Wild Idea

January 2010


A late night rumination…

I was recently in Philadelphia, attending (of all things) a West Point Society meeting. The meeting was held at a restaurant on the water near the SS United States, the world’s fastest cruise liner, maintaining 30 knots as it regularly cruised across the Atlantic (38 knots max). Moreover, it could hold 1,900+ passengers during its speedy journey. And it’s for sale.

Fast ship + capacity to hold large amounts of people = super-expeditious hospital ship? Acquiring the SS United States and converting it to a hospital ship would give the Navy and even greater ability to rapidly respond to humanitarian crises. Thoughts?

Posted by Jeffrey Withington in Navy

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  • Chuck Hill

    Other than that it is very old technology?

  • She’d be a pig to man and maintain. It would be better to have greater numbers of slower ships that were forward deployed. Or how about this – just have a standard loadout of a mobile hospital that would fit in a HSV. Make it all vehicle borne. Drive aboard and get under way. I’ve seen photos of a medical clinic designed for NGOs that is based on two standard shipping containers. Expand the concept and make it so you can just keep growing the facilities as needed by adding more containers.

  • A hole in the water to pour money into…

  • Charley Armstrong

    How about a RORO / Car Carrier? Just roll the modules you need aboard. There is an old hospital ship sitting at anchor in Baltimore (at least last time I looked.) The former USS Sanctuary. I think it was used as a homeless shelter, but it was shut down.

  • Fred

    Biggest shortcoming would be ship-to-shore movement. For the Haiti COMFORT will have plenty of ships nearby with helos and landing craft that can support, but as a stand-alone vessel on a HCA mission ship-to-shore movement is limited. It also makes it tough for the hospital ships to host engineering missions in conjunction with the medical / dental missions it does so well.

    Second issue is whether the beds are required – past HCA / HADR missions have focused mostly on outpatient care, and the ships never get close to using their bed capacity. Operating rooms and a small recovery ward is all that is required. If the Haiti response follows this model, even with all the local hospitals damaged, we should look to redesign our hospital ships, possibly shifting to a LPD-based design (or using decommed amphibious ships).


    You have to admit that a T-AH UNITED STATES would look a whole lot better than MERCY and COMFORT! However, given the expense of refurbishment and conversion, the high expense of maintaining it (3-4 times the installed HP and probably at least three times the ROS-5 civilian crew as COMFORT OR MERCY and it’s steam!), and the limited utility you gain by arriving a few days sooner, I don’t think it is a good idea.

  • Chap

    A really nice old car is still hard to maintain and you don’t get crumple zones and antilock brakes. Don’t refurb stuff that clapped out for new work; do like we did for the current hospital ships by converting a commercial ship.

  • Jim Dolbow

    Great out of the box thinking! I hope it does not harm your navy career. All options are on the table in my view.

  • This wouldn’t be without precedent. A Carnival cruise ship took on thousands of homeless people after Hurricane Katrina.

  • Aaron Brotman

    Mercy and Comfort do not always address the Navy’s requirements but I would argue that this is because of characteristics other than speed. First, the T-AHs are converted oiler tankers with displacements around 70,000 tons (70% or so of a CVN, 175% of an LHD). This displacement and corresponding dimensions such as length and draft prohibit the ship from entering and operating out of undeveloped ports and in littoral areas. Instead of pulling in close (alongside if possible) the ship must anchor out far away and utilize helicopters as a primary means of transportation on and off ship. This costs the Navy money in fuel and in time being used by helos.

    When our hospital ships operate mostly ISO soft power ops whether disaster relief such as the case in Haiti or scheduled deployments to Central America it makes sense to value access and flexibility. While an HSV hulled T-AH would be a novel approach, and has proven able in delivering medical supplies in soft power ops, its size is simply too small to include the medical facilities that make Mercy and Comfort the valuable fleet assets that they are. Furthermore, the time it took to get Comfort on station was more extended by the time it took to make her operational for Haiti relief than by transit time. This would be the same case for the proposed T-AH

    We need to find a ship in between that is small enough that it would not draw too much for austere ports and could conduct boat ops yet large enough to provide dedicated support and advanced medical treatment. My ideal: a converted LSD-49 class. Lots of flexible space for wards and medical facilities, diesel engines for efficiency, a well deck for boat ops that could utilize existing landing craft and a flight deck for helo-borne patients.

    Nonetheless, Jwithington’s point is well taken that the US Navy must look to improving its sea based medical response. Medical assets whether on board a CVN, LHD or T-AH are a core capability for soft power ops.

  • Chuck Hill

    Since we are not talking about this disaster, we are talking about the next one, best to put the hospital in containers. Make it modular. Put it on a container ship, truck it, or fly it in. Maximum flexibility. More bang for the buck.

  • Grandpa Bluewater


    Container ships require specialized cranes and chassis for the containers prestaged to the port. Which is to say functioning specialized infrastructure.

    A RO RO requires a sea wall with sufficient depth of water to get the ship in on one side and a clearing with enough room to drop the stern ramp and road access on the other. Everything else you need can be driven up the ramp at the port of departure. Bob Hope class gets my vote.

