RFA_Argus_off_the_coast_of_DevonportIt will be quite interesting to see how the UK’s amphibious shipping/hospital ship hybrid, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Argus (A135), does in projecting biomedical support ashore in Sierra Leone.

The ship is perfect for operations in an infectious environment–it is a 100-bed hospital ward, equipped to accept contaminated casualties, lashed to a right-sized aviation detachment, a strong water purification plant and a good, old-fashioned ro-ro platform. For projecting biomedical support into a relatively secure infectious disease-challenged environment, there’s really nothing better. This ship–or, at a minimum, it’s notional Sierra Leone CONOPS–should be eyed as a model for America’s as-yet-unfunded Mercy Class replacement initative–the T-AH(X) Program.

The T-AH(X) you ask? Why, it’d be a great add-on to that LX(R) program–you know, that LSD-41/49 replacement project that’ll now apparently grow out of the LPD-17 hull (Not to complicate things, but I think the LX(R) will end up being what LPD-17 should have been if rational people had actually kept the original LPD-17 program from sprawling all over the place). But now that the T-AHs have been included in the combat fleet, it’s time to really start discussing their impeding replacement, and find a way to fit new ones into the U.S. naval shipbuilding plan.

But I digress.

11.30.11.Marad-designRFA Argus is another in the UK’s long line of interesting experiments with cost-effective ro-ro conversions (and the “harbinger of naval decline!” holler the wags), but, the RFA Argus has undeniably done yeoman service for the UK. Pressed into a range of roles after the Falklands and Gulf Wars, the ship’s day job is to serve as an aviation training platform. But, transformed into a casualty-receiving ship (a modification that was quickly done in the run-up to the first Gulf War), RFA Argus resolves many of the challenges that hamstring the USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort–aside from being more ready to handle numbers of contaminated casualties than American hospital ships, RFA Argus is smaller and more useful–it is less than half the size of America’s converted oil tankers/floating hospitals, has far better ability to support rotary wing craft and receive casualties from helicopters, and has Ro-Ro capability, which, again, makes for a far more relevant platform.

America has never really figured out how their great hospital ships (the old metric was that they were tied for, oh, like the fifth largest trauma units in the nation) would provide for 1,000 casualties. The Lehman-era Navy built these floating hospitals to be little more than floating “monuments”, without really thinking through how these platforms would work as a cohesive system. I mean, a top-tier thousand-bed trauma hospital is great, but…how do we man ‘em?  How do we manage ingress/egress? Where do we moor it? The devil is in the details, and it’s the details that really compromised the utility of these two grand-scale hospital ships.

And for combatting Ebola? Sure, the USNS Mercy and Comfort could do it, but I suspect that there’s only a fraction of the total beds aboard prepared to handle infectious disease patients. And if I was being radical–and, say, being pushed to provide naval resources from, say, an angry, resource-hungry Ebola Czar–I’d suggest that while containing Ebola aboard the ship is hard, it isn’t exactly a challenge that would sideline the ship–it’s the far more easily aerosolized diseases like Tuberculosis make the USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort less-than-optimal receiving vessels for biomedical emergencies in the developing world. (This may have changed over the course of some refits, but, in the main, if I were Master of the Mercy, I’d just want to stick with treating plain-vanilla trauma patients from a more-developed area.) In a true WMD situation, USNS Mercy and Comfort are probably of little use.

But the RFA Argus is a different story. This ship is going to show up off Sierra Leone, tie up, promptly disgorge a fleet of ruggedized Toyota Pickups, and employ it’s helo detachment to support disease surveillance and treatment center establishment/resupply, while providing high-level secure care aboard ship. It’s perfect for supporting operations in a disease-challenged environment.

And that–supporting operations in a disease-challenged environment–is a mission we need to get serious about.

100811-N-4044H-030Is DOD Serious About Operating In A WMD-Challenged Environment?

