Speedy 'Ambulance Ships' a High Priority for Navy Medicine, Admiral Says

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USNS Spearhead
The USNS Spearhead (JHSV-1) is shown during sea trials. (U.S. Navy Military Sealift Command)

The Navy is investing more than $200 million to configure two of its catamarans to function as high-speed "ambulance ships" for medical emergencies on the water. And the Navy's surgeon general said Tuesday that the service is "enormously excited" to gain the new capability.

The $235 million contract modification was issued in March, allowing Austal USA to develop the Navy's next expeditionary fast transport, or EPF, ships with built-in enhanced medical capability. The 14th ship in the class, EPF-14, to be called USNS Cody after the city in Wyoming, will be the first of these ships; the yet-to-be-named EPF-15 will be the second. The ships are operated by the Navy's Military Sealift Command, just like the service's two large hospital ships.

Rear Adm. Bruce Gillingham, surgeon general of the Navy, discussed the service's plans for the ships in response to questions from Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican.

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"The ambulance ship, as envisioned, will allow us to respond to ships in distress," Gillingham said. "Ships that may have been damaged in combat, [we'll] be able to assist in personnel recovery."

These catamarans with advanced medical capability will have space for a V-22 Osprey to land on board for patient medical evacuation, Gillingham said. The cabin will feature an operating room with two operating tables and space for 18 intensive care unit beds, he added. The ships will also be able to accommodate about 100 medical personnel. 

"We're enormously excited," he said. " ... We see this as filling a critical gap in the [distributed maritime operations] environment."

Gillingham said the concept for a high-speed medical ship had come about through a review of medical operations supporting the Marine Corps, with its concept of Expeditionary Advanced Basing Operations in distributed regions like the Pacific. The Navy realized that the two hulking medical ships now in service simply could not respond as quickly as the concept required, he said. 

"Would you fairly say this is a high priority for naval medicine?" Shelby asked Gillingham at Tuesday's hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"Yes, sir. It very much is," Gillingham responded.

The two planned EPFs with medical capabilities may be only part of the solution, though. Alan Baribeau, a spokesman for Naval Sea Systems Command, told USNI News that, despite their capabilities, the EPFs' mission would not be primarily medical.

"Flight II EPFs will be able to stabilize postsurgical cases for evacuation without the requirement to first route them through a higher facility," he said.

Officials with Austal USA say there's another ship in planning -- the Expeditionary Medical Ship. While still conceptual, this ship would also be based on the EPF and would have a primarily medical mission. It would feature a white hull with red crosses like its hospital ship counterparts.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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