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"Thy rod and thy staff Comfort me"

Latest in the news about the rescue operations in New Orleans is the dispatching of the hospital ship USNS Comfort. She's currently in Mayport, Florida, taking on supplies and additional personnel, before heading for New Orleans.

A few less-than-well-informed people like this fellow are wondering what's taken the Navy so long to get the Comfort down there. After all, it's been over a week since the disaster truly broke.

I'm a bit of a Navy buff, so I thought I'd take this one on.

The United States Navy is the biggest navy in the world. In fact, it could probably outfight every other navy in the world combined.

But it's not infinite.

When everyone thinks of the Navy, they tend to think of the Aircraft Carrier. They are the biggest, most powerful weapons ever to set sail, and we are the only nation that operates true carriers -- all the rest are "baby" carriers, usually smaller than World War II-era aircraft carriers.

And we have only 11 to cover the whole 3/4 of the globe covered by water.

That's merely to give context to this fact: the Navy operates 11 aircraft carriers, and only 2 hospital ships.

The USNS Mercy and the USNS Comfort are the only two hospital ships in commission. The Mercy is based out of San Diego, and the Comfort is home-ported in Baltimore.

These are huge ships. They are nearly 900 feet long, 95 feet wide, and displace almost 70,000 tons (making them bigger than the biggest battleships ever built, overshadowing the Iowa and the Yamato).

Just why are they so big? Because they were originally built as oil tankers, back in 1976. They weren't converted into hospital ships until 1986.

The Navy realizes that it only has two of these magnificent vessels, and treasures them accordingly. Smart observers know that the United States is seriously considering major military action when these ships set sail. Carrier battle groups are relatively easy to move around the globe to show the flag; the hospital ships are far less used as pawns.

Obviously, the crisis in New Orleans could use the benefit of one of these two crown jewels. So, why isn't at least one of them there already?

Simple logistics. As is often noted, "amateurs study tactics. Professionals study logistics."

The Comfort is kept, with minimal staffing, in Baltimore. (18 civilian sailors to keep the ship ready, and 58 medical personnel to maintain the medical stuff.) She received her activation orders on August 31. She took on crew (63 sailors and 270 medical personnel), supplies, fuel, and other necessities, and then set sail as soon as possible, with all deliberate speed on September 3.

But "all deliberate speed" is a relative term to the Comfort. As a former oil tanker, she's not one of the fastest ships in the fleet. At top speed, the Comfort makes 17.5 knots -- which works out to a smidgen over 20 miles per hour. And while it's a little over 1100 miles from Baltimore to New Orleans, that's "as the crow flies" -- driving distance. The Comfort has to go AROUND Florida.

And speaking of Florida, that's where she is right now. She's in Mayport, taking on supplies and more medical personnel. The full complement of the Comfort calls for 956 Naval medical staff and another 259 Naval non-medical support staff.

The Navy said it would take the Comfort about a week to get from Baltimore to New Orleans, and that will be Friday.

And I know that if "getting out and pushing" would help her get there faster, there wouldn't be enough room on the hull for all the willing hands.

Works Cited:

USNS Comfort specifications
USNS Comfort History
United States Navy News Release on the Comfort's mission


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Comments (5)

Here is the problem in my o... (Below threshold)
chad:

Here is the problem in my opinion. There is an LHD in the area which is probably better suited for this mission, and a fleet hospital or a Marine Corps Hospital Comapny probably could have been deployed there faster than the Comfort. Granted they dont have the Comfort's enormous patient capability, but honestly at this point that probably isnt needed as the people could receive preliminary care in-theatre and be evacusted to a permanent facility. All that being said your right the comfort is quite a ship and the fact is it takes awhile to get her deployed.

What with other hurricanes ... (Below threshold)
-S-:

What with other hurricanes and tropical storms brewing in the South Atlantic, I'm thinking that some level of CARE was taken with the Comfort along it's nagivatable route to ensure that the ship was safe. The latest just off Florida is now classified as a storm, not a hurricane, so that very well may have something to do with the pacing.

Hmmm.It's a real p... (Below threshold)
ed:

Hmmm.

It's a real pity the LHD USS Bataan didn't have it's Marine MEU aboard when Katrina hit. I can't think of anything more useful in a post-hurricane area than a LHD and it's Marine MEU component.

Oh well, lack of a nail and all that.

I know LCAC (hovercraft lan... (Below threshold)
Joe Ego:

I know LCAC (hovercraft landing craft) are in the area and those are usually accompanied by Marines. After searching a little, I found:

http://www.navy.mil/palib/news/.www/status.html
Joint Task Force Katrina - Gulf of Mexico
USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) - Gulf of Mexico
USS Bataan (LHD 5) - Gulf of Mexico.
USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7) - New Orleans, La.
USS Shreveport (LPD 12) - New Orleans, La.
USS Whidbey Island (LSD 41) - Gulf of Mexico
USS Tortuga (LSD 46) - New Orleans, La.
USS Grapple (ARS 53) - Gulf of Mexico
USS Swift (HSV 2) - Gulf of Mexico
USS Devastator (MCM 6) - Gulf of Mexico
USS Scout (MCM 8) - Gulf of Mexico
USS Gladiator (MCM 11) - Gulf of Mexico
USS Falcon (MHC 59) - Gulf of Mexico
USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) - Gulf of Mexico
USNS Arctic (T-AOE 8) - Gulf of Mexico
USNS Algol (T-AKR 287) - Gulf of Mexico
USNS Bellatrix (T-AKR 288) - Gulf of Mexico
USNS Pollux (T-AKR 290) - New Orleans, La.
USNS Altair (T-AKR 291) - New Orleans, La.
USNS Pililaau (T-AKR 304) - Gulf of Mexico

First of all, the Bataan has hospital facilities. At least initially, there were reports that her medical resources weren't being used because nobody was requesting the help. The were, however, performing helicopter rescues immediately and into the night after the hurricane passed. The Bataan and Iwo Jima are both Wasp class ships that are nearly identical in capabilities.

The Comfort will certainly provide a useful asset to the area, but it probably isn't required to support ongoing operations except to free up the assault ships after rescue & recovery is complete and their air assets are no longer needed.

As for the Marines, I found this on the page of the 24th MEU:

http://www.usmc.mil/meus/24thmeu.nsf/pages/index.htm
"elements of the active-duty 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, and the reserve units 4th Antiterrorism Battalion and 4th Assault Amphibian Battalion"

Since for some reason their... (Below threshold)
AAA Dude:

Since for some reason their site is locked, I will post my comments here.

Having the capabilty to care for 600 people is not the same as having 600 beds. How should the Navy go about using these facilities? Should the helos transport people 50 miles from New Orleans to the ship? I guess that would make sense to the writer as the two hours it takes for the helo to fly to and from the ship could not be used for, let's say, saving more lives, increasing the "On Stay Time" on the helo, or increasing the number of SAR flights the ship can do.

How about the helo pilots take the survivors to a medical facility that is a few miles away making it possible to save more people and the ability to get more medical attention (a ship is limited in this ability). But, hey that is just logisitics, which the writer of the article does not understand.

You know, the more I learn about this amazing ship and it's capabilities (which I understand very well)

And one thing, where would this ship dock if you understand the capabilities so much.

The article is just another attempt to make the Bush Admin look bad and 'yellow' journalism from someone who does not understand what is involoved in an operation like this.




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