In a Transportation Command hearing on March 8, lawmakers criticized the Navy’s plan to retire one of its two hospital ships, either the Mercy or the Comfort, in the 2019 fiscal year budget proposal.

The pressure on the Navy to pass a budget has required making tough decisions about which services it can continue to support, according to Air Force Gen. Darren McDew, commander of the U.S. Transportation Command.

“I’m a big fan of hospital ships, because I love the fact that we can help injured and ill members,” said McDew. “But I’ll tell you, for every one hospital ship we’re short, we’re going to have a requirement for 479 air-refueling tankers.”

Lawmakers pushed back on the proposal, citing hospital ships as an important source for domestic and international humanitarian aid during times of mass casualty.

A makeshift sign made by USNS Comfort mariners pointed the way to the ship for medical care for local residents in Pascagoula, Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. (Gillian Brigham)
A makeshift sign made by USNS Comfort mariners pointed the way to the ship for medical care for local residents in Pascagoula, Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. (Gillian Brigham)

“United States Navy Hospital Ship Comfort deployed to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi in 2005 to respond to Katrina,” said Rep. Trent Kelly, of Mississippi. “In 12 days, the medical crew there provided care and medical treatment that was sorely needed by the residents in my state, and the emergency workers in Mississippi and Louisiana.”

Rep. Austin Scott of Georgia also called the decision a “strategic mistake” that lessens U.S. soft power around the world, and instead called for more ships to be built.

“I was recently in Djibouti and noticed that the Chinese actually had a hospital ship in port over there, and they’re delivering services,” said Scott. “For the U.S. to pull back on that soft power side, I think it’s just a — I think it’s a strategic mistake for us.

According to Kelly, there is also a national security requirement for two ships to respond to mass casualties.

“If the requirement is two, we have to have two or either we have to be screaming loudly,” said Kelly. “We have an obligation to our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, and also the civilians across this world…Because there will come a time when we need that and we need to always be ready.”