Volumetrics and strategic effect

Brian Stewart, formerly Senior Correspondent for CBC’s national news programme “The National” and now Distinguished Senior Fellow with the Munk Centre at the University of Toronto, filed a report on 10 February about the performance of the navy in response to the Haitian earthquake.  You can read his report here.

Stewart’s report comments favourably on the rapidity of the navy’s response and the work done by HMC Ships Athabaskan and Halifax.  He notes that Athabaskan provided an on-scene command capability until an on-shore facility could be established. Stewart writes: “[The ships] gave the Harper government its most effective means to respond in the first weeks as airborne relief remained severely restricted by the limited landing space in Haiti.”

However, Stewart also wrote “Canada's maritime response to a disaster of this magnitude should have been considerably larger — and would have been — if only the navy had the right mix of ships, which it demonstrably does not have today.”  He argues that the capacity of the ships is “positively puny” and that a larger ship is needed to move the enormous volume of supplies needed to respond to these large emergencies around the globe. “These vessels [the destroyer and frigate] can carry a few hundred tonnes of supply, where many thousands are needed.” Stewart laments that the Joint Support Ships still “languish on the drawing board.”

The Joint Support Ships would indeed be large enough to move cargo or vehicles or both in sufficient quantities to make a major difference in a situation like Haiti.  But, the main criticism of the ship design is that they would be too big (the biggest ships ever built for the navy) and that the cost estimates were too high for what was sought.  So, what size of ships can deliver a volume of cargo that would still have a positive influence?

Here is some data for what one 10,000-ton cargo ship build in Canada in the 1940’s could carry:

  • enough food stuff to feed 225,000 people in the U.K. for a week or;
  • enough military vehicles to equip one infantry battalion or;
  • enough bombs to load 950 medium or 225 heavy bombers or;
  • enough aluminum to built 740 fighters; plus, carried as deck cargo:
  • two medium bomber aircraft; and
  • sufficient lumber to build 94 four-bedroom houses.

(Source: Behrens, Merchant Shipping and the Demands of War, (London, UK: HMSO and Longmans, Green and Co. 1955).)

Canadian shipyards built 354 such 10,000-ton, 10-knot cargo ships during the war.

The historical example shows that the size of the vessel does not need to be great nor does its cost need to be very high for it to be capable of achieving significant contributions to a Disaster Relief or a Humanitarian Assistance mission.  Probably more important than the size of the ship is the speed at which it can move between the point of origin and the destination, since lives hang in the balance, and the rate at which it can unload.  Ships of this type often carried landing craft as ‘deck cargo’.  The ship in the example was quite slow but it had the advantage of derrick cranes for self-unloading.  Responding to a crisis being part of the mandate for a capability suggests a higher speed should be part of the design criteria and that is cannot be merely a ‘floating box’.

The Haitian situation reinforces the value of being able to self-unload and for having some autonomous means for moving cargo ashore.  Life-saving cargo that is left floating offshore is just as useless as cargo in an aircraft unable to land at the airport.

The Joint Support Ship, because of the requirement for the ship to be quickly convertible for a number of different missions, looses a degree of the volumetric capacity that a ship of that size would otherwise possess.  (Read a critical assessment of the JSS here.) For an alternative view on how to achieve a JSS-like capability, see the article by Dave Mugridge entitled “An Affordable JSS for Canada.”