More Than Just a Fire: The Implications of the Bonhomme Richard Catastrophe
As I write this, the USS Bonhomme Richard — a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship — burns at Pier 2, