C.W. Nicol, writing in the Japan Times, argues that the aftermath of the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear emergency of March 2011 is the right time to start building “disaster relief hospital ships”. Nicol envisages a ship:

I propose that Japan build ships of around 30,000 gross tons (slightly bigger than the Asuka). This size would be effective, quick to respond, reasonably maneuverable and not as demanding on fuel as the 200,000-ton-plus cruise ship monsters.

They should be designed to withstand the most severe conditions. (Indications are that typhoons and so forth will get more frequent and worse.) They don’t need to be icebreakers, but they should be able to venture safely into seas with scattered ice and debris. Lifeboats should be especially designed to act as emergency maritime ambulances. The ships should have medical facilities capable of handling the most severe emergencies. (Link)

As for manning and mission issues:

The proposed “disaster relief hospital ships” could have national and international volunteers in medical and marine research, in nursing and?service staff, and so on, but the general operation, coordination, training and maintenance should be Japanese.

The ships could be a unique and invaluable training facility for all manner of marine and medical response and research. For example, when not handling a disaster, research could be carried out on the effects of radiation or other pollution in the marine environment. The ships should alternate duties, with one ship based in Japan, the other on missions of rescue, exchange and good will abroad.

It’s a great idea, and I’m generally in favor of it. The author seems to hint that he favors a ship based on a cruise ship, the Asuka.

Asuka cruise ship.

Asuka‘s great for holding people, but getting them on and off the ship is a problem. The only on-board ship to shore transport are lifeboats. Asuka has no facilities for helicopters (though to be fair…hey, it is a cruise ship after all.)

Existing hospital ships suffer from the problem of having mixed ship to shore abilities. USNS Mercy and the Chinese hospital ship Peace Ark both have this problem, and both are ships converted from other designs (Mercy being a tanker and Peace Ark a replenishment ship, neither of which are designed to be particularly concerned with connecting to shore.)

USNS Mercy.

PLAN hospital ship Peace Ark.

Both have helicopter flight decks, but the decks are not large and probably incapable of handling more than once helicopter at a time. Mercy in particular doesn’t have a hangar.

Nichol proposes such a hospital ship should have small lifeboats to act as a bridge between ship and shore. That’s a great idea, but what happens when the shore-based infrastructure is smashed by the disaster? The tsunami that was generated by the Tohoku Earthquake trashed fishing ports and facilities, making docking boats there difficult, if not impossible. Fortunately, the landing ship, tank JS Kunisaki brought along hovercraft that could land on beaches or anywhere reasonably flat and deliver huge amounts of cargo.

Japanese LCAC from JS Kunisaki assisiting in earthquake relief operations.

Whatever ship is chosen there will be plenty of room for medical facilities, relief supplies, and various equipment. The key issue is interfacing with the shore, and we’ve seen how important helicopters and hovercraft were during the Tohoku operation. The bottleneck we want to avoid is getting supplies and relief workers off the ship and getting the injured and refugees on.

Essex-class LHD USS Makin Island.

The ideal “disaster relief hospital ship” then could be something along the lines of a Essex-class Landing Helicopter, Dock-type ship. These ships are ideal for disaster relief missions. They have a full-length flight deck, are capable of accommodating a half-dozen helicopters at a time, and have large elevators leading down to a massive hangar. They have a well deck (see rear), which is basically a small drydock-type enclosure which can hold hovercraft and flat-bottomed transport ships. They are designed to accommodate 1,100 U.S. Marines at a time, which means plenty of space for hospital beds and living spaces. Essex herself was very useful during Operation Tomodachi for coordinating relief efforts, providing direct aid, refueling helicopters, and distributing supplies.

Mistral-class ship.

Another alternative is the French Mistral-class amphibious assault ship, which although smaller, also features a large flight deck as well as a well deck. Mistral is particularly appealing, at $600 million USD, a price that would be even lower if the ship were stripped of weapons, defensive systems, and not made to a military specification.

Nichol’s idea is a sound one, and would be even better if the proposed ship were based on an amphibious design. Two such ships, doing regional humanitarian work while remaining available for homeland emergencies, would not only earn good will from Japan’s neighbors but provide Japan with a highly mobile disaster response.

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A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 536 post(s) on Japan Security Watch