Over the past ten years the DOD’s focus has been more upon the sexy idea of counterproliferation, while the challenge of actually operating in a WMD-impacted environment has been, well, kinda handed off to Homeland Defense and civilian authorities. Until recently, verbiage related to counterproliferation has dominated our strategic documents, while operations in WMD-impacted areas…get sentence or two at best.

Operating in a disease-impacted, chemical-impacted or radiologically-contaminated area is hard, and I fear we have let our preference for action and kinetic approaches like “counterproliferation” sap DOD’s investment in gear and strategies that might better enable operations in a challenging environment. And that, in this era of A2/AD warfare, is a problem.

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061112115739_Rooney_JoannLook, I’ve been a big cheerleader for SECNAV Ray Mabus getting a full bench of rough-and-tumble Navy Department Managers, and an advocate for increasing the proportion of females working in defense leadership roles, but enough is enough.

As Defense News’ Chris Cavas hints, it is high time for the long-stalled nominee for Navy Undersecretary, Jo Ann Rooney, to withdraw, and to let somebody else have a chance at the post.

And the White House should get off it’s fanny and expedite getting another nominee to Congress.

Time is a’wasting. Robert Work has demonstrated that the Navy’s “Number Two” post can be a developmental position, a “Springboard” where future defense leaders cut their bureaucratic teeth before moving on to future defense leadership opportunities.

And the White House staff, rather than frittering for a year, working to find and vet “boutique” female appointees for defense spots (which–compounding the problem–the White House Staff hasn’t done well), should grit their teeth and nominate folks (even relatively unconventional nominees who have future leadership potential) to get their open positions filled. They need to shift focus and nominate those who can do the Democratic Party good service over the long-term as defense leaders. The time for social engineering at the appointee level is over–President Obama has won his second term, so, honestly, he can put aside some of his campaign commitments (like he’s done with, say, Guantanamo).

With Jo Ann Rooney, it is time to end the flawed nomination and nominate somebody. Anybody. Heck, at this point, the Democratic equivalent of a Ham Sandwich could quickly get nominated–if only to put this sorry Jo Ann Rooney episode in the rear view mirror.

Look. Right now, the White House should be racing–racing–to fill open appointee slots at the Pentagon. Every single open post should have a name attached to it by now. Instead, the White House….is operating in slow motion. It takes a year to nominate somebody, then it accepts Congressional slow-rolling of the nominee, and then lets folks sorta…fester in nominee limbo. That’s not right for the nominee

It’s also not good for the Democratic Party.  And, frankly, the Nation.

The Democratic Defense community is starved of voices, and the Democratic Party–for it’s own long-term health–needs a wider set of views than are available from the two somewhat warring (Frienemy-esque?) camps of Democratic Defense Expertise–the Camp Obama Pragmatists and the Hillary Clinton enthusiasts of the Samantha Power “Responsibility To Protect” school or the understated Michele Flournoy “My Mission is the QDR” uh, movement.

The Democratic Party needs more adherents with solid Defense experience, and you sure as heck don’t build that body of experience by letting open political appointee slots go unfilled– because somebody at the White House–like Valerie Jarett–is pushing the President’s mandate to grow the ranks of female Defense appointees in an unhealthy, unsustainable fashion.

It’s time to put idealism aside and be pragmatic. With Defense still seen as a underlying Democratic Party weakness, the goal for Democrats should be in building a thriving, vibrant community of competent leaders. And that means filling ALL THE REMAINING PENTAGON APPOINTEE SLOTS ASAP. Regardless of sex, race or recorded Obama/Clinton affinity. It does the Party good to have Democrats appointed in positions where they can either wield their newly-established defense “cred” or positioned to burrow into the Pentagon bureaucracy so they can build a better power-base within the building. In the long-term, that’ll be how you change the nature of the place. That’s how you’ll see more females entering into the Defense Department ranks.

And, despite my hopes that we could tolerate a non-traditional Navy Undersecretary, the continued hopeless support of Jo Ann Rooney ain’t helping–she lacks the charisma to develop as a defense leader, and certainly lacks the grit needed to shepherd her hearing through to a favorable completion.

