Monday, 20 August 2012

A Moral Equivalent of War (Assault Ships as Hospitals)


I am interested in William James' idea of "A Moral Equivalent of War." That is, in a speech in 1906, James promoted the idea of exciting, dangerous, honoured community projects that did not involve killing other people, trampling on their rights, or destroying their homes. His explanation of the concept is much better than any that I could manage.

The world that we live in has its realities, though. One is that we will pay billions for defence but a relative pittance for worthy causes. This leads to an interesting thought: one could pay for the worthy causes using money that is formally allotted to defence. One specific example occurs to me, but a little background is necessary.

Reallocating a Few Billions

Canada's defence spending, $24.7 billion in 2012, is a lot of money, but it represents only 1.4% of our GDP. I have written before on how too many of these dollars are being wasted on the ever-more-expensive F-35 fighter plane. If we bought the very respectable Saab Gripen fighter and paid for its maintenance for 40 years at a price of under $6 billion rather than the F-35 and twenty years of maintenance for $25 billion (and rising), well, we would save $19 billion for other projects.

One such project should be a Canadian Amphibious Assault Ship or two. Such ships combine a number of capabilities that our Army and Navy would love to have. They carry a substantial number of troops at sea, land them, give them air support from helicopters or vertical-landing fighter planes, and often have hospital facilities to look after those injured in the assault. In fact, in 2005, the Chief of the Defence Staff, Rick Hillier, argued for a Canadian Amphibious Assault Ship Project with support from the Minister for National Defence at the time, David Pratt. There were reports in France that Canada was interested in buying two Mistral-class ships (Source, the same Wikipedia article). The project is on hold or cancelled "As of August 2008."

A Mistral Class ship is 16,500 tonnes (empty) or 21,300 tonnes (full load). The French Navy built several for its own use, and the Russian Navy has purchased two, as well. The ship carries up to 16 helicopters and a flexible cargo which could be, for example, 40 tanks and 450 soldiers. It also has a 69-bed hospital. The cost is $420 million to $600 million per ship. (To return to my point about the cost of the F-35, three of those cost as much as one of these ships. Which is the better investment for the Canadian military?)

Now, the Mistral is not the only such ship in the world. For example, the Korean Dokdo class is almost the same size as the Mistral, a little lighter, a little faster, and half the price. On the other hand, the largest Amphibious Assault Ships are the American Wasp class, 40,500-tonnes at full load, which hold 2000 troops and their equipment, have nine helipads, and cost $750 to $800 million each. Each ship also features a 600-bed hospital with six operating theatres. Canada could even afford a few of these monsters if it got a better deal on its planes.

Certainly, Canada has no ship in its navy close to the size of even a small Amphibious Assault Ship. The largest surface vessels are the three Iroquois Class destroyers (5,100 tons each) and the twelve Halifax Class frigates (4,770 tons). Both classes will be replaced starting in 2016, or so we are told, by fifteen ships in a new class called, for now, the Single Class Surface Combatant. There seems to be little public information about the class, but I would guess it to be about the same size as the ships we have. Since even a Mistral is three to four times the tonnage of these ships, you could argue that an Amphibious Assault Ship would be a grandiose, unprecedented purchase, except that it is not. Did you know that Canada once had aircraft carriers? The 16,000-ton HMCS Bonaventure (originally constructed as the HMS Powerful) was the last of these and served from 1952 to 1970. A Mistral ship is not that much larger.

So the first points in my argument are
  1. There is a real military argument to be made for Canada buying one or two Amphibious Assault Ships.
  2. The cost can be easily covered by more intelligent budgeting of resources, specifically new fighter aircraft.
The next phase of the argument gets back to the idea of the moral equivalent of war. The world needs floating hospital ships for disaster relief and also to provide medical services in parts of the world that are chronically underserved. Let us look at those two needs separately.

Disaster Relief

The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami killed about a quarter of a million people, and many more needed quick help. Food and water and shelter had to be provided; disease had to be prevented from spreading. The U.S. Navy's contribution to the first wave of help consisted of a group of ships led by the Wasp-class Amphibious Assault Ship Bonhomme Richard, another led by the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, and the 1,000-bed Hospital Ship USNS Mercy.

A Canadian ship could have made the trip from Vancouver to, say, Jakarta (13,300 km) at 18 knots (33 km/h) in about 18 days, if emergency supplies were kept on board or close at hand so that she could set out quickly, once the order was received. That isn't an instant response, but the ship would still be able to help, given the extent of the disaster and duration of the humanitarian need. Once there, it could airdrop food, clothing, and supplies from its helicopters and provide medical assistance for substantial numbers of people.

 Medical Services

Many poor countries have correspondingly poor medical and dental services. A hospital ship can provide efficient services to many people because "ninety of the one hundred largest cities are ports" (Source). The charity Mercy Ships (same source) tries to serve this need with the 16,500 ton MV Africa Mercy, a rail ferry converted into a floating hospital. The ship operates with a volunteer crew, including the medical staff, of almost 500. According to the Wikipedia article:
Its lower decks are a modern hospital with six operating theatres, an Intensive Care Unit, an ophthalmic unit, two CT scanners, x-ray laboratories, and a recovery ward with beds for 78 patients. In addition to the ship's lab capabilities, ship physicians can consult with pathologists in the U.S. via satellite communications.
Fliers are distributed through a port city before the ship arrives. People line up to be treated aboard her. For example,
During its field service in Sierra Leone between February and November 2011, the Africa Mercy crew performed more than 3,300 surgeries, 27,800 general medical and eye consultations, 2,600 eye operations and 34,700 dental procedures. They also trained more than 12,600 people in health care professions, basic health care instruction, agriculture and church leadership. In addition, Mercy Ships increased health care delivery systems by renovating in-country pediatric and general hospital facilities.
The Discovery Channel produced a documentary on the Africa Mercy in the third season of its Mighty Ships tv series. You can currently watch it here to get an idea of the ship's purpose and operation.

What the Africa Mercy does, a government ship could do. In fact the USNS Mercy provides just such humanitarian relief when she is not required in a war zone.

A Moral Purpose on a Military Budget

So, the humanitarian needs are there but, clearly, the Canadian government will not buy purpose-made ships to fill these needs. However, they could justify the purchase of such ships in the defence budget. If we had a couple of Amphibious Assault Ships, one could spend a year on purely military exercises and patrols while the other provides hospital services. Then they could switch duties. The Canadian flag would be shown, good will would be garnered, the military would be stronger, and many thousands of people would be helped.

No comments:

Post a Comment