The U.S. Navy’s $500 million ship that’s ready for disaster in a warmer world

December 9, 2015
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The USNS Lewis B. Puller. COURTESY OF GENERAL DYNAMICS/NASSCO

Culturally, the U.S. military is a fairly conservative organization. But unlike many other conservative American institutions, the armed services harbor no doubt about arguably the most important issue in the world today — one that has drawn experts, advocates and leaders from all over the world to Paris for an historic conference.

Climate change.

The military believes in it. And it’s already preparing for a world with a climate that’s hotter, more volatile and more destructive. It is evident in the armed forces’ investment in solar energy to power their bases and in their experimentation with renewable, non-petroleum “bio-fuels.”

And the Defense Department’s commitment to addressing climate change is also apparent in the kinds of equipment it buys. Today, the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company, part of defense giant General Dynamics, is building a new ship for the Navy that’s ideal for dealing with the consequences of a warmer, more volatile world.

The $500-million Expeditionary Mobile Base vessel — 784 feet long from bow to stern — combines all the most important features the military believes ships will need to respond to the more frequent and more severe natural disasters.

A modified version of a commercial oil tanker, the base ship boasts vast storage capacity for hauling emergency supplies, a huge flight deck for launching and landing helicopters and other aircraft, and plenty of internal space for people and medical facilities. By deliberately taking on water, the Montford Point-class “Expeditionary Mobile Base” can bring its lower deck level with the sea, allowing it to easily launch hovercraft and small boats. Observers have described the new ships as “ports at sea.”

The Navy originally intended the Montford Point class to support amphibious beach assaults, but the sailing branch now realizes the ships are also ideal for swiftly responding to natural disasters — including those worsened by climate change — by delivering relief supplies by air and by sea, as well as helping to care for victims.

The Navy already owns three Montford Point-class vessels, each with a crew of 34 civilian contractors. The fourth is under construction and the Navy plans to build a fifth starting in 2016. The ships could stay very busy in coming decades, if recent experience is any indication. Since 2004, the U.S. military — and the Navy, in particular — has frequently deployed planes, ships and troops in response to natural disasters.

Following the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of 2004, the Navy deployed 29 ships. Thirty-four vessels represented the sea service’s contribution to recovery efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. When a magnitude 7.0 earthquake rocked Haiti in 2010, killing more than 200,000 people, the Navy sent 31 ships. The vessels sent in rescue helicopters, shuttled ashore water, medicine and other supplies and offered treatment and refuge to the injured and displaced.

Not coincidentally, those are all tasks the Montford Point ships can handle with aplomb.

A warming world could mean more, and worse, disasters … and more demand for ships. “As climate change affects the availability of food and water, human migration and competition for natural resources, the [Defense] Department’s unique capability to provide logistical, material and security assistance on a massive scale or in rapid fashion may be called upon with increasing frequency,” then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel wrote in a 2014 briefing.

Not long after the Navy’s ships had returned from Haiti operations, the government-sponsored National Research Council studied military disaster-relief efforts. The researchers’ conclusion was a boon to the Montford Point-class ships, then known as “Mobile Landing Platforms.”

“The U.S. Navy, as a forward-deployed force, is in position to reach disaster relief sites faster than other agencies and will almost assuredly experience increased demand for assistance if disasters increase due to climate change,” the Council stated in its official report. The researchers specifically urged the Pentagon to boost construction of “new military or commercial platforms like the Mobile Landing Platform.”

Sure enough, the Navy quickly doubled down on the Montford Point class of base ships. The original plan was for the sailing branch to acquire just three of the vessels. By 2015, the new plan was for five. “One could easily envision this ship serving as a repair ship, a hospital ship, an aviation depot/support ship,” Rear Adm. Mark Buzby, head of the Navy’s sealift command, said of the Montford Point in 2013. “It’s 800 feet of ‘use your imagination.’”