330px-SenatorGillibrandpicPut bluntly, this nomination should have been pulled the moment Jo Ann Rooney failed to appropriately respond to up-and-coming Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-NY) challenge (Even though some Democrats don’t want to give Senator Gillibrand a win or any extra oxygen–she’s a future Democratic party heavyweight regardless of what Senator Reid or Hillary Clinton may think). When Gillibrand jumped in, Rooney–after her anemic damage control effort–was done.

And if Jo Ann Rooney lacked the intestinal fortitude to withdraw to “spend more time with family”, then surely Ray Mabus or Jo Ann’s champion in the White House staff should step up and pop this non-functional trial balloon.

The Democratic Party needs a stronger voice in Defense policy. And, while it may be a painful process in admitting defeat and starting anew with a high-profile Pentagon nomination, the alternative of keeping the office empty, depriving some other Democrat a chance to build their defense “chops” is not an answer either.

Let’s give Ray Mabus a full bench. The Navy and Nation need it.

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A Focus On The Basics Will Save Naval Ship Procurement

October 2, 2014

The American habit of cramming the functions of four to five legacy ship classes into a single, bespoke multifunction hull is–for now–over. With the U.S. fleet operating only a handful of core classes, and looking at one-for-one replacements of existing platforms (at best), the U.S. Navy is now free to get back to focusing on […]

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A Liberian Lesson For the Department of Defense

September 22, 2014

As the Africa-centric components of the Department of Defense turn from their normal terrorist-whacking duties to engage Western Africa’s Ebola fight (a disease outbreak which, sadly, seems to have taken the Pentagon somewhat by surprise), it’s worth taking a moment to remind the Department of Defense that Liberia is the only country in recent memory […]

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UCLASS: Bob Work Is Right to Reach for The High-End Solution

September 2, 2014

The fight over the Navy’s next-generation unmanned asset, the UCLASS, continues, with, as USNI’s Sam Lagrone reports, another delay: The final request for proposal (RFP) for the Navy’s planned carrier-based unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) has been delayed pending a review of the service’s information, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) portfolio as part of the service’s budget […]

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Israel: A Future Sub Builder?

August 20, 2014

In the race to keep up with neighboring navies, Israel has taken a prudent middle course, developing indigenous solutions for low-end craft, and reaching out to other nations to provide more complex ships and submarines. Though Israel has done very, very well buying ships and subs overseas–Israel will, within the next few years, begin the […]

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Will A Shipyard Fire Burn All Aluminum Warships?

August 14, 2014

A catastrophic shipyard fire that, by all accounts, destroyed Australia’s all-aluminum HMAS Bundaburg (ACPB-91), one of Australia’s 14 useful–yet oft-maligned–Armidale Class patrol boats, will reignite debate over the survivability of aluminum warships. When the public finally sees the melted, burned-out remains of HMAS Bundaburg (photos that will likely be dramatic, given that the fire was not […]

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Appreciate China’s Big New Seaplane

August 7, 2014

A good deal of polite Western snickering met the announcement that China was on the verge of building large seaplanes–an “old technology”, scoffed the haters, whose “heyday came and went with the demise of the Pan Am Trans-Oceanic Clipper”. But at least one Chinese aviation commentator dispensed a bit of wisdom for the doubters: “The […]

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In Press: Talking Mines in the Taipei Times

August 5, 2014

The Taipei Times, in a friendly gesture, used my story on China’s recent mine warfare exercises in the South China Sea to advance some wider discussion mine warfare in China’s near seas. Here’s my bit: Craig Hooper, a former teacher at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, has reported that the Chinese navy conducted […]

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Nonproliferation’s Big Week

August 2, 2014

A week after I worried that the American public had forgotten about nuclear threats and had allowed their fear of nuclear weapons to recede, nonproliferation had quite a week. John Oliver, in his HBO program Last Week Tonight, did his part to raise American awareness of nuclear warfare, devoting about half of his show to […]

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