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US Navy photo of the hospital ship USNS Comfort getting underway

Sailors cast off mooring lines to the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort as the ship evacuates Naval Station Norfolk in preparation for Hurricane Florence. (U.S. Navy photo by Jennifer Hunt)

Should The US Navy Send Hospital Ships To Gaza?

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November 18, 2023

By James Stavridis (Bloomberg) In my military career, I was frequently deployed on the US Navy’s massive nuclear-powered aircraft carriers into combat and on more routine peacetime missions. 

I embarked in the USS Abraham Lincoln as a commodore in the late 1990s, and I sailed around South America in the USS Eisenhower as a four-star admiral in command of US Southern Command in 2009. These are fearsome machines of war, apex predators at sea with significant land-attack powers as well.

But in many ways, the most satisfying deployment I commanded was not a carrier: It was USNS Comfort, a 60,000-ton hospital ship with nearly 1,000 beds and a main battery consisting not of combat jets but of doctors and nurses. The ship has nearly 100 intensive-care beds, with total accommodations for more than 1,300 people if necessary.

I was lucky to have the Comfort under my command in Latin America and the Caribbean, where her crew performed hundreds of thousands of lifesaving and life-changing patient treatments over the course of six months. Today, we must think seriously about a riskier mission: sending both the Comfort and her sister ship, the Mercy, to the eastern Mediterranean during the Israel-Hamas war.

Related book: 2034: A Novel of the Next World War by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis

The need is clear: Nearly two million Gazans, nearly half of them children, are in the middle of a war zone. Civilian casualties are mounting by the hour despite efforts of the Israel Defense Forces to minimize “collateral damage” as they undertake a justified series of counterattacks against the terrorists.

Hospitals ashore are overwhelmed, and being used by the terrorists as shields to prevent Israel from destroying their command-and-control networks, bunkers full of fuel and ammunition, and other military logistics. As Israeli forces close in to root out the terrorists, it is incumbent on Hamas to evacuate patients out of the immediate war zone. Instead, as has been widely reported, the terrorists are refusing to share a vast stockpile of medicine and lifesaving equipment with the people they claim to represent.

Moving one or both hospital ships to the Mediterranean would allow President Joe Biden’s administration to accomplish several important objectives.

First and most obviously, the US would be providing significant humanitarian and medical aid during a cruel and terrible conflict. I have seen firsthand the motivation, determination, and medical skill of the Comfort’s crewThose medical professionals could be augmented by voluntary civilian personnel, which happens routinely on both ships as they head to crises. During my command of the Comfort, we worked with many nongovernmental organizations, but principally with the men and women of Project Hope, and I’m certain many would volunteer in today’s crisis.

A second benefit for the US would be to show our concern for Palestinians. President Biden has visited Israel, provided substantial intelligence and military assistance to its forces, and deployed two nuclear aircraft carriers to the region to deter Iran. By sending the Comfort and the Mercy, we would show we also understand the trauma facing the people of Gaza. A demonstration of US good faith could, when this shooting stops, help it get Israel and the Palestinians back on the path to a two-state solution.

Third, such a deployment would send a strong signal to the Global South generally, where there is significant skepticism about US actions in the Middle East. Our wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya — as well as our appropriate aid to Israel — have not been broadly supported in nations like Brazil, Nigeria, Pakistan and South Africa, for example.

Related book: 2034: A Novel of the Next World War by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis

Would such a deployment be complex and risky? Of course. The Mercy is now operating in the Pacific as she normally does, and the Comfort is refitting in a US shipyard. They are minimally manned when not on actual missions, so moving quickly would require activating reservists or drawing military medical personnel from other assignments stateside. Mobilizing both military reservists and civilian medical volunteers is a complicated process.

The hospital ships would face some level of risk. While they could anchor miles off the coast and use boats and helicopters to transport patients (something we routinely do), it is conceivable that Hamas, Hezbollah or even Iran might sponsor a terrorist attack against the ship. A USS Cole scenario with a small boat laden with explosives and a suicide crew — or an unmanned vehicle — is a worrisome possibility. A potential missile strike from Hamas is another danger. But both the US and Israeli navies can provide combatant warships to protect the floating hospitals.

A final challenge would be doing triage on the ground and ensuring no terrorists flow into the patient population. Screening by gender and age would be necessary, and commanders might simply prioritize the very youngest victims.

If the plan proceeds, the Navy could also send several of the speedy catamarans of the USNS Spearhead class, which move at up to 45 knots, to do ship-to-shore transits. Each of them can carry hundreds of passengers.

We’ve sent in the nuclear carriers and, so far, they are accomplishing their mission of deterring Iran from dangerous adventurism. But we should also send our “soft power” forces to the eastern Mediterranean on an equally important mission.

Stavridis is also vice chairman of global affairs at the Carlyle Group. He is on the boards of American Water Works, Fortinet, PreVeil, NFP, Ankura Consulting Group, Titan Holdings, Michael Baker and Neuberger Berman, and has advised Shield Capital, a firm that invests in the cybersecurity sector.

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