Check Out This Picture Of The Pentagon’s Shadowy New Special Operations Mothership

While “Big Navy” is building its own massive sea bases, one type capable of conveying virtually any ground vehicle in the Marine Corps’ or Army’s inventory, and another capable of acting as maritime helicopter bases, Special Operations Command appears to be quietly building its own.

Instead of building such a ship from scratch, the Pentagon purchased an existing and futuristic-looking roll-on/roll-off cargo ship. This vessel is now being heavily modified to special operators’ specific needs. In the picture above, we can see these alterations taking form.

The existence of this new mothership-to-be broke over two years ago by our friend David Axe over at War Is Boring. In his piece, David not only identified the 633-foot, 30,000-ton displacement M/V Cragside (you can see pics of the ship before being altered here) as the ship that will be modified under a $143 million contract, but also conveyed some details about the modifications that would be made. These details and many more are available in the Pentagon’s official RFP for ship, which you can read here.

The Cragside appears to have been a pretty awesome canvas on which SOCOM could paint their sea-basing dreams and ambitions. Size-wise, the top deck seems very well suited as a flight deck, and the ship’s cavernous interior, open stern, and rear ramp will lend themselves to all sorts of missions and carrying massive loads of supplies, vehicles, and gear with ease.

The ship is ambiguously dubbed a “Maritime Support Vessel” and will be operated by the Military Sealift Command. It will be capable of housing 200 at a time. Secure communications systems, a gym, weapons lockers, and the ability to operate even the heaviest helicopters in the Pentagon’s inventory, from Little Birds to MH-53s, are all included in the Cragside’s refit specifications. Additionally, hangar bays are also required, to sustain these helicopters over long periods of time. Overall, the ship will be capable of speeds of 20 knots and can operate independently for 45 days at a time.

The Craigside docked in Mobile before modification., Google Earth

The Cragside, which has also worn the moniker M/V Ocean Trader, was built in 2011, so it really went from just a few years’ worth of cargo and ferry operations to being gutted and turned into a military vessel at BAE’s shipyards in Mobile, Alabama. As you can see in the picture above, massive hangar facilities have indeed been added forward of the ship’s superstructure. According to the RFP, the hangar can house at least two MH-60 Seahawks or one MH-53 Super Stallion. The ship will also likely operate unmanned systems, which will include space to control these assets and also areas for them to be stored. The RFP also states that the ship must be capable of carrying and distributing a whopping 150,000 gallons of jet fuel. The rear of the ship’s superstructure has also been greatly expanded.

You can see in the photo that large openings have been cut down the sides of the ship—four on the side facing the camera. These are likely to be used for launching and recovering boats. At portion of the open stern area of the ship could end up being modified to facilitate deployment of similar craft. The RFP mandates that the ship must have four launch and recovery systems capable of handling 12.5-meter boats. Two of these craft must be launched within 20 minutes while the ship is underway. Eight 12.5-meter boats will be carried in all, and at least four jet skis and four zodiacs must be housed and be able to be launched and recovered with ease as well.

Another interesting requirement is that the enclosed craft storage area must not be visible from the outside and must have tight environmental controls. A whole host of other modifications, including FLIR systems, an elaborate conference room, force protection areas for mounting machine guns, a dive locker, a medical ward, and many other interesting requirements can also be found in the RFP.

When it comes to this new mothership’s mission, it isn’t crystal clear. Obviously, the basic capability it provides is readily apparent, but the exact way that capability will be put to use is not.  The USS Ponce is still floating in the Persian Gulf supporting everything from minesweeping to special operations to re-arming and refueling Apache helicopters. Will the Cragside be used in a similar manner, but with a more special operations-focused role?  This wouldn’t be anything new, since America’s special operations community has long been users of floating outposts.

On the other hand, the ship could be used as something akin to a special operations 9-1-1 vessel that can be quickly loaded with equipment and special operations forces and surged to anywhere in the world in just hours. It could also end up being a little of both, rapidly shipping SOCOM units’ vehicles, equipment, and personnel where they are needed for one mission, then planting itself off the coast of a lawless terror hotspot for the next.

We will just have to wait and see, but if the picture at the top of this article hints at anything, it’s that this ship will be highly unique, and highly capable. With this in mind, if you are a bad guy and this thing shows up off your shore, it’s probably a very bad sign of things to come.

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Tyler Rogoway


Tyler’s passion is the study of military technology, strategy, and foreign policy and he has fostered a dominant voice on those topics in the defense media space. He was the creator of the hugely popular defense site Foxtrot Alpha before developing The War Zone.