Bonfire of the Bonhomme Richard

USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6), a 41,000-ton aircraft carrier, was commissioned in 1998.

Today, it’s a mess; probably a total loss.

You may have heard the story last month out of San Diego.

It was hard to miss a massive Navy ship burning in the harbor of a major American city.


USS Bonhomme Richard burns at the pier. US Navy photo.1

The fire quickly transformed from local to international news.

The U.S. military lost a major, naval capital asset — among the most significant losses of a fighting ship since World War II.

And it was just sitting in port!

While investigators piece together exactly what happened, I’m afraid one critical factor will be overlooked.

That’s because a disaster of this scale makes me wonder (again) if there’s something wrong with the Navy.

Or if there are larger problems, higher up in the Department of Defense…

Maybe even higher… up in the ethereal oversight — if not very framework — of the U.S. government.

After all, the Navy is mandated in no less than the U.S. Constitution. And how the government runs its Navy tells us much about what else is going on in the country.

Let’s take a look…

“There is fire and water damage, to varying degrees, on 11 of 14 decks,” wrote Chief of Naval Operations Michael Gilday after touring the charred vessel.[2]

“The island [aka the ship’s control tower] is nearly gutted,” he reports, “as are sections of some of the decks below; some perhaps, nearly encompassing the 844 ft length and 106 ft beam of the ship.… Sections of the flight deck are warped/bulging.”


Interior spaces of USS Bonhomme Richard. U.S. Navy photo.

Fortunately, no one was killed in the Bonhomme Richard fire… although there were injuries.

But from an institutional perspective, the ruined Bonhomme Richard is among the most significant losses to the Navy since World War II.

There hasn’t been a loss of this tonnage since USS Lexington (CV-2) at the Battle of the Coral Sea and USS Yorktown (CV-5) at Midway.

The Navy has experienced other disasters, of course. Fires, collisions and even sinkings. And there were nuclear-related losses too, such as submarines USS Thresher (SSN-593) in 1963 and USS Scorpion (SSN-589) in 1968.

Perspective matters, though…

Coral Sea and Midway were wartime battles, where fate and chance played roles. And the lost submarines went down in operational settings.

But Bonhomme Richard was tied to a pier, undergoing maintenance. No one was shooting at her. No battle glories. No operational pressures, in any respect…

Yet something went wrong.

Teams of engineers and naval architects are still swarming about, investigating the fire.

They’re assessing if what’s left is reparable, or if the Navy should just cut the loss and send her to the breakers.

Either way, this is an expensive hit.

In 1998, when Bonhomme Richard was new, she cost about $750 million in “then” dollars. To replace her today would ring in at about $4 billion.

That’s what inflation will do over 22 years, especially with unique, bespoke items like aircraft carriers.

Meanwhile, the sad fact is that the U.S. has limited capacity to build large ships. It’s another consequence of the long-term deindustrialization of the country. Many a fine old Navy shipyard is now closed, recalling historic places like Boston, Philadelphia, Long Beach and Mare Island.

With what limited industrial base remains, scheduling new construction at the scale of Bonhomme Richard is a challenge. Just “fixing” the ship, let alone constructing another, means that other large projects will have to slide on the schedule.

And of course, the military had plans for Bonhomme Richard. She was just finishing up a major, $250 million upgrade to accommodate the new Marine Corps F-35B aircraft; strengthening the flight deck, installing new electronic systems and maintenance capabilities to keep the Marine birds flying, and generally sprucing up.

This ship was scheduled to deploy to “WestPac” and the Indian Ocean, carrying those F-35Bs and much else.

Not anymore. Bonhomme Richard isn’t going anywhere. The Navy must now scramble to find a suitable replacement for this ship if Marines are to deploy with their shiny new airplanes.

They’ll also need to figure out what to do with all those Sailors who suddenly find themselves without a ship.

But along those lines, there is an upbeat takeaway here — a critical point on which there’s no debate…

Just take a look at this epic photo, shot while the fire was still raging…

Navy fire crews march towards the flames. U.S. Navy photo.

In the midst of calamity, the brightest light was the people… The Sailors.

The crew of Bonhomme Richard, and other Sailors from other Navy ships, suited up and marched to the fight.

It’s a “thing” in the Navy… They drill it into your head from Day 1: Everyone is a firefighter.

Certainly, this is true at sea… When your ship catches fire, you own it. There’s no bailing out. No running away… You put on your gear and move.

In the course of my life I’ve attended many great schools. I’ve benefitted from many superb teachers.

But hands-down, the best course I ever took was “Shipboard Firefighting,” long ago at Naval Station San Diego.

Navy firefighting is legendary. Navy damage control training is second to none.

When a fire breaks out, the training kicks in. There’s no turning back. It’s just part of the culture. It’s part of the character of any real Navy person.

