The Lesson Behind the Burning of the USS Bonhomme Richard

December 1, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: WeaponsWarTechnologyMilitaryU.S. NavyUSS Bonhomme Richard

The Lesson Behind the Burning of the USS Bonhomme Richard

Command and control, airpower-projecting amphibious assault ships are increasingly vital to the Navy’s fast-evolving Distributed Maritime Operations strategy approach.

The well-known and mission-tested USS Bonhomme Richard Wasp-class amphibious assault ship, will not sail again after being devastated by an unexplained and highly destructive fire.

The ship, which was docked for maintenance in San Diego when a blaze broke out on board, would cost up to $3 billion to restore to operational capacity, an amount larger than a new-construction hospital ship, according to a Navy report.

The ship was on fire for four days in July 2020, following what investigators suspect may have been arson. The amphibious ship suffered extensive damage and, ultimately, any consideration to save its service life and convert it into a hospital ship was abandoned.

“Although it saddens me that it is not cost-effective to bring her back, I know this ship’s legacy will continue to live on through the brave men and women who fought so hard to save her, as well as the Sailors and Marines who served aboard her during her 22-year history," Secretary of the Navy Kenneth J. Braithwaite, said in a Navy report.

The impact of losing the ship is significant for the Navy, which is now moving quickly to add new amphibious ships to its force structure and further arm its existing WASP-class boats with F-35 jets. The development is also significant in that the Navy is increasingly looking to its amphibious fleet to operate as more mobile and potentially more survivable “mini-carriers” armed with Ospreys and F-35 jets for advanced attack. The Navy is also looking to amphibious ships to function in a “mothership” type of role wherein they operate large fleets of air, surface and even undersea drones performing high-risk forward missions while larger amphibious ships function in a command and control capacity.

Command and control, airpower-projecting amphibious assault ships are increasingly vital to the Navy’s fast-evolving Distributed Maritime Operations strategy approach, which envisions larger numbers of disaggregated yet networked maritime platforms using long-range weapons and sensors coupled with hardened communications systems to effect ship-to-shore attacks.

In fact, with the advent of large numbers of unmanned weapon systems, it is within the realm of emerging tactics to envision an F-35-launching amphibious ships controlling hundreds of semi-autonomous or even autonomous-coordinated drones to test enemy coastal defenses, search for submarines and, when directed by humans, launch attacks. Amphibs are thought of as the “Swiss Army Knives” of modern Naval warfare in that they are called upon to lead amphibious attacks, perform humanitarian missions and increasingly will be operating floating “sea bases” launching air-attacks, dispatching special operations forces and leading large fleets of unmanned systems.

There is much evidence to support this kind of Navy thinking, as one need not look further than is a rapidly growing fleet of mine-and-submarine hunting Unmanned Surface Vessels. Not only are those vessels growing in numbers but they are also evolving in terms of mission functionality. Advanced algorithms now enable fleets, even swarms of drone boats to conduct operations in close coordination with one another without requiring human intervention. Surveillance and targeting data can increasingly be networked from drone to drone and there are early efforts now showing promise to connect undersea and air drones in real-time. The Navy’s long-evolving Ghost Fleet, or Operation Overlord, program has in recent years made measurable progress when it comes to coordinating autonomous drone boats to one another, enabling an ability for each to function in specific, data-sharing ways with one another.

Added to this equation is the ongoing Navy effort to fast-track medium- and large-scale unmanned surface vessels (USV) to function in a command and control capacity, detect threats and operate as part of an interconnected web of autonomous ships. Perhaps an enemy submarine or minefield could be found by a small USV, which then compares its sensor data to other small USVs before transmitting an organized, integrated pool of data to a larger command and control ship? This would enable manned crews to operate at safer standoff distances.

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.  

Image: Reuters.