Both of these options would increase U.S. operational capability as well as the ability to project influence. However, a hospital ship would likely still take a full week to deploy from Hawaii to many areas within Asia and by forward-deploying a caretaker crew (and flying in a medical crew when needed) underutilizes the ship’s capabilities, including its value as a consistent demonstration of American soft power in the region.
At the very least, the U.S. Navy should look at forward-deploying the Mercy in Southeast Asia during the typhoon season. This would allow the ship to be on station during the time of greatest risk, and when not responding to crises, it should continue to operate as it has in previous deployments, supporting theater security cooperation in ways beyond military-to-military support during crises. This would further allow it to build on the Medical Civil Action Program (MedCAP) missions and expand the public-private partnerships and collaboration with non-governmental organizations that have saved lives and garnered support for U.S. presence and leadership in the region.
Given the rekindling of the security relations between the United States and the Philippines, forward-deploying a hospital ship could provide an opportunity to both demonstrate U.S. commitment to its ally and to the region. Apart from the obvious life-saving capabilities, themselves likely to be needed more often given the increase in severity and frequency of extreme weather events due to global climate change, such a deployment would help boost U.S. influence in several ways.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
First, it would allow the United States to enhance the non-military aspect of the rebalancing and further bolster its regular presence in Southeast Asia without some of the drawbacks of permanently-based military personnel that have bedeviled bilateral relations in the past. Enduring U.S. military presence is a necessary, but not sufficient, component to American re-emphasis on the Asia-Pacific. Assuring allies and partners that the United States will not allow others to engage in coercion and unilateral changes to the status quo is greatly important, but so are other aspects of U.S. power.
Second, it would allow the U.S. Navy to reduce the opportunity costs of deploying other surface ships. Although in the event of another major disaster in the Asia-Pacific region, the U.S. would likely still deploy a combination of aircraft carriers, amphibious ships and other assets, a hospital ship could potentially free up a portion of those ships for other critical partner capacity-building, deterrence and missile defense missions.
Third, a forward-deployed hospital ship would be more available to contribute to multilateral and bilateral exercises throughout Asia, further bolstering both American leadership and regional stability. Allies and partners in Southeast Asia frequently reference their need to find a balance between China and the United States in Asia. Having a hospital ship present for even more military exercises will increase the benefit to all involved.
There are certainly costs to forward-deploying a hospital ship to Asia – especially at a time when new costs are unwelcome in within a Pentagon looking to operate with fewer resources. Personnel costs would rise from having a fully staffed ship on deployment for most of the year and the Navy’s maintenance budget would be further stretched, but the costs would be outweighed by the benefits. The ship could receive maintenance and repairs in facilities within the Asia-Pacific, such as Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, which bolsters important and burgeoning relationships and is already used by other Military Sealift Command ships.
If deploying a hospital ship proves unsustainable, the U.S. Navy should investigate such options as bolstering medical and HA/DR components to mobile landing platforms (MLPs) and other Afloat Forward Staging Bases (AFSBs) to be forward-deployed to Southeast Asia, along with increased pre-positioning of supplies throughout the region to achieve its goals.
Saving lives in a disaster-prone region is important, but assurance, influence and regional stability are on the line as well. The United States and China are cooperating with one another on HA/DR missions, with the U.S. recently hosting Chinese troops in Hawaii, and those exercises should continue as boosting military-military cooperation and competing for influence are not mutually exclusive. Improved capabilities enable a more effective response to disasters and reassure countries that the U.S. and China are not destined for conflict. However, leadership and perception will continue to matter and in an increasingly important region like the Asia-Pacific, the U.S. will need to maintain momentum behind the rebalancing.
Two of Kerry’s goals for his trip to the Philippines were to enhance people-to-people relations and to “discuss how the United States can continue to contribute to the relief and reconstruction work.” The United States can make great strides toward achieving those aims by continually improving its capabilities in the region for HA/DR missions.
Zachary M. Hosford is the Bacevich Fellow in the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. He can be reached at [email protected].