Why doesn’t Canada have a military hospital ship?
By LCdr (ret’d) Tim McDermott
Several countries (including Bolivia, Brazil, Cameroon, Chile, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Peru, Russia, Spain, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam) operate vessels dedicated to providing medical aid and assistance. Additionally, Germany and Great Britain have military vessels that are designed to be rapidly reconfigured to act as hospital ships. Further, the international charity Mercy Ships operates a private hospital ship, the M/V Africa Mercy. Individually and collectively, they provide assistance, aid, and treatment to those in need.
A hospital ship is a potent instrument of international policy, diplomacy, humanitarianism, and soft power. It can provide humanitarian assistance during a disaster, advanced medical treatment, services, and medical training in developing countries. It can also operate in conflict areas (where Canadian military forces cannot) as a hospital ship is internationally protected in accordance with Protocol 1 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949.
Both China and the U.S. deployed hospital ships to the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013; the U.S. deployed one to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and to Aceh, Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami. Great Britain deployed its Royal Fleet Auxiliary Casualty Reception Ship to Sierra Leone in 2015 in response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
In a domestic context, a hospital ship can augment or replace provincial medical infrastructure during a disaster, and it can provide alternate treatment facilities and hospital beds during the outbreak of highly infectious pathogens. Further, a Canadian hospital ship could contribute to Canadian development and expansion in the Arctic by providing advanced medical care to remote northern communities, which are currently medically underserved. In 2005 the U.S. deployed its two hospital ships, USNS Mercy and Comfort, to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to provide alternate advanced medical capabilities to those facilities that were damaged in the hurricane. USNS Mercy was also deployed to after 9/11 to supplement the existing medical infrastructure in New York City.
Unlike field hospitals operated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other non-governmental organizations, or deployable emergency response units such as Canada’s Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) and volunteer Heavy Urban Search and Rescue (HUSAR) teams, hospital ships require little in terms of support from a host country and they are relatively easy to support logistically.
A hospital ship is inherently mobile. It is capable of deploying around the world and is self-sufficient when it reaches its destination. Further, a hospital ship (and embarked patients and staff) can easily be moved in the face of a natural or man-made threat. A hospital ship can be pre-positioned to areas such as the Caribbean during hurricane season in the same way that Canada currently deploys warships.
A hospital ship provides its own power, air conditioning, heat, fresh water, food, medical oxygen, stores and medical supplies as well as safe, comfortable and secure accommodations and workspace for medical staff. A hospital ship can accommodate advanced medical diagnostic equipment such as MRIs, X-ray equipment, surgical suites, etc. and can operate advanced medical equipment in controlled environmental conditions.
When not deployed, a hospital ship can be maintained by a skeleton crew while medical staff return to their primary employment. When deployed, medical staff for a hospital ship can be drawn from a variety of sources such as contracted personnel, volunteers, non-governmental organizations, as well as from the Canadian Armed Forces. Further, medical staff can be flown to meet a forward deployed hospital ship only when the hospital is activated by the Canadian government. Medical personnel can be rotated in and out of theatre as required, thus allowing more opportunities for medical professionals to find time to serve on board a Canadian hospital ship.
Currently, there are a number of relatively new and inexpensive cruise ships available for sale or lease on the commercial market that could easily be converted into a hospital ship configuration. Several Canadian shipyards have the capacity to convert a cruise ship into a hospital ship. Furthermore, a hospital ship project could have regional benefits for shipyards that did not receive any of the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (NSPS) projects, as acquiring and refitting a hospital ship could be done without affecting the construction of Canadian Coast Guard and Royal Canadian Navy projects. Much of the specialized medical equipment could be sourced through Canadian companies, contributing to the Canadian economy. Further, the purchase and conversion of a commercial ship to a hospital ship design (like the Chantier Davie conversion of a container ship to serve as a Royal Canadian Navy auxiliary oil replenishment ship under Project Resolve) could be done quickly.
So, given the inherent value of a national asset like a hospital ship, its contribution to our ability to project soft power, its ability to contribute to Canadian international development and humanitarian response, and its affordability, why doesn’t Canada have a hospital ship?