Special Report

A Great White Fleet for the 21st Century

Disaster relief -- and America's sense of itself -- require nothing less.

By 3.18.11

Send to Kindle

The size of the Japanese disaster makes relief efforts look woefully puny; humanity needs more powerful tools to deliver aid. More quakes will come, some larger, and most nations will need far more help than well-prepared Japan.

Since most of the world's population lives near the shoreline, bringing the required level of aid to bear is properly a naval mission. Already two U.S. Navy landing ships and a command ship are on scene in Japan, and about a dozen more Navy ships are arrive day by day. The 40,000-ton assault ships are suited to disaster relief with their flight decks and amphibious capabilities -- not to mention their Marine Corps complements.

But the role to be played by our two, 100,000-ton nuclear-powered super-carriers, the USS George Washington and USS Ronald Reagan will be immense, even out of proportion to their displacement. These are superb vessels for disaster intervention.

As a former naval officer, I am awed by the capabilities of these ships. As a student of naval history, I also remember Teddy Roosevelt's Great White Fleet, with its demonstration of power and peaceful purpose, and I believe we should combine the super-carrier and fleet concepts for a new, humanitarian mission.

The First Fleet

Every sailor knows that the original Great White Fleet of sixteen battleships sailed on an around-the-world goodwill mission in 1907 at the direction of President Roosevelt. It demonstrated that while the United States had attained global reach, and that while its sea power might worry others, America's intentions were peaceful. The Fleet's white color scheme symbolized not surrender, but purity of purpose in an idealistic time.

The United States can reaffirm its ideals in this century with a new Great White Fleet. The U.S. Navy has inactive super-carriers which could easily, even relatively inexpensively, be converted to disaster-relief ships. We should do this because we are America: Americans would rather save nations than destroy them, because The Fleet would demonstrate American compassion in the wake of disaster, and because America is the only nation that can.

Natural disasters like those in Haiti, Chile, Pakistan, New Zealand, China, and Japan strain national and local resources to the breaking point. Immediate needs range from fresh water, food and shelter to medical supplies and care, to electricity, transport, heavy construction equipment, and almost every other civilized necessity. A converted super-carrier -- with its size, flight deck, and carrying capacity -- is the perfect vessel to deliver massive amounts of aid to a disaster-stricken city or country. And because these carriers are among the fastest ships afloat, the aid would get their when needed.

We have three idle super-carriers, tied to piers, awaiting decommissioning but still serviceable, plus one, the USS Enterprise, due to go inactive in 2013.

We should turn these ships into a Great White Fleet for the twenty-first century and give it a humanitarian mission. TR's ghost would flash his toothy grin, and our country's pride and prestige would get a terrific boost.

What Could a Super-Carrier Do?

Many quake-stricken Haitians remember the arrival of the super-carrier USS Carl Vinson as a sign of hope restored. Many Japanese will probably see the USS George Washington, now in Tokyo Bay, and the USS Ronald Reagan the same way.

These ships can supply, for example, 400,000 gallons of fresh water daily; they can deliver large amounts of electrical power to an area where more than a million people lack it. They can carry food and medical supplies, feed thousands from their mess facilities, and supply landing space for helicopters on logistical and rescue runs. They can act as hospital ships, and also supply trained crew members for rescue work. But that's just the beginning; they could do far more than that. In reality, they are limited only by the imaginations of their expert, inventive crews and the requirements of the population in need.

Now imagine what a demilitarized version of one of these super-ships could do; freed of it's usual military load-out, a super-carrier could become a floating city, carrying mountains of supplies ranging from antibiotics to picks, shovels, and everything in between. We still remember the many days it took to airlift meaningful amounts of supplies to Haiti; a single super-carrier might satisfy all needs in a single trip. Thus, a converted super-carrier, especially with a few shallow-draft support vessels, would be the best relief ship possible.

First, they could carry vast amounts of food and medicine. Holds formerly dedicated to military stores and aviation fuel could be restructured as warehouses, living quarters, and hospital facilities for the homeless and injured. On their hangar decks, they could carry quantities of heavy construction equipment -- cranes, bulldozers, backhoes, cement mixers, portable generators -- to aid in rescue, rubble removal, and initial reconstruction. They could carry larger diesel power plants for onshore use and the fuel to power them.

Just as importantly, because communications is one of the first things to fail in a natural disaster, and one of the most necessary to recovery, the super-ships could carry telephones and cell-phone towers, laptop computers, wireless Internet gear, satellite ground stations, thousands of civil and police walkie-talkies -- everything needed to restore life-saving, efficient communications. Even the most devastated city would be relinked to the world even as the super-carrier neared port.

The non-nuclear USS Kitty Hawk and USS Constellation are presently floating at pier-side in Bremerton, WA, and the USS John F. Kennedy is on donation hold in Philadelphia awaiting conversion into a museum ship. Those carriers could be made available quickly for demilitarization and modification. Since they are oil-burning ships, their power-generation capabilities eventually would be limited by their bunker capacity, but the Navy has tankers for that. Surpassed only by the nearly endless electrical generating capacity of a nuclear carrier, they could handle the mission perfectly. And since they are already on the inactive list, their conversion would not diminish the Navy's readiness.

Deploying The Great White Fleet

Where would we station them? We should follow the military practice of pre-positioning; fill them with the necessities and station them around the world so that they would be available where needed as soon as possible. I'd port one in Pearl Harbor to cover the Pacific Rim (including our own West Coast), another at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to cover East Africa, South Asia, and Australia, and a third in Mayport, FL, to cover the North Atlantic. A fourth, when available, could be located in Argentina or Brazil, allowing for a quick dash along the coast, around Cape Horn, or across the South Atlantic to West Africa.

Except for caretaker crews, just enough to get underway and man the flight deck, most personnel (largely civilian) could remain stateside until needed, and be flown to the ships en route aboard US Navy COD transports. Because the ships would usually be idle, staffing and maintenance cost would be low, just as with today's forward-deployed supply ships.

Of course, one question is “Where will the money come from?” Among them America's billionaires, most with some claim to philanthropy, could afford to convert and supply four disaster-relief super-carriers. After all, they would not be paying to build these ships from the keel up. Also remember that when the Persians were coming, Athenian merchants put up the money to build the triremes that defeated them. That's a tradition worth reviving.

Barring that, make this an international program with every coastal nation contributing a fair share.

Meanwhile, imagine the USS Kitty Hawk, the JFK, the Constellation -- or the iconic USS Enterprise with its eight nuclear reactors -- gleaming, demilitarized, converted for disaster intervention, and painted a blinding white sailing into some shattered port to save lives, heal the injured, feed the hungry, house the homeless, clear the wreckage, and help restore both power and civilization.

I can't imagine a better second career for any retired warrior; it would be in the highest tradition of American morality and the U.S. Navy. And not only would Roosevelt's ghost approve, but the hundreds of thousands The Fleet could rescue would appreciate one of America's greatest strengths, its idealism.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Thirty years a journalist and writer about high technology, James B. Brinton served as a Naval Officer in the Navy's Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarine program. His duties involved communications, intelligence, and support of advanced navigation technology. He studied physics under Dr. E. U. Condon, a member of the Manhattan Project team. He lives near the sea in New England.