Paint it WHITE!

March 2011


A week ago I was sitting in a meeting where the name of one of the leading contenders to be CJCS came up. Tied to that name was the idea that the “military would get out of HA/DR”.

That night the earthquake struck Japan and we now have over 13 ships (including two aircraft carriers) and thousands of Marines and Sailors – some stationed in Japan and others redirected from their deployment – on station and assisting. The idea that we as a government and a military would ever “get out of the HA/DR business” is patently ludicrous…and our response to the earthquake is just one more data point proving so.

As if we somehow needed one. CNA did a study in 1990 of Navy humanitarian operations. Even a quick, non-statistical, review shows that at least once every year since the mid-1950s the Navy has been to one degree or another been involved in a humanitarian operation. Following the Navy response to the 2004 tsunami, USNS Mercy inaugurated a series of “Pacific Partnership” deployments that continue this year with USS Cleveland deploying to Tonga, Vanuatu, Timor-Leste, the Federated States of Micronesia and Papua-New Guinea. On the other side of the world ships have been involved in Southern Partnership Station and African Partnership Station, modeled after the Pacific Partnership missions. And, in every case the ship involved either had to take a military asset off station or out of rotation, or active duty and reserve personnel were called up to man Military Sealift Command ships.

But, last year the House Armed Services, combined with Navy obstinancy, gave me another idea.

The HASC FY2011 Defense Authorization Report (which may never again see the light of day) Section 1024 states that the Secretary of the Navy shall retain the amphibious assault ships that the Navy shall keep Nassau (LHA-4) and Peleliu (LHA-5) in a commissioned and operational status until the delivery to the Navy of the new amphibious assault ships America (LHA-6) and LHA-7, respectively. Which idea, of course, the Navy wasn’t too fond of.

At the same time, Navy officials are pressing forward with a proof of concept study to man amphibious ships with merchant marine seamen and officers. Touted as readiness initiative for troubled classes of ships, critics look at the program as another misguided attempt to maintain ship numbers while cutting cost.

But, if Navy is willing to place volunteer civilians on combat ships…then why not reimagine the combat ship AND meet the HASC language AND provide ships that can meet the various partnership missions without impacting the rest of the fleet’s obligations?

Over the next six years Navy will retire two amphibious assault ships (LHA) and four amphibious transport docks (LPD). While not economical to refit or fully retain these ships, there is life left in them and with some alterations, they could remain in use – both as commissioned vessels (which add to the overall fleet number) and conduct critical missions over the next decade.

By retaining a Navy crew, completely removing the weapons systems, installing commercial satellite internet access, modifying the Marine berthing compartments and reconfiguring the well deck (or leaving it as is) – oh, and with a LOT of white paint – the Navy would have a platform capable of embarking 1,000 aid workers, teachers, policemen, medical personnel, and so on to move from country to country and teach, train, and help. Think of these ships as the ultimate in Joint – InterAgency – NGO power projection platform.

By having ships like this capable of rapidly embarking DHS and FEMA personnel to serve as a mobile command post after a hurricane, or to mirror the role of USNS Mercy after the tsunami or any of the other iconic relief actions, to include the one going on today in Japan, the Navy would have a tool – that is not armed with anything other than self defense weapons and frees up a front line combat capable unit – and, as trite as it sounds, be part of the “Global Force for Good”. It’s tough to look at something we do all the time, and think of it as a “lesser included mission”…maybe it’s time to put some dedicated resources behind the ever-present reality.

Posted by M. Ittleschmerz in Homeland Security, Navy, Soft Power

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  • Gordan E Van Hook

    Nice idea, but the LHA’s are in terrible shape and would still cost an arm and a leg to maintain. that’s why Navy wants to be rid of them. It’s not that they don’t have marvelous capability and utility for a host of missions, including HADR. A better idea would be a very low cost conversion of a container ship with a flight deck, elevators, hangar deck and modular messing, berthing and C2 constructed of 40ft “superframes” that can be easily modified. Such a platform would cost 1/10 of a new LHA(R), have an easily maintained and universally supported commercial low speed diesel propulsion. A converted S Class container ship rivals a CVN in flight deck and capacity.

  • “A better idea would be a very low cost conversion of a container ship with a flight deck, elevators, hangar deck and modular messing, berthing and C2 constructed of 40ft “superframes” that can be easily modified.” 🙂 Any companies in mind?

