Since 2017 the US Navy has had a unique vessel operating in the Persian Gulf region – the USS Lewis B. Puller, officially designated an Expeditionary Sea Base (ESB). Primarily employed to support critical minesweeping operations using its flight deck as a launchpad for Navy’s MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters, a week ago it was used to train allied helicopter special operators from the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
“At least two UH-60Ms and one CH-47F from the UAE’s Air Force’s Group 18 took part in deck landing qualification (DLQ) training,” at the southern end of the Persian Gulf – May 11-12, reported The Drive. It added, “The helicopters practiced landing and taking off from Puller during the day and at night, as well as refueling onboard the ship.”
As described earlier in another piece by The Drive, the Puller is derived from an Alaska-class oil tanker and “features a large open flight deck situated with four operating spots, two for take-off and landing and two parking, that can support V-22 Osprey tiltrotors..,” It can also operate helicopters including the MH-53 Sea Dragon, and small, helicopter-like drones.
The massive ship is 764-feet long, 164-feet wide, and displaces 78,000 tons.
Below the flight deck, there is a large open space that can hold “small watercraft, cargo, containerized mission spaces, and more,” notes The Drive. Due to its size, large open flight deck and “readily reconfigurable spaces,” the Puller is extremely versatile and can be configured for a variety of roles.
“This ship is a blank canvas,” U.S. Navy Captain Joseph Femino said in a March 2018 interview with USNI News. “Whoever wants to come assess what they want, develop what they want, we’ll work to try and get that.” That capability includes the possibility of adding extensive medical facilities to the Puller similar to those on the USNS Comfort and Mercy hospital ships.
The Puller has also been evaluated for use by US Marine special operators from a Fleet Anti-terrorism Security Team (FAST) platoon and used by Army helicopter units. Earlier this year, Army AH-64s trained on Puller, alongside other Navy and Coast Guard vessels, in the Persian Gulf. As The Drive noted, “Small boat swarms are a potential threat that the Apaches, flying from the sea base’s deck, would be ideally suited to help defeat.”
The Drive further described how training UAE forces adds to the important role the Puller can play supporting potential coalition efforts against Iran, as well as distributed and littoral operations throughout the Gulf:
This [Iranian small boat swarms] is also a threat that the UAE’s armed helicopters, flying from Puller, could respond to as part of a larger coalition effort with the United States during a crisis in the Persian Gulf or elsewhere in the Middle East. Group 18’s helicopters could also join American special operations forces, as well as conventional units, in conducting raids or other expeditionary operations in any of the region’s littoral areas, such as islands in the Persian Gulf or the coasts of Yemen.
The Navy currently has two more of these ESBs under construction – to be named Hershel “Woody” Williams and Miguel Keith. No matter how they are configured, these unique vessels add significant capabilities at a relatively low cost, and should prove especially useful in any type of regular maritime fight – or Gray Zone Conflict – in the Persian Gulf, the Pacific theater, or elsewhere.