WASHINGTON: The US Navy and Austal USA have begun preliminary work on fleshing out a new class of medical ships, smaller and more agile in design to fit with the service’s vision of distributed operations, a company executive recently told Breaking Defense.
The vessel, which Austal calls an Expeditionary Medical Ship (EMS), is envisioned to be a roughly 120-meter aluminum catamaran based on the Navy’s expeditionary fast transport vessels, according to Larry Ryder, an Austal executive.
“It’s going to have all the capabilities of a current hospital ship, but just not the capacity,” he said during an interview at the Sea Air Space exposition. “What it doesn’t have in capacity, it’s going to have in responsiveness and agility that will be capable of being forward based with a small crew.”
Ryder said Austal has been designing such a ship internally for a year or two, but the recently signed fiscal 2022 defense spending bill included funding for the Navy to begin working with the company to develop the program’s requirements, a nascent but vital step in any new shipbuilding effort.
If the Navy were to follow through with building an EMS, it would potentially replace the service’s massive 1,000-bed hospital ships Comfort and Mercy, stationed on the East and West Coasts of the United States, respectively. Easily spotted by the red crosses adorning their white hulls, those ships have provided medical and humanitarian relief around the world since the 1980s. The Comfort was deployed to New York City early on during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 to alleviate the strain on the city’s hospitals.
But with a ship of Comfort or Mercy’s size and age, they are becoming increasingly costly to maintain. USNI News reported last year Mercy’s service life had already been extended to 2036. The fact there’s only two of them also hinders the vessels’ ability to adapt to the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations concept.
“If you’re based on the West Coast and you need it in the western Pacific or you’re based on the East Coast and you need it in [the Middle East], you’re talking weeks to respond,” said Ryder. With the new ships, “instead of having one big static platform to support a dispersed operation, you get the ability to disperse two or three of these [EMS] medical platforms … conceptually that’s the difference.”
“It’s like having three smaller hospitals spread throughout the county instead of one huge hospital located downtown,” he continued.
Prior to the funding in the FY22 legislation, the Navy had already been eyeing ways to bring more medical capabilities to its distributed fleet. One way
is onboard the newest expeditionary fast transports, also made by Austal.
The service had toyed with the idea of totally transforming EPF-14 into a medical ship but settled with converting a portion of its seating area into a medical space capable of holding operating rooms or recovery beds.
Austal envisions smaller, more agile hospital ships to replace Navy legends is written by Justin Katz for breakingdefense.com