But the Navy doesn’t have to use its imagination. Despite politically motivated skepticism among many Americans regarding climate change, the military knows that the planet is getting warmer and more dangerous. It knows it will be spending more time and resources dealing with disasters that climate change has made more frequent and severe. Thanks in part to the giant vessel under construction in San Diego and her sister ships, the Navy is getting ready for a warmer world.

13 comments

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Our politicians who are suppose to lead, now need to follow the Navy’s lead.

The politicians then need to resolve climate change influenced by man.

Posted by Flash1022 | Report as abusive

1) This is a USNS (US Naval Ship) which belongs to the Military Sealift Command, a civilian merchant ship directly supporting th eNavy.

2) The US Navy most definitely did not buy/build 3 (up to 6) up to these with the intent of climate change. It’s exactly as described, a mobile expeditionary floating base concept.

Stop trying to spin a couple of quotes from the Admiral as a plug for climate change. The Us Navy often responds to natural disasters across the world because we are a humanitarian/charitable nation, and has done so for decades.

Posted by Raiders12 | Report as abusive

The Navy is a fighting force with no business planning to go into the disaster savior business. If Americans want to build disaster relief vessels then fine. But keep the Navy military.

Flash1022 is clueless.
Raiders12 is spot on.

Posted by Bookfan | Report as abusive

From the USN:

” The U.S. Navy is globally postured to secure our homeland and citizens from direct attack and to advance our interests around the world. Our core capabilities of forward presence, deterrence, sea control, power projection, maritime security, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief create a fast, flexible, and responsive global force for good.
The Navy is committed to improving energy security and environmental stewardship by reducing reliance on fossil fuels. The Navy is actively developing and participating in energy, environmental and climate change initiatives that will increase use of alternative energy and help conserve the world’s resources for future generations.”

http://greenfleet.dodlive.mil/home/

Posted by Radfo | Report as abusive

ready for disaster?

with 37 unionized civilians? that’s going to work until a light bulb on board burns out – they’ll have to return to a shipyard for technical assistance.

there’s a reason the Navy used to have sailors….

Posted by Breadie | Report as abusive

Bookfan,
Last week I attended a lecture by Admiral Titley, who stated part of the cause of the Syrian conflict and refugee movement is global warming.

That the military is preparing for more populations shifts, conflicts, and contested artic passages due to global warming.

A civilian organization does not have the resources, the capacity, or the equipment to aid in such conflicts.

I know, I know more than yourself.

Posted by Flash1022 | Report as abusive

“Climate change”, to use their latest term, would not result in more variable weather. What used to be called the greenhouse effect would result in less variable weather but warmer temperatures. This idea that climate change causes volatile weather is just the latest ploy on the part of ideologues to persuade everyone as to the wisdom of their policy plans for energy, like wind mills and solar panels. This sort of thing has worked for tiny countries like Norway that don’t really have to pay for their own defense.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

This is not evidence that the Navy believes in Climate Change. It is evidence than the Obama appointees who dictate the politics in the Pentagon embrace Climate Change.

Posted by dencal26 | Report as abusive

Dencal26,

Knowing a person in the Command I can assure you all the military is gearing up for increasing climate change.

It will not change with another administration.

Posted by Flash1022 | Report as abusive

Our world is in a global mess. Good thing those of us that are not part of the system believe in God and don’t worry to try and solve the worlds problems knowing our creator has control.

Posted by Rose01 | Report as abusive

500 Million is an amazing Bargain….Thank you General Dynamics…I see fighter jets selling for three times that….this will be my final comment today!

Posted by DJSanDiego | Report as abusive

Here is another theory. The Navy is interested in the flow of oil. Its current presence in the South China Sea is due to that flow. The use of fuels other than oil will keep the Navy going even during a temporary shortage. Reducing your dependence on one fuel type is strategic. To suggest that putting up a few solar panels is going to do anything to advert climate change is absurd. A stronger link to a belief of climate change would be a design proof of stronger ships to combat more serious weather. The Navy now having ships that look like oil tankers and you think climate change?

Posted by Mazer | Report as abusive

The climate changes. It always has.

No one disputes that.

Posted by Nate_Higgers | Report as abusive