WASHINGTON: The U.S. Navy and Austal USA have begun preliminary work to flesh out a new class of medical ships that are smaller and more nimble in design to fit the service’s vision of distributed operations, an executive from the Navy said recently. company at Breaking Defense.
The vessel, which Austal calls an Expeditionary Medical Ship (EMS), is envisioned as a roughly 120-meter aluminum catamaran based on the Navy’s expeditionary fast transport ships, according to Larry Ryder, an Austal executive.
“It will have all the capabilities of a current hospital ship, but not the capability,” he said during an interview at the Sea Air Space exhibit. “What it lacks in capacity, it will have in responsiveness and agility which will be able to be based up front with a reduced crew.”
Ryder said Austal had been designing such a vessel in-house for the past year or two, but the recently signed fiscal year 2022 Defense Spending Bill provided funding for the Navy to begin working with the company to developing program requirements, a nascent but vital step in any new shipbuilding effort.
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If the Navy were to proceed 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, these ships have provided medical and humanitarian relief around the world since the 1980s. The Comfort was deployed to New York at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 to ease the pressure on city hospitals.
But with a ship the size and age of Comfort or Mercy, maintaining them becomes increasingly expensive. USNI News reported last year, Mercy’s lifespan had already been extended to 2036. The fact that there are only two also hampers the ability of ships to adapt to the concept of distributed maritime operations of Marine.
“If you’re based on the West Coast and need it in the Western Pacific or you’re based on the East Coast and need it in [the Middle East], you’re talking weeks to respond,” Ryder said. With the new ships, “instead of having one large static platform to support a dispersed operation, you have the option of dispersing two or three of these [EMS] medical platforms…conceptually, that’s the difference.
“It’s like having three small hospitals spread across the county instead of one huge hospital located downtown,” he continued.
Prior to the FY22 legislation funding, the Navy had already considered ways to bring more medical capabilities to its distributed fleet. One way
is aboard the new Expeditionary Fast Transports, also manufactured by Austal.
The service had toyed with the idea of completely transforming the EPF-14 into a medical vessel, but had contented itself with converting part of its lounge area into a medical space capable of containing operating rooms or recovery beds.