By Barbara Starr
A U.S. warship designed as a floating base for naval special forces is scheduled to transit through the Suez Canal for the first time as early as Friday, Navy officials say.
The USS Ponce, an amphibious transport ship, recently finished a complete overhaul that now has it configured to operate as a floating staging platform for the military. It is being launched into the oil shipping lanes at a time of heightened tensions across the region, U.S. Navy officials told CNN.
The ship began approaching Suez on Thursday and is expected to enter the canal shortly on its way to the Persian Gulf.
The ship will function as a staging base for special operations forces and small patrol boats, including mine countermeasure vessels, in gulf waters that Iran has previously threatened to shut down.
Gen. James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, had long pressed for the conversion of the Ponce in order to have a mobile platform from which troops could quickly deploy at a time when budget cuts are restricting large-scale deployments.
The Ponce is specifically tailored to maritime missions in the Persian Gulf region, where land-based forces often do not have ready access and concerns persist about maintaining open access to the Strait of Hormuz for international shipping.
The ship has a mixed crew of Navy officers and enlisted personnel, as well as civilian government mariners.
The ship is expected to reach Bahrain about 10 days after making it through the canal. It is not clear when combat forces may board the ship.