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The Bonhomme Richard Fire Could Set the Navy Back Years

Featured Image: Amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) and guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh (CG 67) perform fueling operations during a replenishment at sea (RAS). Bonhomme Richard is the flagship of the Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Strike Group and is participating in Exercise Ssang Yong 2016, a biennial combined amphibious exercise conducted by forward-deployed U.S. forces with the Republic of Korea Navy and Marine Corps, Australian Army and Royal New Zealand Army Forces in order to strengthen our interoperability and working relationships across a wide range of military operations – from disaster relief to complex expeditionary operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communications Specialist 3rd Class Cameron McCulloch/Released)

By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor of In Military, InCyberDefense and In Space News. Veteran, U.S. Army & U.S. Air Force.

The massive fire aboard the billion-dollar U.S. Navy warship, the USS Bonhomme Richard, may set the Navy back years as it reshuffles its resources to close a capability gap in the Pacific.

USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) is a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship and the third ship of the United States Navy to bear the name. The ship recently underwent modifications to enable the ship to support the Marine Corps F-35B fighter jet, allowing the F-35 to launch from the Richard’s deck.

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Damage assessments are continuing as Navy leaders grapple with the short- and long-term implications to both the impact to the Navy’s modernization schedule, as well as the coverage gap that has now appeared in the Pacific. This fire couldn’t have come at a worse time, as China continues to flex its muscles. Most recently, a new Chinese amphibious ship put to sea and showed its capability of carrying hundreds of troops and dozens of helicopters.

According to Breaking Defense, “Losing what amounts to a small aircraft carrier will echo throughout the fleet, but what makes it extra painful is that Richard was slated to join the exclusive club of F-35 capable ships, a tool the Navy has flaunted on recent deployments to the Middle East and South China Sea.”

Increasing Tensions with China

China has recently increased its aggression in the region, emboldened by its maturing military capability. As a result, tensions between the U.S. and China are high. This situation is partly due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but also includes disputes over trade and China’s increasing control over Hong Kong.

On July 22, 2020, the U.S. State Department ordered the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas, to close within 72 hours because “China was stealing intellectual property.”

In a separate statement, the State Department accused China of engaging “in massive illegal spying and influence operations” and interfering in “domestic politics” as well as having “coerced our business leaders, threatened families of Chinese Americans residing in China, and more.”

China called the decision “an unprecedented escalation” and immediately began burning documents in bins located in the consulate courtyard. Houston police and fire officials responded to reports that documents were being burned in the courtyard of the Consulate General of China in Houston Tuesday night, according to the Houston Police Department.

To make matters worse, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned last week that fully half of all ongoing FBI counterintelligence operations in the U.S. deal with Chinese spying.

According to Wray, “It’s the people of the United States who are the victims of what amounts to Chinese theft on a scale so massive that it represents one of the largest transfers of wealth in human history.”

GULF OF ADEN (Sept. 9, 2018) Petty Officer 3rd Class Alexander Rock, a flight crewman with the Essex Amphibious Ready Group, launches an F-35B Lightning II assigned to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211, 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, from the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2). U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. A. J. Van Fredenberg/Released

Ripple Effects of the Bonhomme Richard Fire across the Navy

Two days ago, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday toured several decks of the Richard where he saw extensive damage. While Gilday insisted that he is “100 percent confident that our defense industry can put this ship back to sea,” he also questioned whether the investment in the 22-year-old ship would be worth it.

Neither of the aircraft carriers USS Nimitz or USS Ronald Reagan can deploy with the Navy F-35B. Both the San Diego-based USS Essex and USS Makin Island have been updated to deploy with F-35s. However, the Makin Island is still conducting exercises to learn how to conduct operations with its F-35s.

Remember that it’s more than just learning how to safely launch a new fighter from the deck. The fifth-generation fighter has a data fusion capability completely new to the Navy.

The ships have to be outfitted with a means to transfer, store and analyze the petabytes of data that the new fighters will generate. This means onboard classified servers and, most likely, fiber optics.

If the Richard is retired from service, this loss means an increased operations tempo for sailors on other ships. What was supposed to be a six-month cruise could easily turn into a 10- or 12-month deployment to fill in the capability gap.

The Navy will have to re-prioritize the missions it takes on or it will need to stress remaining crews to meet its obligations. Neither option is attractive for the service. Stressed crews make mistakes, like the two separate collisions of the USS Fitzgerald and USS John McCain with merchant vessels several years ago.

A Short-Term Solution: Using Japanese Warships

Last year, officials in Tokyo requested that U.S. Marines deploy F-35B fighters aboard Japan’s largest warships. The service is now studying the feasibility of deploying the F-35B from JS Izumo (DDH-183) and JS Kaga (DDH-184), Japan’s 24,000-ton big deck amphibious.

After all, Japan is one of America’s strongest defense partners in the Pacific. What good are allies if friendly navies can’t take up each other’s slack from time to time?

According to USNI News, the Marines have charted out a similar relationship with the U.K. Royal Navy to deploy a squadron of F-35Bs from the new HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) carrier for its first deployment.

Regardless, the unfortunate fire aboard the Bonhomme Richard will have substantial long-term effects to the lethality of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific. But every disaster is an opportunity for learning. That’s how Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are typically written: Reactively. They are an effort to prevent something bad from happening again.

When the Richard’s embers cool, let’s hope valuable lessons are learned.

Note: The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

Wes O'Donnell

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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