by DAVID AXE
In April, the U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort – a converted, 70,000-ton tanker — sailed from Norfolk, Virginia, carrying 900 doctors, nurses and engineers from the U.S. military, civilian agencies, non-government charities and even foreign navies. Their mission: to deliver free medical, dental and veterinary care, plus engineering assistance, to impoverished communities in Antigua, Colombia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Panama. Comfort’s four-month cruise represents the latest iteration of Operation Continuing Promise, begun in 2007, with the goal of “influencing generations to come,” in the words of Captain Frank Ponds, commodore for the 2008 phase.
Continuing Promise, one of the Navy’s biggest ever, sustained humanitarian initiatives, is the brainchild of Admiral James Stavridis, who recently left the top post at U.S. Southern Command, in order to take the reins at European Command. Stavridis is a rising star in the world’s most powerful Navy, and is widely considered an eventual shoe-in for Chief of Naval Operations. When Stavridis speaks, people listen. But what Stavridis has been saying lately is likely to surprise a lot of Navy officers. He wants less emphasis on the raw combat power, at which the Navy excels, and more emphasis on missions like Comfort‘s.
For years, the U.S. Navy has been organized around aircraft carrier battlegroups and amphibious ready groups, usually around 10 of each. Each group, anchored by a large aviation vessel — either a carrier or an amphibious assault ship — includes surface escorts, submarines, logistics ships and its own organic air force of around 100 aircraft — and possesses more firepower than most of the world’s navies. While the precise number and composition of the CVBGs and ARGs have changed, over time, their importance has not. But now Stavridis is advocating a new kind of group, one anchored by hospital ships like Comfort, and tailored for delivering aid, not munitions. …
While Stavridis didn’t specifiy what kinds of vessels, in addition to the hospital ships, might comprise the humanitarian groups, one of Stavridis’ protégés has offered some hints. Commander Jerry Hendrix, who served under Stavridis, is on the team preparing the Pentagon’s influential Quadrennial Defense Review, due in early 2010. In an article in the professional journal Proceedings, Hendrix advocated for what he calls “Influence Squadrons,” to replace several of the carrier groups. An Influence Squadron would include vessels optimized for coastal, non-combat missions, much like Operation Continuing Promise. Hendrix proposed the Navy buy more catamaran transports and shallow-draft Littoral Combat Ships to fill out the squadrons. Adding a hospital ship to the mix would turn the Influence Squadron into a Humanitarian Support Group.