Russian Military Medics to Return to the Open Seas

PHOTO by Valery Sharifulin / TASS
Ministry of Defence set on Modernising Floating Hospitals

Gazeta.Ru has uncovered that Russia’s Ministry of Defence is planning to modernise navy hospital ships and put them back into service. The military plan to deploy these floating medical facilities in the Arctic and as support to naval ships located far away from the Russian borders in the World Ocean, such as units which combat piracy.

Hospital ships have certain conditions they need to satisfy; in turn, there are international conventions which guarantee these ships will not be attacked and treated as regular navy ships. For instance, floating hospitals must not be used for military purposes and musts display special markings and identifiers, such as a white flag with a red cross. Additionally, medical craft cannot participate in combat or hinder enemy military ships. The main condition under which such ships have to operate, however, is that floating hospitals must treat anyone, regardless of their nationality or affiliation.

“The Svir and Yenisey hospital ships will be overhauled and enter service in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Navy hospital ships could be used for regular health checks for military personnel in the Arctic, as well as providing dental, gynaecological or other kinds of medical services. Other potential uses include the evacuation of severely ill patients and medical rehabilitation,” a representative of the Chief Military Medical Department told Gazeta.Ru.

The Russian navy once had four (one for each of the fleets: Northern, Baltic, Pacific and Black Sea) hospital ships, constructed in Poland during the the Soviet era: Yenisey (currently moored in Sevastopol’s Southern bay), Irtysh (part of the Pacific Fleet, currently deployed in Thai waters as part of a humanitarian training mission organized by ASEAN member states), Ob’ and Svir (part of the Northern Fleet, they participated in the Kursk submarine salvage expedition).

It should be noted that the Yenisey was designed to accommodate 200 people staying in the preventative clinic and 100 patients in the hospital, but it can accommodate up to 450 people in case of emergency evacuation. Patients are transported to the vessel via a Ka-27 search and rescue helicopter. The ship's total displacement is 11,620 metric tonnes, and its speed is 19.5 knots.

The ship is equipped with a surgical ward with three operating rooms, along with IC and ER units, therapeutic and admissions offices, a recovery ward, x-ray room, diagnostics center, ultrasound facilities, pharmacy, outpatient department and a medical warehouse. The ship also has entertainment and athletics facilities, such as a movie theatre, a gym with training equipment, tennis, volleyball and futsal courts, a swimming pool, a sauna, a shooting range and a lounge.

Russia hospital ships navy 1
Irtysh hospital ship is seen near a pier in Zolotoi Rog Bay in Vladivostok

The first two hospital ships, Ob’ and Yenisey, were delivered to the Russian Navy in 1980, two more (Irtysh and Svir) were constructed based on an altered design, with a larger displacement (11,875 metric tons), and went to sea in 1989-1990.

Today military medics emphasise that hospital ships are an essential part of the navy. Russian vessels are regularly deployed in the Mediterranean; there are also Russian navy ships in the Gulf of Aden as part of international anti-piracy efforts. The Ministry of Defence also notes that medical ships are a significant addition to the fleet in the light of the Syrian crisis.

“Having just one hospital ship deployed in one of the mentioned regions covers all the medical requirements of the navy in the area. Another prospective region is the rapidly developing Arctic with the growing presence of the Russian navy along the Northern Sea Route,” a source from the Military Medical Department told Gazeta.Ru, adding that there are military units stationed at hard-to-reach islands.

The need to overhaul floating hospitals was voiced three years ago by the now former Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy Viktor Chirkov. “They need to be repaired and modernised. The decision has been made by the Defence Minister, and we will make it happen. Hospital ships will be available for Mediterranean naval task force operations,” Chirkov told RIA Novosti in 2013.

The Irtysh is the only such ship which has completed the planned overhaul – it now boasts modern medical equipment. There is no official information regarding the Ob’ publicly available, however, there are media reports that the vessel may be sold off to undisclosed businessmen.

The United Shipbuilding Corporation (USC) currently does not have any information regarding specifics of the floating hospital renovation project, such as which shipyard will be chosen by the Defence Ministry or which new equipment will be installed. However, a spokesman for the corporation did tell Gazeta.Ru that “there are plans to build new hospital ships in our long-term planning documents.”

“However, it’s up to the Ministry of Defence. Currently no orders to design and build new hospital ships have been submitted to the USC,” the representative added.

Previously a Russian sailor who was on training duty aboard a Mistral-class amphibious assault ships, which was supposed to be delivered to the Russian navy, but never was, told Gazeta.Ru that the French warships had a “people-first” approach in terms of facilities. He was particularly impressed by the medical facility: “A great medical bay with equipment for dentists and surgeons; it’s even suitable for childbirth. The Mistral class ships can also be used to house refugees – you never know what might happen,” the sailor explained. France eventually halted the sale of helicopter carriers to Russia, but the facilities used on board of these ships may find their way to the Russian navy in the next generation watercraft and existing ships after their modernisation.

Author: Ekaterina Zgirovskaya