Of the many additional warships that showed up off Iran in the last few months, one was particularly scary to the Iranians. This was the LPD (amphibious ship with a dock in the rear for small boats) USS Ponce. This is an Austin class amphibious ship that is no longer an amphibious ship. Ponce is the third amphibious ship converted in the last decade to a support ship (for mine clearing, commandos, or disaster relief). Normally these LPDs carry a reinforced battalion of marines, plus six CH-46 helicopters and 39 landing craft (24 of them AAV infantry fighting vehicles). The Ponce is a 17,000 ton ship with a crew of 420, plus space for 900 marines and vehicles or cargo. The Iranians were apparently relieved to discover that the Ponce was sent to support mine clearing operations, not commando raids into Iran.
Earlier this year the U.S. Navy sent the Ponce to a shipyard for conversion. A lot of berthing spaces for the marines were converted to work areas (for headquarters or training). Since the converted ship gets by with half as many crew, the crew quarters are remodeled to make them roomier and more comfortable. The modified Ponce is now equipped to support smaller mine clearing ships and helicopters as well as serving as a floating base for MH-53 mine clearing helicopters. There is also more communications gear and special equipment, like UAVs and UUVs (unmanned submarines the size of torpedoes used for finding mines).
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. That ship was instead 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 Austins are normally armed with two 25mm autocannon, two 20mm Phalanx for anti-missile work, and eight 12.7mm machine-guns.
The 12 Austin class ships first entered service in 1965, and are being replaced by the new San Antonio class LPDs. The 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. The Ponce will be replaced in 3-5 years when the first AFSB (Afloat Forward Staging Base) type ship is built. In the meantime, Ponce has had its designation changed from LPD-15 to AFSB-15.