I’ve written about hospital ships before. Since then, I have privately wondered if there was a combat-casualty role for them in the modern world of sophisticated forward combat care hospitals and air transport to evacuate the most severe combat casualties to the highest levels of care. Moreover, big gray ships are increasingly being fitted out with sophisticated medical capabilities. In my posting on hospital ships, I mentioned the German Berlin-class Fleet Support Ship as an example. US amphibious ships, intended to provide support for Marine Corps operations, are all fitted out for surgery; the new USS America (LHA 6) will have expanded medical spaces in view with her capability to take on casualties by helicopter evacuation.(1) With this apparent move away from big white ships with big red crosses, whither hospital ships?
Enter the PLAN’s Peace Ark. This bwswbrc, the only Type 920 Hospital Ship in the Chinese inventory, possibly the only active PLAN hospital ship of any class, made a dramatic appearance at the recently concluded RIMPAC 2014 exercises. The Naval Institute news blog carried a nice article on the ship on 23 July.(2) Featured was Senior Captain Sun Tao, identified as the officer in charge of the ship’s medical detachment. Captain Sun told his interviewers that, when not under way, the ship carries a crew of 113 and a 20 person medical detachment. When at sea, the crew would increase to 300+ and the medical detachment to around 100.
While capable of receiving war casualties by helicopter, boat or high line, it appears that the ship has been used mainly for humanitarian / public affairs visits since it was first deployed beyond Chinese waters in 2010. Her most recent overseas activity was a humanitarian mission to the Philippines after super typhoon Haiyan.
The ship is fitted out with 8 operating rooms, 20 intensive care beds and 300 general care beds. Apparently, much of her medical gear is manufactured by the Dutch firm Phillips. She is equipped with an ultrasound suite, and CT and x-ray
capabilities. Interestingly, even her life boats are equipped to handle up to 18 stretchers or 24 ambulatory patients. Captain Sun showed off a gynecological examining room; this was a space, he said, that was particularly useful during humanitarian missions.
Given that navies of the world are apparently building ever more med-surg capability into big gray ships that are capable of protecting themselves against terrorist attacks, one is left wondering if hospital ships have any military utility at all. On the other hand, the dramatic good-will advertising power of a big white ship with big red crosses showing up in times of humanitarian need, makes the civilian utility of such vessels pretty obvious.
©2014 Thomas L Snyder, MD
(1) Defense Media Network Article “USS America (LHA 6) – a different kind of gator”, accessed 2014August06
(2) USNI News Article “Peace Ark: Onboard China’s Hospital Ship”, accessed 2014July24