolster U.S. maritime power overall, but it could play an instrumental role in secretive commando missions offshore.