The U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS Mercy will use techniques and technology developed for amphibious operations to boost her ability to see patients in remote, under-developed Pacific countries. On May 1, Mercy embarked on a five-month cruise, delivering free medical care to communities in Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, East Timor, Palau and Papua New Guinea.
Mercy and her East Coast sister ship Comfort were designed to treat injured Marines during beach assaults. In those scenarios, large numbers of helicopters, based on accompanying assault ships, would transfer the patients to the hospital ships. Instead, in recent years Mercy and Comfort have been used almost exclusively for humanitaran and disaster-relief missions, with no assault ships alongside. The only helicopters are the handful assigned to the hospital ship. That has forced planners to find other ways of bringing patients to the vessel.
“I’m not sure of the ship’s capability to move large cargo,” said Lieutenant Landon McKinley, an MH-60 helicopter pilot assigned to Comfort last year. “If the ship is in port, there are no issues, we can bring the cargo to the deck and crane it off.” The shabby port infrastructure in many Pacific countries means craning directly ashore is often impossible. The hospital ship must get cargo into boats that then undertake a shuttle between ship and shore.
Problem is, craning items from the 40,000-ton ship to a small boat can be difficult, especially in rough waters. “Getting supplies off the deck and onto a boat — I’m not sure how feasible that is,” McKinley said. It’s even less feasible when the “cargo” is human beings, often in poor health.
Mercy’s solution is to treat patients like rolling stock. In amphibious operations, roll-on cargo vessels will carry on their decks pieces of heavy-duty “lighterage” — basically, motorized causeways — that they can crane into the water to function as a bridge between the large ship and landing craft. Vehicles drive directly out of a side door, onto the lighterage and then into the landing craft. The lighterage is simply an interface.