    Seriously, though, by taking in a commercial hull Navy, as you know, ends up either having to man the ship with merchant mariners (which is not what my idea is in favor of) or would have to train Navy personnel on (likely more advanced) civilian technology.

    Either way, though, there is a niche that Navy should exploit rather than ignore until after it’s needed. Every year.

  • Victor

    Why not use civilian mariners? Seems to work just fine on Mercy and Comfort.

  • Job security 🙂 As well as the costs to modify LHAs and LPDs to CivMar standards and capability would make the concept cost prohibitive (which is where Captain Van Hook’s idea gains ground).

    But, from me there is also something of the “Navy should be the Navy” idea as well.

    The alternative could be that the Red Cross, or Doctors Without Borders, or a host of other NGOs could just go out and do this “mission”. Which gets the indigent care piece taken care of, but I don’t see the “doing good” as the “mission”. The “gain good will” and “be remembered as doing good” are the mission – and the good itself is incidental.

  • YN2(SW) H. Lucien Gauthier III

    This is an amazingly good idea.

  • Matt Yankee

    As in the Jap. disaster the reality is you cannot predict what mix of disasters will happen or where. What if an enemy attempts to take advantage of a disaster but instead of surging military ships we sent bulk cargo ships manned with worthless FIMA. And where are you going to stage the FIMA ship?? That means you would have to build three or four to have them on scene quick enough.

    If anything we should build additional capital ships for ALL uses.
    The Navy should use this oppurtunity to ask for addition CVNs and or additonal LPDs. The military is the last, best option every time a disaster hits…stop fighting gravity and accept the responsiblity. Also do not forget the unpredicted requirement for armed force after Katrina…sorry but guns are sometimes required in disasters as in War.

  • KhakiPants

    I like this!

    I see Matt Yankee’s point, but some disaster relief operations will not require force. Anyone who has spent any time in Japan, or even in Taiwan or South Korea, would be very surprised to see massive panic, or worse yet, looting of any kind.

    I think this is a good idea.

  • Byron

    The only entity with the cash to operated ships like this would be the US Government. Between fuel, parts, food, and repairs, any private entity would be broke fast.

  • P.S. Wallace

    I am not going to get into civilian conversion versus new mil-construction versus mil-conversion; merchant mariners versus Navy sailors; and so on, for they are trades that I really don’t have the data for, but as far as the basic idea of a dedicated “rescue/relief” ship of the kind mentioned here, it is an idea that has also popped into my head from time to time (most recently, the Indonesian tsunami, and before that Katrina),and one I support.

    Not sure about the teacher or NGO part, but once again, that is a trade item. Overall, the concept to me is extremely sound from a national strategy perspective. My two cents worth, your perceived value may vary.

  • Phil Ridderhof

    “At the same time, Navy officials are pressing forward with a proof of concept study to man amphibious ships with merchant marine seamen and officers. Touted as readiness initiative for troubled classes of ships, critics look at the program as another misguided attempt to maintain ship numbers while cutting cost.”

    If you’re referring the pilot program at US Fleet Forces, I think you are incorrect as to what is actually occurring. If you read ADM Harvey’s reply to a comment on his blog, he states:

    “My intense interest in how the MSC mans and operates their ships stems from the success they’ve had in establishing a very high level of operational reliability, particularly with respect to their diesel engineering plants. Even with the obvious differences in the manning models between MSC and Navy and the starkly different mission requirements, there’s much to be learned from how they train, how they stand watches and how they operate their ships. That’s been my goal – TO LEARN! And then to see how we can apply what we learn to the Navy. As capable and professional as they are, I don’t foresee the day when we turn over our amphibious ships to be operated by the civilian mariners of our MSC. But I certainly do foresee the day when we can apply many of their best practices to how we do business and improve the operational reliability of our amphibious fleet.”


    Phil Ridderhof

  • I’m more in line with Gordon’s concept if for no other reason than the LHA’s are in such a challenging physical condition that the good would be lost in the goo.

    There are a lot of manning concepts that – if people have an open mind – would help mitigate the overall costs. A blended crew of USN, CIVMAR and more importantly – non-FTS USNR. What a great way to tap into the multitude of underemployed USNR out there and reprogram some of that personnel costs towards getting Sailors underway instead of killing trees. Sure, we’re aren’t talking about a lot of personnel – but some.

    Nice think-piece …. but the suggested platforms just have not been kept in the condition they should have been over the last decade to allow such a transition. Kind of like those who thought keeping the JFK longer was a great idea and/or Big E. Deferred maintenance and sub-optimal manning & PMS ….. ungh.

