February 2, 2012: For the third time in the last decade the U.S. is using one of its Austin class amphibious ships (the LPD USS Ponce) as a commando base. Normally, these LPDs carry a reinforced battalion of marines, plus helicopters and landing craft. The Ponce is a 17,000 ton ship with a crew of 420, plus space for 900 marines. Normally it carries six CH-46 helicopters, plus 39 landing craft (24 of them AAV infantry fighting vehicles).
This time around modifications would be made to the USS Ponce, to make it more effective as a commando support ship. The modified ship would also support smaller mine clearing ships and helicopters, in addition to having more communications gear and special equipment like UAVs and UUVs (unmanned submarines the size of torpedoes).
Six years ago, the U.S. Navy sent another Austin class amphibious ship, and its escorts, to the Indian Ocean without the normal complement of marines. The ship was used as a floating base for UAVs and SOF (special operations forces). A similar task was assigned a navy carrier in 2002, to support SOF operations in Afghanistan. In 2006, it was believed that the amphibious ship was also supporting SOF operations ashore in Somalia or Iran.
The Austin class ships are being replaced by the new San Antonio class LPDs. These 25,000 ton San Antonios can carry more helicopters and larger landing craft but have been delayed several years by design and manufacturing problems. Ten of the 12 Austin class LPDs have already been decommissioned. The USS Ponce entered service in 1971 and was the last Austin class ship built.