Is the USS Bonhomme Richard Doomed?
Is the ship worth the money, time and effort to try and save it?
Now that the smoke has had time to clear it seems that the U.S. Navy’s options are bad or worse when it comes to the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6), which was gutted when a fire broke out on the lower deck while the ship was undergoing maintenance at Naval Base San Diego. It took four days for firefighters to finally extinguish the fire, which broke out on July 12. During the blaze at least sixty-three sailors and civilians were injured.
Now nearly three months later the future of the ship remains very uncertain, as three investigations remain ongoing.
As of the middle of September only a handful of reporters have even been allowed to see the ship pier side and no photos have been allowed. While a fresh coat of paint—to protect the steel hull—on the port side gives the illusion that the damage isn't as bad, a reported missing portion of the superstructure could tell more of the story.
USNI News reported that during a recent tour of the ship, reporters were told that twenty-five fire trucks, crammed onto the pier and joined by more than 400 sailors, took part in the efforts to put out the fire, which reached heat as high as 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit.
The efforts were enormous.
“We had the hull cooled: we had spigots and hoses that were just on the hull. We had the [firefighting] tug,” Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck, commanding officer of Expeditionary Strike Group 3 in San Diego told reporters last month. “And then the same folks that are fighting the California fires, HSC-3 and their teams, were dumping over 1,500 different buckets on top. The heat was anywhere from 85 to 1,205 at different points, and these guys didn't know, one side of the bulkhead it would be 800, you turn around and go down and all the sudden it would be up to almost 1,000 degrees. So everything was flashing. Some of the questions have been, it's a ship, it's a steel ship, how does it burn? At a certain temperature, everything burns.”
Fix or Scrap
While the U.S. Navy hasn't determined an estimate to repair the damage to the ship, which is certainly significant as the fire burned for five days, there is the question whether it should be repaired. Fixing the Bonhomme Richard will no doubt come at an enormous cost—but replacing her with a new LHA (America-class) would certainly be far more enormous.
Findings from Congressional Research Service and Defense News reports suggest that this class of warships cost around $3.8 billion per hull, which would be an unexpected hit on an already squeezed shipbuilding budget.
The Navy has seven other Wasp-class LHDs in active service, and currently two America-class LHAs including the USS America (LHA-6) and USS Tripoli (LHA-7), which was commissioned in July. A third, the USS Bougainville, is currently under construction. America-class builder Huntington Ingalls reported in June that the Navy has awarded them a long-lead items procurement contract for the fourth America-class warship, but that was before the fire on the Bonhomme Richard.
No Good Options
According to Defense News the current consensus among Navy analysts is that the damage is so great that large sections of the damaged LHD would need to be re-fabricated or reconstructed. Industry officials have also suggested it may be possible to build sections remotely and ship them to the West Coast. While feasible, it would have a number of logistical problems including shipping those parts from Huntington Ingalls Industries' shipyard in Pacagoula, Miss. and transporting them—via the Panama Canal—to San Diego!
The alternative option is to tow the Bonhomme Richard to Mississippi for repairs.
Even if the company could build the sections and/or repair the ships, there remains the question of when, as it is building numerous other vessels on an already jam-packed schedule. Without a significant growth in the workforce it is unlikely the Ingalls Shipyard would be up to the task.
There is also the concern that the structural integrity of the ship could have been compromised, so no amount of repairs could make it worth the effort to repair. As one expert told Defense News, given the length of time the ship burned, “in the commercial industry, we'd write it off and get the insurance money.”
Thus it has been argued that any money spent should go towards building a new America-class warship that could be in service for 30- to 40-years rather than trying to repair a ship that is already twenty-two years old.
The counter argument is that the cost to repair the ship would pull money from the operations and maintenance fund—but given that the costs are so high it still might require additional funding from Congress, making any repair far from feasible.
A final option may be to repair the ship to limited usefulness, but that seems like the worst of a number of terrible options.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.