OFF THE COAST OF JACKSONVILLE, N.C. --
“This ship was built with Marines in mind,” said Col. Gregg A. Sturdevant, Commanding Officer of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
That ship is the USS San Antonio (LPD-17), currently undergoing its operational evaluation (OpEval) off the Jacksonville, N.C., coast. It's the largest and most comprehensive evaluation of the new vessel to date. Marines from the 26th MEU are aboard to give San Antonio's crew the opportunity to prove the ship's operability.
"This ship will enable a MEU to perform faster and with greater precision," said 26th MEU Executive Officer LtCol. John W. Capdepon. “It will give the MEU commander even more speed and flexibility to meet his objectives.”
The new ship boasts improved helicopter and amphibious support facilities as well as generally improved living conditions for the crew and embarked Marines.
"I believe it will make us a more lethal force," said Maj. Allen D. Agra. "It gives us more flexibility, more space to configure our assets on this deck," Agra said. He serves as the Executive Officer of Combat Logistics Battalion-26, the CLB for the 26th MEU. For the OpEval, he is the Executive Officer of Troops. Everything "Marine" during the OpEval, from movement and storage of gear to troop berthing, flows across his desk.
Agra said he believes the San Antonio has the ability to support MEU operations independent of the other two vessels of its Expeditionary Strike Group if need be. In the event the 26th MEU would have to support multiple, geographically separate operations, he said the San Antonio and embarked Marines could handle a "split-ESG." This is quite a statement, considering a MEU and the ESG’s three ships have historically been designed to operate together.
"In the event we have to," began Agra, "we could split from the Iwo (the larger USS Iwo Jima, LHD-7) and conduct operations independently." This kind of flexibility multiplies the 26th MEU commander's range and options.
Agra said the ship's configuration maximizes efficiency of space while still allowing for quick deployment of assets.
"I was really impressed with the way they had the hummers (High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle) and 7-tons stowed in there," he stated.
San Antonio's living conditions also outshine previous versions of the LPD. Wider passageways, larger ladderwell openings, improved berthing areas and a mess deck other ships envy all prove this ship was built with Marines in mind. While combat-loaded Marines of the past got caught up moving gear up and down ladderwells and clogging passageway choke points, Marines on the San Antonio move about with relative ease.
"It's spacious," said Cpl Chaney B. Hubbert, admin chief with CLB-26. "It's very Marine-friendly. There are wider P-ways and stairwells. The berthing is much nicer, the racks too. They're more spacious. You can sit up in your rack and there's more space for gear. Last float we fought to find places to put our gear," Hubbert said.
Agra said the improved living conditions contribute to a better, more-prepared operating force.
"The Marines are happier," Agra said. "This will positively affect the mission. There's less griping and more positive interaction amongst them. This gives them time to focus on mission planning rather than wishing they were ashore," he said.
"And then there's the galley," Agra added with a smile. "Everybody is impressed with the galley. It's centralized and opens on three sides. This makes for shorter lines and requires fewer messmen and cooks. "Much better than two galleys on two different decks," he said.
"The chow hall seems like it has a better selection," agreed Hubbert. "And it's open longer hours," he added. This contributes to shorter lines and allows Marines on duty or conducting missions to keep from missing meals.
San Antonio's Sailors make a difference too.
"The Navy's very accepting of Marines," Agra said. "The captain said several times how happy he is to have Marines on ship. It's made for Marines, and it's about time they were on it."