    The girls have given all they can, and haven’t been prepared to give more.

    Sadly – these suffer from the unsexy problem of getting funding. Maybe this will be seen as more sexy, but I don’t think so. This may have been a possibility last decade – but I don’t see where the money will come from now as we look towards the Terrible 20s.

  • Nicky

    I think it would be a good idea for the United states to have a Joint services Rescue and humanitarian ship. a Joint services Rescue and Humanitarian ship would be good for Humanitarian and rescue missions. It can include disaster response, medical Aid missions and rescues after a disaster. I think to share the cost and personnel, you have to include a broad range of organizations such as the US Coast Guard, US Public Health Services Commissioned Corp, Military Sealift command, FEMA’s USAR teams, PHS’s DMAT teams, DHS and etc. Ship crewing can come from a mix of Navy, US Coast Guard and Military Sealift Command

    I would take used Tarawa class amphibious assault ship and convert them to a Joint services Rescue and Humanitarian ship. Out fit them to have docking capability to dock with US Coast Guard Cutters and other naval ships. Even buy a smaller Amphibious Assault ship such as the Mistral class amphibious assault ship or the Dokdo class amphibious assault ship and used them as JSS ships

  • Byron

    Best thing that could have happened to JFK was a SINKEX.

  • YN2(SW) H. Lucien Gauthier III

    I wouldn’t imagine the old LPDs are of much use then either?

    Safe to assume that the material condition of any retiring hull is past the point of being worth it?

  • I have some issues with a using only a few dedicated ships for the mission. The ships that get used are used most frequently because they are already in the vicinity. Six big repurposed amphibs could only keep two available. Would they be in the right place at the right time? These are really big ships, there are lots of places they can’t go because of their draft.

    How about some “hospital ship” and “disaster command post” modules for the LCS.

  • Nicky

    Maybe the US Can buy Two or four of either the Mistral class amphibious assault ship or the Dokdo class amphibious assault ship and put two on the Atlantic and two on the Pacific Coast. I think a JSS Rescue and Humanitarian ship is something the US Should be looking at.

  • Eagle1
  • YN2(SW) H. Lucien Gauthier III

    If we have one West Coast, during the next big one in Cali, there will be those among us who say ‘thank god we did that’.

    In the meantime, they won’t be able to be everywhere at once, they will be another asset we wished we had more of. But, they will be able to compliment the hospital ships we do have. A large amount of the capacity that the AHs have go unused. But, this ship could provide not just for medical care, but for humanitarian works. Imagine sending this over to APS, where it could be used for training not just another Navy, but local populations, as well as provide medical care.

    Know what…

    Incorporate some type of modular design into them as well. Use these platforms as an evolutionary model so that we when can afford to design future LHA/Ds we have lessons learned.

  • If we just built a few more CVN’s, then the problem would solve itself. A CVN is the ultimately flexible warship, and can provide a great deal of what is needed, generally, for any major disaster.

    16 seems about right to me.

  • Mittleschmerz

    Ah, YN2! Love that you are staying on topic! With LPDs and LHAs the “modularity” piece can be solved by using the massive amount of well deck space. But, that level of experimentation might not fit into the “JSS” mission and operations model.

    Addressing a couple of points…
    1. Age and condition. The LHAs are older, and aren’t new…but, the two out there have (anecdotally) had fewer material problems than the newer LHDs have had. Navy’s prohibition against upgrades within 5 years of decommissioning aren’t helping Nassau and Peleilu out.
    2. CVNs. Yes. CVNs are the most flexible warships we have. Except for two things: Aviator egos/rice bowls and cost. At $5B+ it is cost prohibitive to be building CVNs when the repurposing of another, less costly and already paid for vessel can do the mission. Any conversion like the one Captain Van Hook mentions or the other half dozen briefs I have seen in that regard would get you 5 to 10 “JSS” platforms for the base cost of a CVN.

    There are some other great comments I have enjoyed reading, even the ones I don’t necessarily agree with but haven’t commented on here. Thanks!

  • B. Walthrop

    It looks to me like the re-imagined MLP (if it is ever built) may serve as a hybrid of the concepts embodied in your idea. CIVMAR manned, ABS classed commercial design, that delivers the sailors, marines, etc. to the area that needs the HA/DR. It also would serve as a sea based logistics node during MCO which isn’t a bad deal either. The whole concept of operationalizing the MPSRONs of the future (to a certain extent) is pretty good. Conventional wisdom holds that we should continue to have the MPSRONsto support MCO, and if you have them you might as well use them during times of relative peace (ie: no major MCO) that accounts for probably north of 90% of the fleet’s existence. Oh by the way, it won’t cost you $5000M. It will run you about 10% of that at $550M-$600M I suspect.

