Command ships are probably the least appreciated ships in service. Yet, they are vital vessels for the United States Navy. These vessels are valuable because they are mobile facilities for command staffs. Sounds like a luxury - something that cannot be afforded? Think again.
The 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut and the 1996 attack on the Khobar Towers prove that bases on land are often vulnerable because everyone knows where they are. This is during times of peace. In time of war, command facilities are often the first things targeted. Field command posts have been in use by the Army, but their mobility is limited - and they are bunched up. If some attack helicopters or attack aircraft find them and overwhelm the defenses, they are toast. Airborne command posts have mobility, but they lack endurance. Ships have mobility over nearly 70 percent of the world's surface - and they can stay deployed for as long as six months.
The United States Navy has four command ships. Two, the Coronado and La Salle, are converted landing ships. This is not unusual. Throughout World War II, some transports were used as flagships for the amphibious forces (the most famous was the McCawley, which was sunk in 1943 in a friendly-fire incident).
The other two ships, Blue Ridge and Mount Whitney, were purpose-built. These vessels displace 18,874 tons at full load, have a top speed of 42 kilometers per hour, and are armed with two Phalanx Close-In Weapon Systems and four 12.7mm machine guns. They can accommodate 1,450 people, but normally operate with only 52 officers and 790 enlisted men. They also have the SLQ-32 ECM system, the Nixie towed acoustic decoy, and several chaff launchers.
These ships also have large communications suites, allowing a fleet commander (usually a three-star admiral - who is usually the component commander for a joint command) to handle operations. These ships can provide secure command facilities, and with their communications suites, they can not only command fleets, but also handle joint command staffs. They are valuable, albeit old (one was commissioned in 1964, two in 1970, and one in 1971), with La Salle and Coronado slated to retire in 2010. A replacement program was cancelled in 2003. This could be an undiscussed, but vital, capability gap in the near future. - Harold C. Hutchison (firstname.lastname@example.org)