The U.S. Navy’s plan to retire one of its two hospital ships is drawing fire from lawmakers who say the vessels provide important services for overseas humanitarian missions and victims of domestic natural disasters.
According to the lawmakers, the proposal to retire either the USNS Comfort or the USNS Mercy in 2020 is reflected in the Navy’s recently released fiscal year 2019 budget request.
Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) called the proposed retirement a “strategic mistake,” especially since China recently sent its own hospital ship to Djibouti as part of an effort to expand its influence there. The United States has a key Navy-led base in that Horn of Africa nation.
“Soft power is extremely important,” Austin said at a March 8 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee’s (HASC) readiness and seapower panels. “As respectfully as I know how to, I want to criticize the decision to draw down that soft power. I would actually hope that we would be building more ships where we could deliver services to the citizens as they need it.”
Rep. Trent Kelly (R-Miss.) said the Comfort provided “sorely needed” medical treatment to Gulf Coast residents during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“There’s a national security requirement for two ships to respond to mass casualties from a potential forcible-entry operation, and the Navy’s planning on retiring one of them,” Kelly said. “If the requirement is two, we have to have two or we have to be screaming loudly.”
At the HASC hearing, Air Force Gen. Darren McDew, head of U.S. Transportation Command, told the lawmakers that while such decisions are made by the Navy, he will urge the service to reconsider.
“I will try my best,” McDew testified. “I’m a big fan of hospital ships because I love the fact that we can help injured and ill” people.
The Navy had no immediate comment on the matter.
General Dynamics [GD] NASSCO built the Comfort and Mercy as oil tankers in the 1970s. Both ships became Navy vessels in the 1980s.