USS Lewis B. Puller, named for Chesty Puller, headed to Sudan’s coast

USS Lewis B. Puller is designed to be a mobile sea base.
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USS Lewis. B Puller
FILE: The expeditionary sea base USS Lewis B. Puller sails in the Gulf of Aden, July 26, (Staff Sgt. Dylan Murakami/U.S. Air Force)

The USS Lewis B. Puller, an expeditionary sea base ship named for Marine Corps legend Lt. Gen. Lewis “Chesty” B. Puller, is headed to the coast of Sudan in case it is needed to help evacuate American citizens from the country.

On April 22, U.S. special operations forces evacuated the American embassy in Khartoum, but thousands of American citizens are believed to still be in Sudan, where two rival warlords have been fighting each other for more than a week.

U.S. government officials said they are trying to help Americans in Sudan drive in convoys to the Port of Sudan – which is roughly 500 miles from Khartoum by road – so they can leave the country by sea.

“We have deployed U.S. intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets to support land evacuation routes, which Americans are using,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said during Monday’s White House news briefing. “And we’re moving naval assets within the region to provide support. American citizens have begun arriving in Port Sudan, and we are helping facilitate their onward travel.”

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Sullivan also said no U.S. troops are operating in Sudan, but CBS News has reported the U.S. government is considering sending a contingent of service members to Port Sudan to help evacuate American citizens.

U.S. government personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Sudan arrive at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti on April 23, 2023. (Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Maria A. Olvera Tristán/U.S. Navy)

As things stand now, the Lewis B. Puller is headed for the coast of Sudan, and the destroyer USS Truxtun is already there, Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters on Monday.

“Those capabilities will be there should we need to use them in support of State Department’s efforts,” Ryder said during Monday’s Pentagon news briefing.  “Right now, to our knowledge, we’re not talking large numbers of Americans looking to come out of Sudan, but again, in the days ahead, we’ll stay closely coordinated with the State Department – they’re in the lead – and we’ll be prepared to support them.”

The Lewis B. Puller is designed to be used as a mobile sea base to support a range of military operations, said Cmdr. Tim Hawkins, a spokesman for U.S. 5th Fleet. The ship features a four-spot flight deck, mission deck, and hangar for aviation support; equipment staging support; berthing; and command and control.

The Lewis B. Puller has a crew of two Marines, 98 sailors, and 50 civilian personnel, Hawkins told Task & Purpose on Tuesday. The ship is forward deployed to the Middle East and regularly supports counter-piracy, maritime security, crisis response, and other operations.

“It provides commanders significant operational flexibility because it can support the deployment of forces and supplies and provide prepositioned equipment and sustainment with flexible distribution,” Hawkins said.

FILE: An MV22 Osprey prepares to land aboard expeditionary sea base USS Lewis B. Puller (ESB 3), during flight operations in the Arabian Gulf on July 16, 2021. (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Dawson Roth/U.S. Navy)

In addition to the Lewis B. Puller and Truxton, the USNS Brunswick, an expeditionary fast transport vessel, is also headed off Sudan’s coast, Hawkins said. The Military Sealift Command vessel can provide high-speed transportation for cargo and people. Its crew of 25 civilians is being augmented by service members who specialize in logistics, medical care, security, and command and control in case they are needed.

Amphibious warfare ships are typically used for noncombatant evacuation operations by sea, such as the 2006 evacuation of American citizens from Lebanon, but none of the Navy’s amphibious ships currently underway are anywhere near Africa, according to USNI News’ Fleet Tracker.

The Navy is also taking a “strategic pause” before buying more San Antonio-class amphibious transport docks pending a review of reducing costs of amphibious ships.

The situation in Sudan underscores the importance of sea-based forces during crises, said retired Marine Gen. Robert Neller, who served as the Marine Corps commandant from 2015 to 2019.

Lewis B Puller
The U.S. Military Sealift Command Expeditionary Mobile Base USNS Lewis B. Puller (T-ESB-3) at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, April 20, 2016. (Navy Combat Camera Photo / Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class David Kolmel)

“You have to use the sea as maneuver space and you get close to the objective area, and you don’t have to fly 800 miles from a land base to another piece of land to refuel,” said Neller, who praised the special operations forces who flew from Djibouti to Ethiopia and then onto Sudan to evacuate the U.S. embassy in Khartoum.

Traditional amphibious warships provide a lot of space to accommodate evacuees, Neller told Task & Purpose.

But the U.S. military currently has a lack of amphibious capabilities that have limited its ability to be present in the Mediterranean, Black Sea, and the Middle East, Neller said.

“Since the 50s, how many noncombatant evacuations has the naval force done from the sea?” Neller said. “How many HADR [humanitarian assistance and disaster relief] missions have they done from the sea? You can only do that when you have enough capacity to have forward presence. When you lack the platforms, your ability to generate that presence doesn’t exist.”

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