USS Bonhomme Richard Fire Forces Tough Choices On United States Navy and DoD

USS Bonhomme Richard is a Wasp Class Amphibious Assault Ship and the third ship of the United States Navy to bear the name, learned citing breakingdefense.

USS Bonhomme Richard
USS Bonhomme Richard

WASHINGTON: The Navy’s top admiral visited San Diego Friday to see first-hand the damage suffered by the USS Bonhomme Richard after what appears to have been a catastrophic fire last week, scuttling the deployment of a ship that was next in line to launch F-35Bs from its flight deck.

The USS Bonhomme Richard would have been the fifth ship modified to operate the F-35, the next-generation aircraft slated to act as the backbone of the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps’ efforts to conduct stealthy operations in the face of modern anti-aircraft capabilities.  

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday toured several decks where he saw extensive damage. While he insisted 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.

Whether the USS Bonhomme Richard ship should or can be repaired and put to sea at some point in the next several years is a question leaders will grapple with in the coming weeks, as inspections of the ship continue, as will discussions over US presence in the Western Pacific, and the Navy’s modernization schedule.  

The USS Bonhomme Richard was scheduled to leave port next year for a deployment to the Indo-Pacific. Its loss will invariably put more pressure on the other amphibious ships docked in San Diego, forcing them to extend their own future deployments. The Navy is pushing for a more robust presence in the Pacific as Beijing puts to sea its own new class of amphibious ships capable of carrying hundreds of troops and dozens of helicopters.

“We’ve seen that multiple times, instead of a seven-month appointment it goes to a nine- or 10-month deployment,” said Dakota Wood, senior research fellow for defense programs at the Heritage Foundation. “People aren’t happy about that [and] there’s a ripple effect across the ship maintenance schedule, and how the shipyard availability and the workflow has to be adjusted to account for that.”

Since the USS Bonhomme Richard wasn’t scheduled to deploy right away, the Navy could just “accept the reduction in presence” in the Pacific in the short-term, said Bryan Clark of the Hudson Institute.

However the service proceeds, “I think there’s going to be a significant impact down the road because, once you get into a year from now when Richard would have come up to deploy,” there will be a gap that either gets filled, or doesn’t. “You’re going to have to have a combination of the USS America, and the other two amphibious ships in San Diego, to basically do two more months of deployment to maintain that heel-to-toe presence in the western Pacific, or the Navy just has to accept not being able to maintain continuous presence.” 

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.

As it stands, the San Diego-based USS Essex and Makin Island have been updated to deploy with F-35s, and both are currently conducting exercises off the California coast. The Essex returned this spring from a deployment to the Pacific and Middle East, while the Makin Island is still working through its early reps on how to operate its F-35s for the first time. The ships join the USS America (currently in port in Japan) and the USS Wasp (pulling into port in Norfolk, Va.) as the Navy’s ships capable of flying the fifth-generation fighter.

The demand for ships in the Western Pacific is increasing, as both China and the United States look to flex muscle in the South China and Philippine seas. China has remained aggressive in the region, and the Trump administration is looking to bolster the ruling of an international court that Beijing has no legal claims to most of the South China and the fake islands (coral reefs which China destroyed) which the PLA is equipping with radars, missile batteries, and airstrips.

Meanwhile, the rhetoric between Washington and Beijing is becoming increasingly heated. The Chinese government has boasted of “expelling” the US Navy form the South China Sea several times this year, and last week, David Stilwell, the State Department’s assistant secretary for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs urged allies to reject a Chinese Official hoping to sit on the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, likening it to, “hiring an arsonist to help run the fire department.”

The carriers USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan are currently running dual carrier maneuvers in the South China Sea for the second time in as many weeks. Neither ship can deploy with Navy F-35Cs, a capability no big deck carrier will have until the 36 year old USS Carl Vinson wraps up its $34 million refit in Bremerton, in 2021.

USS Bonhomme Richard – F-35

Neither of the first two of a new class of Ford carriers — the first of which is late, overbudget, cost $13 billion and is still working out technical issues — have been designed to carry the Joint Strike Fighter. Congress has included language in the 2020 budget to force the Navy to upgrade the USS Kennedy, the second carrier, to accommodate the aircraft, however. 

While both Nimitz and Ford-class aircraft carriers can operate with F-35C aboard, significant modifications are required for both classes to fly and sustain the aircraft for extended periods. Among other things, the ships will need the capability to push and fuse the reams of data the F-35s can generate, along with building additional classified spaces and new jet blast deflectors. Room also needs to be made for Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, which will replace the Navy’s C-2A Greyhound fleet that cannot haul the F-35’s big and heavy engines to the ship. 

After the Kennedy, the USS Enterprise is slated to deploy in 2028 and the USS Doris Miller will be ready to sail in 2032. In January, the Navy awarded Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding a $24 billion contract for the two ships.

In the near-term, the Navy has other options to replace the USS Bonhomme Richard, with the American-class amphibious ship USS Tripoli about to conduct its work-up training after being delivered to the Navy last week. The Tripoli is the 10th amphibious assault ship in the Navy’s fleet, while a third America-class assault ship, the future USS Bougainville, is under construction.

Another America-class ship is slated for a contract award in 2024, but there has been debate in Congress about whether to fund it, with some advocates calling to move up construction in order to start building once the Bougainville is complete. That move would keep the production line at the Huntington Ingalls shipyard in Mississippi humming, and the industrial base working to build out parts. The Navy might take another look at that schedule and Richard is a total loss.

Another option would be to reactivate the Tarawa-class USS Peleliu amphibious ship which was retired in 2015, and sits pier-side in Hawaii in reserve. To get the 40 year-old ship upgraded and ready would be an expensive and time-consuming project in itself.

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