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Maritime exercises prepare Special Ops team for life after Afghanistan

U.S. Navy SEALs within an inflatable boat depart the littoral combat ship USS Independence during a training mission for the Rim of the Pacific Exercise 2014.

The Marine Corps began preparing its Special Operations component in earnest for life after Afghanistan last year, joining a war game overseen by U.S. Special Operations Command designed to assess how its elite troops could better fit into U.S. maritime operations.

A year later, that picture is starting to emerge.

Navy SEALs and commandos with Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command are among a cadre of troops working from the Navy's new ship, the USS Independence, this month as part of the 2014 Rim of the Pacific military exercise off the coast of Hawaii. The mission began with U.S. helicopters delivering Special Operations troops to the flight deck of the Independence, and then lowering an 11-meter inflatable boat into the Pacific Ocean to conduct a simulated raid known as a visit, board, search and seizure, or VBSS, military officials said.

Navy SEALs, MARSOC Marines and Special Operations troops with South Korea and Peru are all involved, U.S. officials said. Combined, they're testing how the Independence will work as an "afloat forward staging base," a concept in which the U.S. military can launch everything from humanitarian assistance missions to counter-piracy raids from a ship resourced to help.

The Navy announced in 2012 that it was keeping the aging USS Ponce, an amphibious assault ship, in service as an interim afloat forward staging base for the Middle East. That ship will get additional use this summer with the installation of the Navy's new experimental laser system, capable of hitting small aircraft and attack boats.

It's the Independence and other newer ships that will be used by Special Operations in the longer term, however. It is part of the Navy's new LCS class, envisioned to provide everything from anti-submarine warfare to counter-mine missions. The ship is not without its critics. After years of questions about its reliability and ability to survive warfare against larger vessels, the Pentagon decided in January to cut the size of the future LCS fleet from 52 to 32.

Special Operations commanders are preparing for life on other new ships, as well. Navy and Marine Corps officials have both indicated that they're looking for ways to use the new Mobile Landing Platform ship class, which features an unusual design with a ramp that will allow larger ships to transfer vehicles to the MLP directly. MARSOC and other highly trained troops with the Marine Corps' Force Reconnaissance units already have started working in unconventional arrangements from Navy destroyers.
 

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