Burning USS Bonhomme Richard Signals More Trouble for Navy

U.S. Navy helicopters and city firefighters fight a fire on the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego, Calif., July 13, 2020. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
The latest incident in a long line of recent trouble suggests continued internal weakness

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T he Navy suffered yet another cruel blow this past weekend when a fire broke out onboard the light amphibious carrier USS Bonhomme Richard, one of the oldest and most revered names in U.S. naval history, and then grew to massive proportions and spread throughout the ship. At one point the ship was entirely evacuated, firefighting tugboats pulled back, and the two destroyers that were tied up across the pier from the burning ship got under way as quickly as possible to escape the soaring temperatures and thick smoke. Local fire officials momentarily speculated that the ship might have to be left to burn “to the water line,” an outcome difficult to imagine for a steel-hulled vessel but not so difficult for those firefighters attempting to work in close proximity to the ship’s internal 1,000-degree Fahrenheit temperatures. The flames have raged for days, and firefighting efforts finally appear to be gaining control of the situation. The ship’s aluminum island has melted and her radar masts have collapsed, while Navy and local San Diego officials worried what would happen if the flames reached the ship’s fuel tanks, located just above her keel, well below the waterline, but containing 1 million gallons of the Navy’s special blend of diesel fuel.

For those who have served onboard Navy ships, the chain of events that led to the conflagration was not difficult to understand. The ship, a light amphibious carrier displacing some 45,000 tons, had been forward deployed to Japan beginning in 2012, and had returned to San Diego in 2018 to begin a major maintenance overhaul that would upgrade all of her major systems and prepare her flight deck for the embarkation of new Marine F-35B short-takeoff, vertical-landing fighters. This maintenance period was coming to an end and the many contractors onboard were finishing their repairs and gathering up their debris. Initial reports, which may be incorrect, suggest that “hotwork” was being done in the ship’s lower-well deck area, near a storage space where large amounts of rags, cardboard, and other flammable materials were gathered. The type of materials and the type of hotwork (the term alludes to welding or cutting torches or any number of operations involving ignition sources) have not been established, but what came next has been. At 0850 Pacific time, a fire was observed and the ship’s internal speakers ranged out with the dreaded “Fire-Fire-Fire. Fire in space . . .” followed by a description of the fire’s location onboard using the complex language of ships that every sailor learns upon joining the Navy. Following this initial statement, instructions followed for a firefighting party to gather at a equipment locker near the fire to suit up and advance in an organized manner toward the flames.

Every sailor in the Navy is trained from nearly the first moment they swear their oath to fight two things, flooding and fires, two phenomena that strike fear in the hearts of every person onboard a ship at sea. But the ship wasn’t at sea. Instead of its 1,100-man crew, the ship had only its weekend-duty section, fewer than 200 sailors, and they were dispersed throughout the ship. Hoses, ventilation tubes, and electrical cables commonly can be found snaking their way through a ship during complex maintenance periods, often being laid through hatch openings, and these interfere with a crew’s ability to shut hatches in the event of fire to establish boundaries. By the time they got their firefighting gear on and assembled, the fire was already out of control and making its way through the ship. Even the arrival of additional firefighting teams from the San Diego naval base as well as civilian teams from the surrounding community could not prevent the fire from gaining control of the ship, and soon the entire city was bathed in the thick smoke emanating from the once proud ship. The Bonhomme Richard is just over 23 years old. When she was built, she cost $750 million to construct, but to replace her today would take nearly $3.5 billion. It was expected that she would serve another decade in the fleet following the two years of repairs and investment that she had undergone in San Diego at a cost to the American taxpayers of several hundred million dollars. Because her maintenance included upgrades to her flight deck to allow her to embark the new F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, whose engine-exhaust temperature was significantly hotter than that of the old AV-8 Harrier, the ship was to be a critical central cog in the complex Navy deployment plan to provide naval presence in the western Pacific through the decade to come.

If the steel hull of the ship has emerged structurally intact, meaning that the sustained high temperatures associated with the fire have not weakened the strength of the hull or its supporting keel or ribs, then the ship could be repaired and returned to service. Such repairs would entail replacing all of the ship’s internal wiring, air ducts, insulation, and various computer and electronic subsystems. Certainly, the entire aluminum “island,” which contains the ship’s control bridge and primary flight-control spaces, would need to be replaced. This option would mean years in the repair yard and additional hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars to accomplish. However, if the hull plating or the internal ribs or keel have been compromised by the fire, then the ship will be decommissioned from service and struck from the list of active Navy ships.

This would be a heavy blow to a Navy that has struggled since reaching its modern low of 271 ships in 2015 during the Obama administration to climb back above 300, a number it just recently reached. The Navy had a healthy operational deployment schedule planned for its Pacific fleet and the Bonhomme Richard in the years ahead as it attempts to roll back rising Chinese influence and belligerency throughout the region, but the loss or sidelining of the Bonnie Dick, as the ship is affectionately known in the fleet, will place great financial strain on the service as well as additional operational strain on the light carriers that remain to take up the slack created by the ship’s absence. The bottom line is that the fire creates one more negative story about the Navy in a series of negative stories.

After years marked by the Fat Leonard graft and corruption scandal, the 2017 grounding and collisions that resulted in the deaths of sailors, and most recently the turmoil surrounding the relief, recommendation to reappoint, and then final conclusion that relief of the captain of the COVID-19-riven USS Theodore Roosevelt was justified, the Navy had hoped to step out on the right foot with the announcement that two carrier strike groups were operating together in the South China Sea, confronting China’s excessive territorial claims and bullying attitude there. But now the fire onboard the Bonhomme Richard has cast a pall not only over San Diego that can be seen from space but also over the Navy.

How did this fire happen? The answer will emerge from the investigation that will surely follow, but the events onboard the Bonhomme Richard will raise questions in the minds of our Navy’s sailors, our allies, and our competitors as to whether the U.S. Navy is still fit to fight a war if a major capital vessel can catch fire and gut itself while tied to a pier at a major naval base in one of the nation’s largest modern cities. The Navy appears broken in ways that the nation’s leaders are only now beginning to understand.

Jerry HendrixMr. Hendrix is a vice president of the Telemus Group and a retired U.S. Navy captain.

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