You strap on the gear and go fight the damn fire!

Now that the flames are quenched, though, what do we make of the bonfire of Bonhomme Richard?

Ideally, the fire never should have occurred. At the very least, a small, containable fire never should have raged out of control.

The Navy’s investigation will take many months.

The final report will reveal things, no doubt. Issues with safety and fire prevention, fire watches, firefighting systems…

I suspect we’ll learn of lapses in leadership, pre-fire. Although we’ll also learn of true heroism from the deck-plate Sailors who rose to the occasion.

Yet what does the fire tell us of the larger Navy? And what of the Navy’s place within the U.S. defense complex, and beyond that, of control by the U.S. government?

Institutionally, today’s Navy is paying the costs of strategic and policy mistakes that go back 30 years, to the end of the Cold War.

I was part of the Navy during that 1990s/2000s era of so-called “transformation.”

The idea was that, per the end of Cold War, the country could slash the budget, lay up ships and lay off people. Of course, that is what happens when wars end, even “Cold” ones.

But in many respects, while the Cold War ended, many of the Navy’s routine missions never went away. Policy guidance from on high tended to be some variation of that old chestnut, to do more with less.

Sure… you can do more with less, until you wind up doing less with less.

Within the bureaucracy, many Navy programs adopted the money-saving mantra of “lower manning.” People are expensive, so presto… Get rid of people!

Over time, Navy outsourced much of its traditional skill-set to defense contractors. Instead of the old “Bureau of Shipbuilding” (now known as NAVSEA) designing ships, the job was farmed out to companies like Lockheed and General Dynamics.

It’s fair to say — and I’ve heard top-level admirals say it — that the Navy lost much of its “technical authority” over the very ships and weapons that it is expected to use.

It’s also fair to say that more than a few new programs and systems were promised and premised on little more than PowerPoint light and magic. I’ve seen and heard of plenty of briefings that described things that simply never worked.

The sturdy old idea of “build-test-refine” transformed into “spend the budget and for God’s sake, don’t test” — lest testing demonstrate failure of the underlying concept.

A long list of major programs began life facing south, so to speak. And then continued the journey. Indeed, some of these “brilliant” ideas never should have seen light of day.

Consider the Littoral Combat System (LCS), two classes (2!) of too-small vessels with minimal armament that now have long-established records of poor performance.

Or consider the three gold-plated destroyers, in a program called “DDG-1000.” Their gun systems are so complex and the ammunition so expensive that they can’t support Marines ashore. Instead they just sail around as “test beds” for other stuff.

Or the Ford-class aircraft carrier, with its electromagnetic gizmos that still don’t work right.

Or the bottomless hole of funding that went into the long-delayed Navy/Marine versions of the F-35 aircraft (F-35C and F-35B, respectively).

Or the long-term, ongoing lack of aerial refueling capability for the typical Navy air wing on an aircraft carrier.

The list goes on and on…

Of course, for two decades the U.S. chose — actually, the politicians and policymakers chose — to spend massive funds (and lives & limbs) on land wars in the Middle East, with no true theory of victory along the way. You may have noticed…

All this while U.S. relative power deteriorated as compared with a rising China and a reborn, revitalized Russia whose weapons are astonishing in capability.

Now throw in the general transformation of U.S. culture. Think about the deindustrialization of the country. Entire supply chains have been offshored, to the point where we don’t make most of the basic medical equipment and supplies that the nation needs during the current pandemic.

Or consider the deteriorating U.S. educational system, K–12, as well as many alleged “colleges” that teach fluff-courses when they’re not running remedial reading and writing for ill-prepared students.

Getting back to the Navy, it’s worth noting that a not insignificant amount of military “training” is devoted to sociological issues. For example, a recent message that passed through Navy echelons at Norfolk recommended that officers and senior enlisted personnel read the book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.

I’ll take a wild guess here… Pure speculation on my part… But I rather doubt that Chinese or Russian naval officers are reading such books.

So where does the United States Navy go from here? What are the lessons of the Bonhomme Richard?

Indeed, looking beyond “lessons” … What are the omens to take from this massive fire?

And please, don’t say that it was a bad day. Or that it was just “bad luck” on the waterfront. No…

Because first, you make your own luck.

And second, we don’t want unlucky captains running our ships, or unlucky admirals commanding our fleets or our Navy…

And finally, we don’t want unlucky people running our country.

On that note, I rest my case.

That’s all for now… Thank you for subscribing and reading.

Best wishes,

Byron King

Byron King
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder

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[1] Warships in Maintenance Always Face Increased Risk for Fire Damage, USNI News

[2] US Navy’s Top Officer Reveals Grim New Details of the Damage to Bonhomme Richard, Defense News

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