The United States Navy is traditionally known for its military might. It is, by far, the largest and potentially most capable Navy in the world thanks to its innumerable aircraft carriers, destroyers, and submarines. But, beyond those, and beyond all the cruisers and patrol boats and other combat ships, there are two more that lurk in the shadows of the 490 ship fleet — the USNS Mercy and Comfort, these are America’s hospital ships.
Hospital ships are more or less a forgotten relic of a time when wars were far deadlier and the world was far larger. During those times, when fighting a war abroad, just like today, one had to consider where casualties would go, but unlike today, there were no capabilities to quickly fly injured personnel away from a battlefield. One had to treat close to the conflict and for that, the most viable option was often to bring a hospital ship to the fight.
The hospital ships were once so significant that, when nations came together to write the Geneva Conventions, defining the rules of war, hospital ships were a significant focus. They specifically denote these as any that specifically and solely work to assist the wounded, or sick, with the important distinction that they cannot carry any arms or ammunition.
These ships also must be painted white with red cross to identify themselves, but assuming these requirements are met, they are officially classed as a hospital ship. Those with this classification, cannot, under the Geneva conventions, be attacked or fired upon. This was all plenty useful at the time the Geneva conventions were signed, but today, land-based warfare is increasingly obsolete, and it just doesn’t make sense to float a hospital to a conflict zone when field hospitals are more capable, and medical evacuation is easy.
That’s why only eight nations’ navies (Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Peru, Russia, USA, Vietnam) still include hospital ships. Most of these are small and primarily deployed for humanitarian purposes, but the US’ two hospital ships, meanwhile, are massive. They are the size of cruise ships and comparable in capability to the largest land-based hospitals.
Each holds 1,000 hospital beds including 80 intensive care beds. In comparison, the entire state of Maine has 1,061 total and 64 ICU beds. To have an entire states’ worth of medical facilities available anywhere in the world is an immensely useful strategic power, but not entirely for the purpose of actually treating US soldiers. Within the military, the Comfort and Mercy are officially classified as, “flexible deterrent options.” That’s to say, they are an option for, “show of force.”
In wartime, sending a ship with capacity for a thousand patients send a message that the US is willing to accept an immense amount of casualties. That may or may not be true, but the message is there. In peacetime, parading a hospital ship around the world for humanitarian missions both fosters good will for the US military, and also shows countries the capabilities of the US’ military health system.
The effectiveness of these ships as “flexible deterrent options” could be debatable, but in the military’s mind, this is the purpose behind these ships. They are an option for deterrence or escalation. That’s part of the reason why they’ve seen so little deployment to combat zones. That’s just not the primary purpose. Each ship has seen only one deployment primarily treating casualties of war — the Mercy to Operation Desert Shield and Storm in 1990, and the Comfort to the Iraq war in 2002. For the rest of their 30 year histories, they have spent their time deployed on humanitarian missions to disasters or impoverished nations, or in reduced operating status at their home ports in San Diego and Norfolk.
While during active service, Mercy houses well over 1,000 crew, most of its time is spent in port, in that reduced operating status. At such times, the massive ships will house just 70 crew members who will keep it ready to go at a moment’s notice. By the nature of their service, expediency of deployment is key. Therefore, they are designed so that they can go from reduced operating status to leaving San Diego or Norfolk in just five days. But while they can leave quickly, that doesn’t mean they can necessarily get to their destination quickly.
The Mercy and Comfort are both converted oil tankers that originally launched in 1975 and 1976, respectively. Oil tankers are not designed for speed, as it’s just not necessary, so the ships can only travel at about 20 miles or 31 kilometers per hour. Compare that to a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier which, at almost twice the size, can travel at 35 miles or 56 kilometers per hour.
If there was, say, a disaster in Sri Lanka, it would take five days to get the ship into full operating status, and then 20 days to sail all the way to the Indian Ocean. By that time, nearly a month after the disaster, the trauma phase of the medical response would be largely done. This is likely the reason why a majority of the ships’ deployments have been near the US.
These ships just aren’t designed for super-fast response to critical crisis. The very size that slows it does, however, have a purpose. Beyond just allowing for a massive capacity, the ships are stable enough that, even when floating, it is possible to conduct most types of surgery in their 12 operating rooms. There are exceptions — the floating platform doesn’t allow for open-heart surgery — but still, the possibility of conducting advanced medical interventions at sea is impressive.
There are, however, more issues related to the origins of the ships. You see, hospitals needs to be wide for easy movement of patients, but is it possible on hospital ships? As we mentioned earlier, these ships were converted from oil tankers and the tankers, on the inside, are not just one big empty hull filled with oil. The oil tankers have bulkheads both laterally and longitudinally so that oil couldn’t slosh around, hence increasing the stability of the ship. The problem with this design is that these bulkheads were left as they were on the Comfort and Mercy. There are no doors between bulkheads on the lower floors. Therefore, if one needs to get a patient from forward to aft or aft to forward on a lower deck, they have to be brought up an elevator, across the top deck, and back down again. This leads to huge movement issues, making the ship’s effectiveness as a hospital more limited.
That’s just one example, there are plenty other smaller issues with the ship designs that make them less effective than they could be. Their original cost, including both the ship purchase and conversion, was $275 million each, which may seem like a lot , but this is the same Navy that spends billions on single destroyer.
So what do you think about these hospital ships of US Navy? Are they of any use? Should these ships be retired soon?
While you think about it, watch this awesome Video by Wendover Productions, explaining how these ships work!