ABOARD USS SAN ANTONIO --
“One Team, One Fight." It is a mantra repeated on almost every ship of the Navy that plays host to Marines. But perhaps no other ship in the Navy can claim this mantra as accurately as the new USS San Antonio (LPD-17), a first-in-its-class amphibious transport dock on its maiden deployment as part of the Iwo Jima Strike Group.
From the beginning, San Antonio was designed with input from Marine Corps representatives who advocated a number of innovations, ranging from sweeping changes in the tactical lift capacity to seemingly trivial design aspects such as making passageways larger and ladderwells less steep. Marines embarked aboard the new ship would soon find changes better than they had expected.
Ready for the Big League
San Antonio now carries elements of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Having successfully endured the rigors of the 6-month Predeployment Training Period with the MEU, crossed the Atlantic Ocean, cruised the Mediterranean, and transited the Suez Canal, the San Antonio has proven to be everything it was designed to be, according to the Marines aboard.
"For the Marines, this ship has been a very impressive (amphibious assault ship). During the PTP and Operational Evalution, she has successfully supported every Marine mission in which her and her crew had a part,” said Col. Mark J. Desens, commanding officer of the 26th MEU. “She has provided us numerous opportunities to exercise our core competency of expeditionary operations,"
For her crew, the new ship has not disappointed.
"I couldn’t be happier,” said Cmdr. Kurt A. Kastner, captain of the San Antonio. “To this point the ship has performed better than anyone has expected.”
For an amphibious assault ship, though, no opinion is more telling than that of the Marines who will spend the next six to seven months aboard.
"It’s as least as capable as we thought it would be if not more; it’s capacity and load is impressive," said Lt. Col. Jonathan R. Giltz, commanding officer of the 26th MEU’s Logistics Combat Element, Combat Logistics Battalion-26.
"The thing with San Antonio is that it is exactly as advertised. We have every square inch stuffed with Marine Corps gear," he said.
Those square inches add up to considerable space, and consequently, a lot of equipment and vehicles. San Antonio boasts 5,000 sq. ft. more cargo space than the previous class of LPDs, and the MEU has taken advantage of the extra space to take along weapons and equipment it may have been forced to leave behind if embarked on another class of ship.
"This MEU has the benefit of bringing a substantial amount of combat power; arguably the most in the last 15 years," said Giltz.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Tony L. Scott, combat cargo officer for San Antonio, is the Marine who ultimately decides the amount of vehicles and equipment which can be "stuffed" into her cargo areas.
"This ship has allowed the MEU commander to leave Camp Lejeune with every piece of equipment; nothing on standby," he said. "In addition, the commander is no longer limited to putting certain equipment on different classes of ships."
Scott explained the extra cargo space aboard translates into more warfighting equipment the Marines can take wherever they go. The space provides the ability to carry 5 extra M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tanks, which previous LPDs couldn’t carry at all.
"We are carrying an extra six (Medium Tactical Replacement Vehicles) compared to an old LPD, and two (Landing Craft Air Cushioned) instead of one," said Scott.
All of these improvements enhance the actual combat power and effective reach of the 26th MEU while supported by the San Antonio, according to Desens.
"The extra real estate and how it is configured is one of the most significant aspects of the LPD-17. The spaces on the San Antonio give us the ability to put more gear, tactical equipment and Marines into a smaller space while at the same time, the improved tactical lift capability helps us deploy our Marines faster, farther, more efficiently and in more environments than ever before in history," he said.
That is especially important for a unit which, by design, must be able to operate inside hostile environments without any external support for weeks.
"The nature of expeditionary operations is ambiguous, and because of that you want all your tools. It’s critical because you don’t want to wish for something you left behind, and also, you know instantly you are capable for any mission you may be tasked with," said Giltz.
Kastner spoke to this point as well. "ESGs that sail with the LPD-17 class will have to make no compromises; it translates into more combat power."
The ability to conduct separate, but concurrent missions apart from the other ships of the ESG goes hand-in-hand with the new characteristics of the ship.
"Throughout the PTP, the San Antonio has proven herself more than capable of Disaggregate Operations. The fact that we can set multiple complete (Marine Air Ground Task Force) loose on the enemy or for humanitarian operations bodes well for the MEU. In a sense, the San Antonio enables the 26th MEU to be in two places at once," said Desens.
That capacity effectively multiplies the abilities of a MEU and theatre to carry out the full spectrum of expeditionary missions, not just one at a time, but at the same time.
"That theatre commander also has more options. We could, with our capabilities, do a pretty significant split-(Expeditionary Strike Group), providing more flexibility," said Kastner.
"It is a unique design, which includes a hangar bay to accommodate all the Corps' helicopters, an enlarged flight deck and an enlarged well deck that carries both LCACs and eventually the (Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle). This facilitates a quicker and more versatile force deployment," Desens said.
All of this potential power would be for naught without the symbiotic relationship present between the crew and embarked Marines. For the Sailors and Marines aboard San Antonio, the personal and professional relationships that began with the Operation Evaluation have grown, increasing combat readiness.
One Team, One Fight
"The design and function of this ship is a direct translation of Navy and Marine integration. It takes all the best the Navy has to offer for transport and operational maneuver near the coastline and combines it with the MEU – the Corps’ most lethal and versatile air/ground task force. You won’t find this type of relationship anywhere else in the US military," explained Desens.
That relationship starts at the highest levels of command and continues down to the privates and seaman recruits.
"This ship is meant to embark Marines and I expect the crew to treat embarked Marines as shipmates," said Kastner.
Both services have seen the benefits from working hard together during the PTP.
"In the last 6 months this is my fifth time aboard; I would argue that the ship is even more capable than it is supposed to be because of the Navy Marine Corps team aboard," said Giltz. "Overall there is a professional and friendly relationship that is very healthy and based on mutual respect and trust."
Giltz stressed that it was truly a team, not just two sister services putting up with each other.
"Integration is the key; not just deconfliction," said Giltz, careful to point out the difference between the two. "I see an integrated and coordinated team."
Breathing Room in the Berthing Space
By design, the ship also affords improvements to day-to-day life for those aboard, while at the same time enhancing combat readiness.
The ship’s passageways are wider, allowing Marines with combat loads, crew served weapons, or bulky equipment to move about with ease. The hatches are larger and ladderwells are constructed at a different angle, less steep than those traditionally seen on warships.
One of the first things troops embarked aboard often mention is the new style of racks installed in the berthing areas of San Antonio. Whereas on ships of other classes, Marines and Sailors are normally berthed in what are commonly called "coffin" racks due to their size and shape, those aboard the San Antonio enjoy a new, L-shaped rack which allows them to sit up for reading or computer work. This, coupled with a bevy of storage spaces in the berthing for Marines’ combat equipment makes for happy warfighters.
"Designers have taken embarkation, debarkation and Marines into mind. Six or seven months afloat is hard on the body; the Navy and Marine Corps ask a lot," said Kastner.
The ship’s command has also implemented changes like continuous chow hours, which all but eliminates the lines with which anyone who has embarked on a warship is familiar.
"While it certainly is nice to be more comfortable while embarked aboard naval vessels, these 'comforts' actually satisfy tactical requirements for the Marines," explained Desens. "The wider passageways, larger ladderwells and bigger zebra hatches are all things which allow combat-loaded Marines to move about the ship with less difficulty, creating less friction and thus completing day-to-day operations more efficiently."