  • JV

    Let’s get a medical mission module for the LCS. Can get there fast. Small and maneuverable enough to get in close. It’s perfect! (sarcasm)

  • Jay

    The LCS isn’t such a far-out idea — I am thinking smaller hospital ships — perhaps a “clinic” ship? HSV size? Less capable than MERCY or COMFORT, but can get places fast — can get into more places (shallow draft) — might be worth a dedicated, forward deployed platform in each regional combatant command (except Northcom). The Medical HSV could be the somewhat instant first response — while the decision is made to deploy the heavier assets.

    The United States should have been scrapped a long time ago. Not really sure whose money is keeping her where she is/as she is.


    Grandpa Bluewater,
    If the medical facilities are modular and containerized, there are numerous, fairly small containerships (400-500 TEU)that have their own cranes. They are used estensively in the types of ports you would want to visit. You can even bring your own flightdeck (see Arapaho Concept). And you could still use them on just about any RO/RO out there including an HSV (like the ex-Hawaiian Super Ferries) as well as on land. A Bob Hope is 950ft long with 300,000sqft of deck space. Maybe a little overkill although they do have over a hundred deck spots for containers.

  • Grandpa Bluewater


    True and pertinent. You still need specialized vehicles to move the containers once they land. So you still need RO RO capability.

    TEU piled up under a ship’s crane are not much help. You need T.
    Trailers, AKA container chassis. Do you remember the wildcat strike of the independent truckers in Norfolk, because the cargo terminals were waiting to fix the unsafe chassis until the trucker had drawn one from the pool, had it fail the DOT inspection, and the drivers were spending half a day off the clock waiting for the chassis repairs before they could leave the terminal? You can’t move containers off the pier without that stuff. A number of embarked small tractors might not be a bad idea, like about 40 Yard Mules, to move the containers to the selected site for the hospital. Don’t forget the security escort vehicles.

    All of which is specialized infrastructure, unless you make it embarked MHE. You will also need a truck shop, you know, the capability to keep MHE in good repair. Not to mention a MHE refueling capability. All of which will probably be trashed after the catastrophic event. BYO is best.

    So all sarcasm aside, the RO RO is a better choice.

    If the big uns are too big, MARAD has a selection of somewhat smal
    ler sizes. Order ala carte. If it had cranes to self unload deck cargo, so much the better. You could get something used, cheap, if you look for a ship in one of the the interisland cargo and vehicle shipping trades. Then put it on five day breakout with Marad and Bob’s your uncle.

    Don’t forget the container of paint, drop clothes, tape and sprayers to paint the ship white with big red crosses/crescents before sailing. Geneva convention, right?

  • jwithington

    It’s great to read all the ideas out there regarding future hospital ships. My SS United States idea was just to get people thinking…but wouldn’t it be nice to see SOMETHING to done with that ship?


    Grandpa Bluewater:

    First, although you normally use specialized gear to handle containers, you can move them with flatbed trucks and forklifts if required, so infrastructure needs are not as bad as it would appear.
    Second, if you planned on moving it off the ship at the destination (I wouldn’t, I would set up the hospital on the ship with containerized fuel tanks and generators, water tanks, CHT systems, living facilities, etc and all the medical facities in containers), you can bring your own trucks and trailers and rough terrain handling gear in sea sheds. Although it sounds like it would be difficult, most of the details were worked out in the old Arapaho Concept project for turning a containership into a Helo carrier. And the British actually did it for an extended time, so we know it can be done.
    If you start with containers, you can go by air, land, and virtually anything on sea. If you make it RO/RO, you severely limit your selection of ships. With containers you have a scalable system that can be easily upgraded, can be stored forward if desired, fits on virtually anything that floats, and can be tailored to the mission.
    And as a side note, I would only need to paint the ship white and illuminate it if I was at war. For humanitarian missions, you can use any paint scheme. Or just paint the boxes white with illuminated red crosses on the sides and your covered either way.

  • Mike Carroll

    She’s a beautiful museum exhibit and some great people are trying to keep her from joining her sister at Alang. Help them save her as a pierside asset and move on to an appropriate multimodal hull.

  • RickWilmes

    I recently read the following book

    The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger
    by Marc Levinson

    A review of the book can be found here.


    I recommend the book to get a better understanding about how versatile containers are and how they can be used.

    A container ship with cranes on the ship might work.  Another option is to have a barge stationed off-shore and the container ship pull up along side the barge.  Containers could than be off loaded onto the barge and a hospital set up on the barge.  Than patients could be transported using small vessels to the barge.

  • Frank Horvath

    We need to understand the overall practical aspects of this, as much as we like to try to do anything we get stepped on because of the unstable belief that this is only a ship, nothing more nothing less. What Americans need to understand is this is Americas only surviving superliner of historical value, which is being treated like a piece of antique trash. Our Government ” AMERICA” the richest in the world, can’t stand up to the plate to preserve a national monument. How can they allow it to rust away in our waters and think nothing of it. Seems like today unless they make buck they’re not gonna touch it.