When there is talk of flat budgets and ship reductions, the U.S. Navy inevitably suggests the retirement of its dedicated command ships — in particular the 6th Fleet flagship Mount Whitney. The Mediterranean-based command platform is again on the chopping block, this time for retirement in 2026, according to the Navy’s latest report on its 30-year shipbuilding plan. While older than nearly all who sail in it, Mount Whitney and its Japan-based sister ship Blue Ridge are unique platforms capable of hosting battle staffs of multiple sizes while freeing combatant ships for operational, direct-action missions.
Suggestions that there is no need for a sea-based battle staff platform fly in the face of Cold War and recent history.
Conversion and hybrid flag platforms since World War II have been inadequate in capability or unable to support communications technology advancements. Today’s joint force needs multiple, sea-based options for staff placement, as increasingly accurate weapons make fixed land bases vulnerable. Command ships provide greater survivability and more flexibility than land-based counterparts.
Complex joint operations in the Pacific, such as the invasion of the Philippines in 1944 and even the compact June 6, 1944, invasion of Normandy, showed that cramming a senior admiral or general, staff, and radio needs into a combatant ship was good for neither party. Merchant ship conversions became popular as their lack of dedicated weapon systems meant they could have more space for flag facilities, additional radios, boats and staff berthing. One commander of 7th Fleet, Adm. Thomas Kinkaid, had used such a ship in the Leyte Gulf operations: the amphibious force command ship Wasatch.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur used the cruiser Nashville as his flagship for many of his World War II campaigns including Leyte Gulf, but switched to a converted Mount McKinley for the 1950 invasion of Inchon.
The 1970s inaugurated a new period in command ship development with the commissioning of the LCC class (Blue Ridge and Mount Whitney), which were purpose-built as command vessels with the space, weight, power and cooling margins for significant growth. While designated as amphibious command ships, both vessels have performed numerous other command and flagship duties over their long careers.
The converted cruisers and amphibious ships would have been superseded as flagships regardless of their age due to the growth in staff for joint operations. From operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm forward, the U.S. military has increasingly operated as a joint team directed by joint headquarters of increasingly larger size.
Modern, 24-hour continuous, complex joint operations require far greater numbers of people thinking and working to develop solutions for the commander on everything from combat operations, logistics, weather, and political impacts on operations. For a three-star fleet or four-star joint commander, this means hundreds of staff that must be housed, fed, given the chance for exercise and some leisure, and above all enough communication options to be a viable command center.
While some have suggested merchant or cruise ship conversions as cheaper options, costs are still significant. The expeditionary sea base class is a viable option, but the next ship in that class would need to be purpose-built as a command ship with a state-of-the-art communications suite and modularity to serve in a number of roles. The baseline expeditionary sea base is $650 million, but even with these modifications the price would likely remain less than $1 billion for a ship likely to serve three to four decades at good value to the taxpayer.
A cruise ship would be faster but would not be built to military survivability standards, and it would need significant communications upgrades and likely internal changes to accommodate a naval or joint staff of operational size.
Two decades ago the Navy planned a new class of joint command ships, JCC(X). That class never made it to construction due to continued Navy budget cuts during the global war on terror. The five-year hiatus in construction of the amphibious transport dock ship LPD 17 might have instead allowed for a new, four-ship build of two JCC(X) vessels and two new tenders on the same hull form as originally discussed in the early 2000s.
In the last 35 years it has been easy to command from shore-based headquarters often, as all those operations were focused on land-based objectives and had minimal maritime combat components. Some missions — like the 2011 Operation Odyssey Dawn joint multinational operation against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi — were forced to be commanded from the sea due to national caveats of NATO member states.
Moving command of the operation to the Mount Whitney allowed flexibility in conducting operations. Then-President Barack Obama gave a short time to prepare for the operation. And by stipulating “no boots on the ground in Libya,” he made a U.S. Navy command ship and its embarked maritime operations center’s team the perfect tool for the task.
The vast maritime spaces of the Indo-Pacific and Arctic regions limit the number of land locations for command and control, and advanced targeting available to peer competitors makes those land-based locations vulnerable to first-strike action. Having a sea-based command post does not mean that all operations need be controlled from those ships, but rather the command ships offer flexible alternatives for commanders to lead the fight from a mobile and less-targetable location.
Alternatives such as large deck amphibious ships (LHD and LHA) are available, but embarkation of a large staff with significant communications needs would significantly degrade the warfighting potential of those ships and deny operational commanders their full use. For all these reasons the Navy must ensure that Blue Ridge and Mount Whitney remain available as command ships until they can be properly relieved by new-construction command vessels.
Steven Wills is a naval expert at the Navy League’s Center for Maritime Strategy. He served for 20 years in the U.S. Navy.