Pacific Partnership: The Vessels That Carry the Mission

Posted by Thomas E. Weinz
July 10, 2009
The USS Peleliu in the Western Solomon Islands
The Deck of the USS Peleliu with a CH-53 Sea Stallion Helicopter Folded for Transit
A Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) Cruises Over the Sea Off Choiseul Island
A CH-53 Sea Stallion Loaded with Passengers and Cargo

About the Author: Tom Weinz is the dedicated Foreign Service Liaison Officer (FSLO) aboard the USNS Richard E. Byrd for Pacific Partnership 2009 (PP09).

In a comment last week, one of DipNote's readers, Eric in New Mexico, asked whether a decommissioned aircraft carrier might be converted into a humanitarian mission ship. I put that possibility directly to Captain Jaeger of USNS Byrd, and he responded as follows:

“The total cost to convert an ex-carrier would be roughly triple the cost of building a new ship. Replacing corroded water and sewage systems, and reconfiguring the work areas into a hospital configuration would also be less efficient than designing new space. The Navy is currently looking at the new T-AKE design (as the Richard E. Byrd) and considering hospital configurations which would eventually replace the USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy.”

Eric’s question led me to think about the ships, or “platforms,” which have carried Pacific Partnership. The USNS Mercy (PP2006, 2008, 2010) is a state-of-the-art floating hospital. It has a patient capacity of 1,000 beds, with 12 operating rooms, as well as radiological services, a comprehensive laboratory, dental and optometry wards, a morgue, and two oxygen-producing plants. Mercy was built as an oil tanker in 1976, and converted to a hospital ship when still relatively new (1984). The ship is usually in reduced operating status in San Diego, and her crew is part of the Naval Medical Center. Mercy brings an unrivaled medical platform to Pacific Partnership, but is less effective for engineering projects.

The USS Peleliu (PP2007) represented the first “grey hull,” or active duty ship, to host Pacific Partnership. Peleliu is an amphibious assault ship, and many Pacific Partnership planners think she was the most effective platform of all. Peleliu carried two large CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters, which could transport 30 passengers, or impressive loads of supplies and equipment. She carried the marvelous LCAC (Landing Craft Air Cushion), which can access remote island beaches in spite of shallow surrounding waters. Her massive well deck also held a standard landing craft; a ramp led from the well deck up to a storage deck, which contained an assortment of heavy construction vehicles and machinery.

The USS Dubuque, originally chosen for PP2009, was also an amphibious ship (with a well deck and landing craft.) The USNS Richard E. Byrd, a supply ship, has replaced Dubuque, and is at the beginning of her mission. She is a beautiful ship. If she performs well on PP09 and Captain Jaeger is correct, we may see a new “Mercy” in Pacific Partnership’s future.

Read Tom Weinz's previous or next entry from Samoa.



New Mexico, USA
July 10, 2009

Eric in New Mexico writes:

@ Tom, I'm humbled and tickled at the same time that you'd dedicate a post to the idea, and thanks!

I want to also thank Captain Jaeger for taking the time to weigh in on the possibility.

I need the help of a good Navy man on this and I hope he'll entertain my willingness to convince a sceptic..(chuckle).

Seems to me we have the bases covered as far as the "platform's" needed for US missions of this type, and I accept his good judgement on the matter.

Food for thought being what it is, I took the Captain Jaeger's counterpart's words in the video , "I'd like to see her given to one of our friends." out on a limb when I called the public liason office for Bob Gates today, informed his office of your post on the subject, and posed the following:

We give her to the UN, pay for the refit directly from annual UN dues, and give the UN greater capacity to deliver aid, evac civilians out of harm's way when needed, a recon platform to assist in peacekeeping missions as a matter of force protection, and it occurs to me that there must be thousands of vets who've served aboard, and we have now the Civilian Response Corps to recruit the already trained folks who's served aboard but and may very well jump at the opportunity to serve aboard again in a civilian capacity under UN flag.

I believe it comes with 5000 bunks standard equipped, and and medical facilities, which I'm not in a capacity to determine what would be required to have 50 OR's and associated hardware installed.

One can only speculate as to how many lives may have been saved in Burma during the days following the typhoon when the US Navy was prevented from delivering aid, if the UN had had it's own flagged ship to deliver it in time.

Amb. Susan Rice has had a few recent remarks on the lack of capacity on UN peacekeeping in various 21st century conflitcs and crisis, and here I think is the "platform" to deliver 21st century peacekeeping...on steroids.

And while we're at it, since the G8 just made food production a humanitarian aid focus, when you want to deliver a mobile well drilling rig for a remote village, what better platform to deliver it via heavy lift helicopter?

And in an effort to buy myself a clue as to whether such an idea would fly through Congress or not, I called my Senator and I've been told someone will be in touch Monday.

So, I wish you'all fair sailin', and let's see what happens.

Pesky fellow that I am...(chuckle).

Best Regards to all aboard the Byrd,


New Mexico, USA
July 11, 2009

Eric in New Mexico writes:

@ Tom, RE: "...reconfiguring the work areas into a hospital configuration would also be less efficient than designing new space." -Captain Jaeger

Picked my brother's brains on this, ( He's an HR admin. at a local hospital and up on current med. gear and disaster Mng.) and here is his solution.

You have a vast amount of hanger space to work with, plus lifts.

And he turned me on to this mobile ER modual ( see URL ) , which I think will solve the problem of cost and time to refit.

He said, "The real issue that must be overcome is not so much in the initial cost to refit the ship, but in the long term cost of the crew and medical staff."

Well, I guess that comes out of UN dues too then.

Let's keep things simple.


United States
July 13, 2009

Zharkov in U.S.A. writes:

One might also refit an M1 Abrams Tank to convert it into an ambulance but the fuel costs would be excessive.

Old ships are not as energy efficient as newer, smaller vessels. They were designed and built in an era when the U.S. was self-sufficient in petroleum.

New Mexico, USA
July 14, 2009

Eric in New Mexico writes:

"We will be working through the White House process with Treasury, Defense, and others to try to get a handle on all of the resources that go either into diplomatic or development efforts. But one of my key goals is elevating development to its proper place in our foreign policy agenda. It is not only the smart thing to do; it is the right thing to do."
-Sec. of State Clinton, Town Hall Meeting at United States Agency for International Development- July 13, 2009

Exactly what return we the taxpayer expect to get by turning the KittyHawk into a museum on a cost to maintain basis, isn't exactly clear to me.

What is clear to me is that having a UN with the capacity and "platform" to deliver development aid, humanitatrian assistance, and greater peacekeeping capacity is in our own national security interests. USAID/State cannot be expected to go it alone, even on steroids.

It's one thing for folks to go rummaging through closets at State to discover additional administative supplies to cut cosat corners, but what happens when a spare aircraft carrier is found in DOD's extensive closet will be determined by whether the cost of opperating such a platform is justified by the platform's potential to save lives.

California, USA
July 25, 2009

Georgiann in California writes;

My hat is off to Tom, Eric and Zharkov in dissecting the issue of delivering timely humanitarian aid through reuse ( so popular during WWII) and even addressing staffing, potentially with an already trained, partially volunteer workforce.

I am continually amazed at how the three of you, often with very diverse opinions, can take complex issues, chew and toss them around and then often come up with excellent, viable solutions.

The dialogue between you is amazing and for someone like myself with limited knowledge, I appreciate the depth of your understanding and strive to learn from what each of you has to say.

Thank you.


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