Navy Tests Amphibious Ships for Domestic Response

The USS Somerset docked in San Francisco on Oct. 8, 2015, as part of Fleet Week. (Photo by Brendan McGarry/Military.com)

SAN FRANCISCO — The U.S. Navy teamed with civilian authorities to test how its ships could help provide humanitarian relief following a domestic emergency such as an earthquake, officials said.

As part of the 35th annual Fleet Week held this week in the city, the sea service conducted exercises that included driving emergency vehicles such as utility trucks onto the USS Somerset (LPD-25), the newest San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock in the fleet.

While the ship is normally used for transporting several hundred Marines and equipment — one Navy public affairs officer described it as “a big bus for Marines” — it can also be used to ferry cargo and supplies after a natural disaster, according to Vice Adm. Nora Tyson, commander of Third Fleet, which is headquartered at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego.

“We brought up on our amphib a lot of equipment that we would have on scene in a disaster-relief scenario,” she said on Friday during an interview with Military.com. “We set up a humanitarian assistance village with some of that equipment so both the first responders and the community can see some of the capabilities that we have.”

When asked what kind of learning lessons the exercise afforded, Tyson said the officials realized that certain preparations need to be made before loading civilian vehicles aboard the ship.

“Specifically, we found out that in the normal operating configuration, you can’t just drive a PG&E truck onto our landing craft, so we had to do a little shoring up, put some wood down, so we could drive the truck on board,” she said. “Just knowing that ahead of time, it’s like, ‘OK, we can do this, we need to ballast down a little bit more, know tide situation.’ That’s what it’s all about, It’s practical experience, and then when you really have to work together, you know that stuff and you don’t heave to learn the hard way.”

Commissioned in 2014, the Somerset is the ninth and most recent operational ship in her class.

The vessel is named after Somerset County, Pennsylvania, to honor the victims of United Airlines Flight 93, which was hijacked during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Passengers aboard the plane are credited with helping to prevent the terrorist from reaching their intended target, the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The ship includes memorials to the victims, including their names listed on the ramp to the well deck, 40 stars on a flag on the flight deck to honor each of the victims, and even a small museum with short biographies of them.

Measuring 684 feet long and 105 feet wide, the ship is designed to carry a maximum of seven small rotorcraft such as the MH-60R/S Sea Hawk or Knighthawk, UH-1 Huey and AH-1 Cobra, including four on the flight deck and three in the hangar bay. Alternatively, it can carry up to two bigger rotorcraft on the flight deck, such as the CH-53 Sea Stallion or the MV-22 Osprey. Unlike the big-deck amphibs, it can’t accommodate jump jets such as the AV-8B Harrier or F-35B Joint Strike Fighter.

The vessel is equipped with defensive weapons, including a pair of Rolling Airframe Missile launchers and a pair of 30mm machine guns. It has a medical facility that includes two surgery rooms, a pharmacy, lab and x-ray room. It also has capacity for numerous tanks, howitzers, amphibious assault vehicles, trucks and small boats.

The Navy plans to buy a dozen of the San Antonio-class ships at a total cost of almost $20.7 billion, according to Pentagon budget documents. The Defense Department’s proposed spending plan for fiscal 2016, which began Oct. 1, includes almost $670 million in remaining funding for LPD-28, the 12th and final ship of the class. The vessels are built by Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc.

Below is the video of our interview with the captain of the Somerset, Capt. Leonard Reed. (If it doesn’t appear, you can watch it here.)

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • PolicyWonk

    Where I understand and consider the idea of using our impressive military assets in the event of a natural disaster along the US shoreline, I wonder if there are any complications regarding military asset usage in an emergency (in this case - natural disaster) scenario in the Posse Comitatus Act?

    Certainly, the conspiracy theory crowd would freak out

  • Marcase

    It always befuddles us Europeans to see Americans go nuts whenever the US military is (or should be) assisting in a civilian disaster scenario. It looks like a no-brainer to use national military assets like helicopters, medical units or in this case amphibs to assist whenever they’re needed during national emergencies.
    I recall the Katrina disaster where US Navy ships were being blocked because someone screamed “posse comitatus” - this ‘tin foil’ outrage would be amusing if it would’nt be that lives could be at stake.

    • Curt

      Actually, during Katrina US Navy ships were not blocked, the biggest issue was the channel had to be cleared before they could arrive. The same was true of helicopters, before they could be used they had to be flown back into the area and infrastructure repaired. The concern of some was over the call of using armed federal troops to help enforce a curfew and provide security, i.e. Law enforcement.

    • anomyous coward

      To a European this may not seem like its that big of a deal, in fact it may seem counter intuitive. However this is a big thing to American core values. In fact, if you look at European history, you may see why the military being used domestically that has evolved to a local takeover. England, Germany, USSR etc.

      That being said I believe that posse comitatus does not cover navel forces (and therefore the marines or coast guards).

      • Curt

        However, President Eisenhower issued an Executive Order that has never been changed that imposed Posse Commitstus on naval forces. So all it would take is a executive order to allow the Navy or Marines to be used for law enforcement. The Coast Guard is already a law enforcement agency.

    • NavyJag907

      No reason to be befuddled. We have restrictions on the use of the Army in law enforcement. No such restrictions exist on the other services. Nothing stops using the Army in disaster relief and the Army can be used in law enforcement after a declaration of martial law.//We don’t want the Army used routinely in law enforcement as it has been in Europe and other areas to the detriment of civil rights of citizens. We are conditioned by the use of the British Army against our citizens prior to our Revolution and the use of the Union Army in the South subsequent to the Civil War.

  • Beef Stick

    Military and Police working together never sounds like a good thing.

  • Ziv

    I think some of the first helos getting aid to the people in New Orleans after Katrina were from a US Navy ship. I think the USS Bataan was there the day after the hurricane struck. That is pretty impressive.

  • Zspoiler

    Don`t be so paranoid Taking care of our own citizens when we have the assets.military or other wise. And military and police working together all the time in time of crisis, The National Guard and the Local police do it all the time. When times are needed . Aren`t we all American. We help other countries all the time.Its pretty sad when we can`t help our own do to some political addenda.

  • Dfens

    I’d only be worried if they were trying to take away our guns at the same time.

  • stephen russell

    use all amphib ships for these roles IE SC flooding is a good reuse Now. & then Hurricane Katrina, more can be done IF ships based to help in those areas.
    Hold training for such nationwide or in Caribbean & off Mexico.
    Need more Osprey V22s for role for MedEvac

  • Guest

    We sent amphibious units in many places to help, Bangladesh flooding (Amtracs, helos) Katrina, 2004 Sunami, several Phillipines typhoons, even Marine Corps V-22 and Super Huey choppers to Nepal.

  • stephen russell

    Apply to ALL active amphibs for Navy for such use, I say Yes & boost crews morale to know aiding at home vs some far flung country that may Hate America anyway.

  • sanfranciscobus

    What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? - it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.