Haiti: Early Seapower Lessons
Setting Naval Priorities
Outside of major combat, disaster response and relief is probably the best indicator of how well a Navy may react to an emergency. Second perhaps to the hospital ship Comfort, the most important ship in the Navy operation at present (in my own opinion) is the salvage ship USNS Grasp (T-ARS 51) . The ship is needed desperately in these initial stages to open up the earthquake ravaged ports, according to the Journal of Commerce:
The USNS Grasp, a rescue and salvage vessel of the Navy’s Military Sealift Command, arrived Monday with Army divers to assess underwater obstacles and damage that have closed the seaport at Port-au-Prince. The vessel had been off the coast of Belize and diverted to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to refuel and collect food and relief supplies before heading to Haiti.
Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, said reopening the port is crucial. He said the first priorities were quickly reopening the Port-au-Prince airport and clearing an overland route from the neighboring Dominican Republic but scale of the disaster requires resumption of seaborne shipments.
It is the carriers and amphibious ships getting all the headlines, but low-key littoral vessels like the Grasp are the backbone of the Navy, and their efforts along with the Seabees, the Coast Guard and others should not be overlooked.
Lessons from the Marines
I was reading the following article from Information Dissemination, who has been just all over the Haitian relief operation, not just viewing it from a naval perspective. In this article Raymond “Galrahn” Pritchett gives us “Maritime Observations of Operation United Response“, where he expounds his thoughts on the use of Marine Amphibious ships:
Worth noting the Nassau ARG deployed Monday with USS Nassau (LHA 4), USS Mesa Verde (LPD 19), and USS Ashland (LSD 48). The ARG has long been scheduled to deploy to the 5th and 6th Fleet AOR, but can always be tasked to go anywhere. It is worth noting the deployment for a different reason though, because when looking at the amphibious ships on the East Coast, the absence of the San Antonio class LPDs raises questions…
Big deck amphibious ships are flexible and extraordinarily useful, but they are so expensive that the Marines simply can’t field enough of them. I would argue that the 22 MEU response to Haiti is an excellent example of the kind of strategic speed that makes amphibious ships important, but the emphasis of amphibious ships in the Marine Corps existing maritime force structure doesn’t give the Marines a response capability with tactical speed. If Marines are the countries 9/11 force – tactical speed does matter.
Galrahn doesn’t seem to care for Marines in the Joint High Speed Vessel, despite these being able to provide the “tactical speed” he insisted as a requirement for such missions. They are also quite roomy and comfortable for long distance operations, as we reported on recently. Also interesting was mentioning of the LPD-17 ships, concerning which have you read this? Just a rumor mind you but not surprising in the least considering the class’ troubled past.
I think it also worth mentioning the term “Base Ship” used in this article. Not meaning to sound like I am putting down the use of these giant ships, notably the helicopter carriers, I still insist every ship in your fleet doesn’t need to be a “base”. Such large warships, because they are so capable should be considered motherships, at least until we can build or convert some less pricey versions. Because they are so capable, you can safely deploy fewer of them, but you still need essential small warships as escorts and to tread in dangerous waters where a large and irreplaceable exquisite warship would be at risk. But for the littoral ships and JHSVs, this is their natural environment.
The Essentials of Naval Airpower
Helicopters are proving essential in lifting supplies and as airborne ambulances. The USN isn’t the only fleet deploying carrier airpower to Haiti. Defense News reports that the Italian light carrier Cavour is headed to aid the earthquake stricken Island:
The Cavour will transport Italian Navy helicopters, tracked and wheeled Army vehicles, and hospital facilities that offer two operating theaters.
A company of Army engineers is included in the contingent, as well as 550 Cavour crew members and medical staff, and force protection personnel from the Navy, Army and Air Force. Italian Carabinieri military police will also be on board.The Haiti mission is the Cavour’s first since it gained full operational capability last June. The 27,600-metric-ton vessel is 237 meters long and 39 meters wide.
Almost any small warship with a flight deck can take advantage of the VTOL abilities of the chopper work horses. Up to 20-24 planes are carried, which also includes 8 Harrier V/STOL strike jets.
A very versatile ship, she can also perform amphibious operations, according to Naval Technology:
A strong feature of the ship is its high flexibility in operational terms. It is able to carry out the functions of an aircraft carrier as well as the transport of wheeled and tracked vehicles, for both military and civil missions. The aircraft hangar can accommodate 100 light vehicles or 24 main battle tanks for amphibious missions. The The ship can also support four LCVP landing craft. There are two 30t elevators for aircraft and two 15t elevators for armaments.
Up to 600 troops can be transported as needed. For a Navy on a budget, this is not an insignificant capability.
The Dire Need for Small Ships
David Axe has an interesting story about Colombia’s version of the US Navy’s hospital ship Comfort. These are two 70 ton “surgery barges” originally designed as troop transports, headed to disaster stricken Haiti:
A small river barge offers some advantages over bigger, deep-water ships. At the moment, the greatest obstacle to delivering aid to Haiti is access: the seaports are wrecked; the airport is clogged. Any vessel that can circumvent the large ports and gain access to shallow-water seaside communities can bring aid to bear faster.
It’s for that reason that the U.S. Navy needs to buy more catamarans to handle future crises. Then-Military Sealift Command boss Admiral Robert Riley told me three years ago the Navy was considering using catamarans as the basis for hospital vessels. But that hasn’t happened yet, and 40,000-ton vessels like Comfort still dominate.