The Pentagon confirmed that it will send the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) to the Eastern Mediterranean, while the U.S. 6th Fleet command ship USS Mount Whitney (LCC-20) will join the growing flotilla off the Israeli coast.
“The Department remains focused on three primary objectives: First, supporting Israel’s defense through security assistance; second, sending a clear message of deterrence to any actors considering involvement in the conflict; and third, being vigilant against any threats to U.S. forces,” Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh said on Wednesday.
The U.S. Navy’s largest and newest nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) and her strike group are already stationed off the coast of Gaza, while the Nimitz-class nuclear-powered carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) is on its way to join the force.
The USS Mount Whitney departed her homeport of Gaeta, Italy, on Wednesday. The ship operates with a combined crew of 150 enlisted U.S. military personnel, 12 officers, and 150 civilian mariners from Military Sealift Command in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of operations.
Primarily serving as a command and control vessel, the Blue Ridge-class amphibious command ship can receive, process, and transmit large amounts of secure data from any point on earth through HF, UHF, VHF, SHF, and EHF communications paths. This technology enables the Joint Intelligence Center and Joint Operations Center to gather and fuse critical information while on the move. However, the USS Mount Whitney is still a warship equipped to handle a range of defense scenarios. Armed with two Phalanx Close-in Weapons Systems, it can counter anti-ship missiles and aircraft.
The Future of Command Ships
Though the USS Mount Whitney is clearly needed at this time, earlier this year it was reported that the 6th Fleet flagship was on the chopping block, along with her sister ship, the USS Blue Ridge (LCC-20). There were plans to see the ships retired by 2026.
The Blue Ridge-class amphibious command ships were noted as carrying the world’s most sophisticated electronics suites when they were each commissioned into service in the early 1970s. Six were requested, and three were planned, but only two were built.
The vessels are capable of hosting battle staffs of varying sizes while freeing combatant ships for operational, direct-action missions. But advances in technology have opened the question of whether there is a need for the sea-based battle staff platform today.
As Defense News reported in April, since operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the U.S. military has operated as a joint team directed by joint headquarters of increasingly large size.
Modern continuous, complex joint operations now require a far greater number of people thinking and working to develop solutions for the commander on everything from combat operations, logistics, and weather, to political impacts on operations.
The issue is that some missions stipulate “no boots on the ground,” which means that any U.S. operation will still have to be commanded either from a great distance away, or from the sea. Another consideration could be the vast maritime space of the Indo-Pacific and Arctic regions, where there is a limited number of land locations for command and control – and any of those locations could be vulnerable to a first strike from an adversary.
Thus it seems that a floating command center still has a place in the 21st century. The U.S. Navy has explored alternatives, including large deck amphibious vessels (LHD and LHA), but the embarkation of a large staff with significant communications needs would significantly degrade the warfighting potential of those ships.
It seems that the true test of the future of command ships could be determined with the USS Mount Whitney in the coming days and weeks.
Author Experience and Expertise
A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.