USNS Comfort Ordered To Colombia But The Future Remains Uncertain For The Hospital Ship

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USNS Comfort, a U.S. military hospital ship, sits next to the pier as crew members load supplies to prepare to depart Norfolk Naval Station, Norfolk, Va., Sept. 28, 2017, to support Hurricane Maria relief efforts in Puerto Rico. US Navy photo by Justin Diniro

While visiting Colombia late last week, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced he was sending the hospital ship Comfort at the request of Colombia’s government. 

USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) will deploy to Central America and South America in late September to begin a two-month humanitarian mission with stops in Colombia and the region.

The USNS Comfort was requested by the Colombian government to relieve the pressure of increased population flows from Venezuela on their national health system.

“It is an absolutely a humanitarian mission. We’re not sending soldiers; we’re sending doctors. And it’s an effort to deal with the human cost of Maduro, and his increasingly isolated regime,” Mattis said, referring to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

Details of a Comfort mission have not been finalized, but Mattis made clear that the Comfort will remain outside Venezuela’s territorial waters.

This marks the sixth hospital ship deployment to the region since 2007 and possibly one of the last for this stalwart vessel. 

In April the US Naval Institute reported that the Navy has created a Requirements Evaluation Team to examine the feasibility and costs of performing a service life extension on the hospital ship Comfort.

“We have made plans to do a service life extension of both the USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy.” Vice Adm. Bill Merz the deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems said in a recent congressional hearing. “The problem is, there’s only two of them, and they’re big, and we’re moving to a more distributed maritime operations construct,” 

Merz further acknowledged the need to extend the life of Comfort because “the replacement’s not ready, so we are evaluating what it would take to do a life extension on her. Her sister ship is in good shape, she’ll be around for quite a while, and there may be other opportunities to fill in the sea-based medical support that we need to provide. So we’re casting a wide net on how to meet that specific capability.”

When asked if the Comfort could get replaced or scrapped altogether Merz said “everything’s a potential” at this point.

The USNS Comfort has proven herself capable but is she worth saving?

“From their first mission in 1990 to today, the USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy have demonstrated her versatility in times of war and humanitarian relief.” Says Dr. Sal Mercogliano, a highly respected military sealift historian and analyst.  “Yes, We should restore and update both vessels and work on replacing them with a new class of large hospital ships.”

In may the Comfort’s sistership USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) arrived in Nha Trang, Vietnam, as part of an annual multi-nation disaster relief and humanitarian aid exercise called Pacific Partnership.