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.