by DAVID AXE
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.
Captain Lisa Franchetti, the commodore on Mercy, describes her ship’s lighterage as “almost like a resting barge.” “Basically, Mercy has a platform that we place down in the water — a large platform that the crane lowers down. It’s centered off the large port door.” The ship has her own utility boats that can handle the shuttle, using the lighterage as a pier. In Vietnam and Cambodia, Mercy will also work with utlity boats from a Japanese navy vessel. In East Timor and Papua New Guinea, the Australian navy will provide heavy landing craft. These craft will handle ship-patient transfers, freeing up the choppers for inland missions.
Lighterage was in use as early as World War II, when invasion forces needed to transfer heavy material straight to beachheads where no port facilities were available. The use of lighterage in a humanitarian context got a big boost during relief operations off of Haiti this January and February.
After the devastating January earthquake, the Navy mobilized the transport USNS 1st Lt. Jack Lummus from its civilian-manned sealift fleet. The 675-foot, 40,000-ton container ship loaded: 120 pallets of supplies from the U.S. Agency for International Development, another 90 pallets from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, 24,000 gallons of gasoline, 24,000 gallons of diesel fuel, three Army port-repair kits and a slew of Marine Corps trucks and construction vehicles.
In a single trip between Florida and Haiti, the ship carried more cargo than 400 heavy-lift airplanes — and unloaded it far faster, thanks to her on-board lighterage. Lummus arrived off Haiti on January 21. She craned the lighterage barges into the water. Some lingered while at least one other — a sort of pontoon — raced to shore and jammed through the surf and up onto the beach. While sailors secured this pontoon pier, crane operators aboard Lummus eased containers over the side and onto the waiting lighterage barges.
The ship also dropped a ramp installed on her tall, blocky stern, opening a wide passageway into her vehicle deck. The lighterage crews carefully aligned their ungainly craft with the ramp, and held them there while vehicles rolled from the ship to the barges. The lighterage chugged toward the beachhead and sidled up to the pontoon. A wheeled container handler picked up the containers and moved them ashore while vehicles drove right off the lighterage, down the pontoon and into action.
For Mercy, lighterage “tends to be more of a volume issue,” Franchetti said. “We think with extra assets, we will continue to be able to support the volume of folks coming to and from Mercy.” And that means more medical procedures, more lives saved and greater influence for the United States among poor Pacific nations.