Over the last few weeks, USNS Comfort has been part of the Haiti zeitgeist, both in America and overseas. The ship appears in hundreds of stories, articles, videos, and blog posts. Her white hull has become a symbol of United States humanitarianism in Haiti. However, the converted oil tanker’s original primary purpose was to support combat operations, not conduct the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions that gained her renown. So I ask the readers, if you were to design the next generation of hospital ship, the next USNS Comfort, what would the vessel look like? Here are some of my own thoughts.
Small, Fast, And Shallow
As previously mentioned on the USNI blog, USNS Comfort arrived off the coast of Haiti slightly over 88 hours after the earthquake. In that time, the converted oil tanker, manned by only a skeleton crew, was stocked with supplies, staffed with medical personnel from multiple services and NGOs, and sailed down the Atlantic coast. In getting the massive ship from a pier in New England to a disaster zone in the Caribbean, the crew proved themselves to be true professionals. Impressive is not strong enough a word to describe their accomplishment, it was Herculean. And, that is the problem.
To maximize effectiveness, rapid arrival on station after a disaster should occur because of the ship’s design, not in spite of it. Hospital ships must be small, fast, and shallow. They must operate in areas with small, damaged, or no ports. They must navigate waterways littered with debris without assistance and anchor in the shallow waters close to shore. Most importantly, hospital ships must be fast. Arriving in the first 24 hours is orders of magnitude more helpful than arriving in the first 48 hours, or 88.
Dedicated Medical Team
Instead of staffing hospital ships with an ad hoc complement of riders, hospital ships deserve dedicated medical contingents. Dedicated medical teams would reduce deployment time and improve mission effectiveness. I am not discounting the importance of NGOs such as Project Hope, but rather suggesting that NGO health professionals should supplement a core medical team that has trained and worked with each other and with the ship. Many will say the armed forces do not have enough medical personnel. They are right, but that does mean we should not do it. Rather, it only means we must train more personnel.
Christopher R. Albon is a political science Ph.D. specializing in armed conflict, public health, human security, and health diplomacy.