    Slightly off topic, but it puzzles me when smart folks in the USN refer to HA/DR and other lesser contingency operations as either “irregular” warfare or “irregular” operations. As you have so cogently pointed out, these operations are far from irregular. In fact they are surprisingly regular, and I suspect this “institutional” language describing them as irregular shows that the USN has an institutional bias against resourcing to execute these activities.


  • Jay

    Anything the size (not to mention complexity) of a CVN or LHA is too much for these missions. Look at MSC’s MPF, or better yet, not only those (they are flexible, and can be made more so), add some JHSVs, modified for medical/HADR missions. The smaller, speedier can get into more places first and send intel back to the larger, slower while they are en route.

  • leesea

    First off as Gordon points out the old amphibs are worn out, manpower intensive and are ONLY capable of first response in the ocean basin they are located. (so get real). Big deck amphibs can not work with other ships like cutters and sealift ships – no cargo gear and no skin to skin mooring.

    Secondly, WHY should the USN tie up highly trained sailors and marines to peform soft power HA/DR missions? Once again using active ships as first responders works BUT diverts them from primary missions.

    Third the UN convention on hospital ships does NOT allow military systems so landing craft and weapons would have to be removed IF the Red Cross went on.

    Finally using a specialized sealift ship such as Gordon says would allow them to be prepositioned in ports nearer to needed locations. Sealift ships also hold much more relief supplies than any (former) warship ever could.

    CVNs are NOT the solution for what is basically a logistics evolution. They bring some helos and lots of bodies to the equation and not much else. Go look at how many carrier sailors get ashore? Big lily pads for which many other ships are more suitable to include a Mistral or Absalon and MANY cheaper sealift ships. Go look at RRF ships too.

    The MLP design is so screwed up as to be unusable, chartering a clear deck Flo/Flo which could bring more “connectors” is faster and cheaper, but may not bring much more cargo i.e. relief supplies”

    YES of course the MPSrons can help a lot more in soft power, BUT… the require NSE personnel to partially offload and that takes about 15 DOS away from the Marines. A tradeoff.

    BTW Would any country want an amphib sitting in its waters for long?
    P.S. the MPSrons are FOS and used in many exercises and operations, its just they don’t get respect from Navy.mil.

  • B. Walthrop


    So, the option you seem to be most behind is a specialized sealift ship. That’s hard to against in principle, but a bit tough to “sell” in the present budget environment. Anything like Japan will involve a mix of both frontline ships and auxillaries to do it right. The CVN and big deck amphibs bring a bit more than lilly pads for helicopter aviation. There is certainly a non-trivial cost (both fiscal and opportunity) with using those platforms, but the trades can be made on a situational basis.

    Also, which MLP design are you talking about? I was referring to one that looked an awful lot like a clear deck FLO/FLO. I could be wrong.


  • B. Walthrop

    “That’s hard to against in principle,” should read “That’s hard to argue against in principle,”

  • Byron

    Question: Who’s budget would get used by these ships? DoD? State?

  • Eagle1


  • MerchantMariner

    Navy combatants respond because they are there and noone/nothing else is.

    What is needed after these disasters is “stuff” – food and water sure, but also heavy equipment for debris removal and construction, and massive amounts of shelter and power generation.

    Merchant ships are best suited to carry that kind of “stuff.” And merchant ships operate at a small fraction of the cost of a combatant.

    Best place to look is strategic sealift assets in the Ready Reserve Fleet. Taxpayers are footing the bill to maintain 49+ ships at an annual cost of about $10M per ship. Minimal conversion (if any) required. They are maintained in a high state of readiness. Rather than have them sit around empty in a few U.S. ports, why don’t we load them up with a bunch of good “stuff” that is currently warehoused somewhere, and preposition them in or near these ‘trouble’ areas. How about one or two in each GCC AOR?

    We could also partner with other nations on this. U.S. has one of the weakest merchant marine fleets but several of our allies have very strong merchant fleets – Germany, Japan, and South Korea for instance. Also, several of the nations the U.S. goes to help have large populations of merchant mariners – Indonesia, India, Malaysia, etc.