June 22, 2007: One of the
interesting developments in the global war on terror is the use of amphibious
ships to carry out humanitarian missions. While this might be seen as
stretching a rapidly declining force (at least in terms of the number of
ships), it is probably one of the more cost-effective uses of soft power. The
ancient Tarawa-class amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu is carrying out one of
the first of these missions in the Philippines.
Why would they use an
older amphibious vessel rather than a hospital ship? First, the issue is
quantity - the U.S. Navy has only two hospital ships. The good news is that
these ships have the best medical facilities afloat. The bad news is that they
are unarmed due to restrictions imposed by the Geneva Conventions. Many of the
places they are going often have problems with pirates and terrorists.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy has a lot more amphibious assault vessels.
On the other hand, an
older amphibious vessel can fill in a lot of the gaps. For instance, they have
medical facilities almost as good as a hospital ship's. This is because their
mission is to deliver Marines to hit the beach in a raid or an assault. Those things
can result in heavy casualties, and thus, these ships will need to serve as
floating medical centers. Also, unlike a purpose-built hospital ship, these
vessels are able to carry weapons for self-defense. The USS Peleliu, for
instance, carries four 25mm Bushmaster chain guns, five 12.7-millimeter machine
guns, two launchers for the Rolling Airframe Missile, and two Phalanx
Close-in-Weapon-Systems. Against pirates, that is more than sufficient.
Even smaller amphibious
ships have significant medical facilities. The San Antonio-class landing
platform docks have two operating rooms and 124 hospital beds. The Whidbey
Island-class LSDs have one operating room and 8 hospital beds. They also have
plenty of firepower to deal with pirates and terrorists. They can also carry
helicopters for medical evacuation missions.
The good news is that
these gators of mercy will help the United States get a lot of positive press
for its humanitarian missions. The bad news is that the reduction in quantity
of the American amphibious fleet will make each hull in higher demand. And a
ship on a humanitarian mission is not available for other missions.
That said, the versatility
of American amphibious vessels would help the Navy in another way. If they are
able to perform a number of humanitarian missions, it will probably help the
Navy convince Congress to fund additional amphibious vessels. This not only
will lessen the chance that the Navy will find itself caught short, but in a
time of war, they will have extra amphibious lift. This is a win-win situation
for the Navy, the Marines, and the diplomats. - Harold C. Hutchison