For nearly four decades, the U.S. Navy has relied on its two massive hospital ships, the USNS Comfort and the USNS Mercy, to provide medical services to the military and support disaster and humanitarian relief worldwide. Now, thanks to a $867 million contract, Alabama-based shipbuilder Austal USA is developing a brand-new, optimized fleet for the military branch.
The three ships will “enable more complex medical procedures and operations to be performed onboard, at sea, and underway,” the company’s CEO Paddy Gregg said in a statement. The first, named the USNS Bethesda after the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, is set to begin construction in spring 2025, per Breaking Defense.
“[The legacy hospital ships] are capable platforms, but they’re slow,” Larry Ryder, Austal USA’s vice president for business development and external affairs, told the outlet. “They [have a] very deep draft so they can’t access many ports. Often you see in these engagement activities, they’re anchored a mile out at sea instead of being able to pull into these smaller ports.”
Part of a line called Expeditionary Medical Ships (EMS), the new models won’t replace the Mercy or Comfort, but supplement them and their missions. They’ll be faster and smaller, able to sail at speeds of at least 30 knots with a range of 5,500 nautical miles at 24 knots.
The improved design includes three operating rooms, a medical laboratory, radiological capability, blood bank, dental, mental health, OB/GYN and primary care, and more. Its smaller size will enable access to shallow ports, and its flight deck will accommodate military aircraft.
“This first-in-class ship will be state-of-the-art and the Navy’s first medical ship in 35 years,” said Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro in a May press release. “This ship, designed with more expeditious and direct access to diagnostic, specialty and hospital care, will allow for increased capabilities and health care.”
Its predecessor ships are monumental in their own right, of course. With 1,000 beds each, the Mercy and Comfort have assisted in major humanitarian and disaster relief missions, including the COVID-19 pandemic. The two ships were ported on opposite sides of the country for stretches of time in 2020 — the Mercy in Los Angeles and the Comfort in New York — to serve as hospitals for patients without the virus, allowing local facilities to focus on treating those who were infected.
At a ceremony held at the National Naval Medical Center on Jan. 8, Del Toro spoke about the significance of the first new ship’s title, noting that the other two ships will also be named after military hospitals.
“USNS Bethesda will be a floating testament to the work of the men and women who accept orders to this storied institution — including trailblazers in Navy medical history like Capt. Lucy Ozarin, one of our nation’s first female military psychiatrists,” he said. “She joined the Navy in 1943 and spent a career providing mental health support to service members, veterans, and their families.”
He added: “USNS Bethesda will serve as a beacon of hope and of the American people’s enduring friendship to all she and her crew support around the world.”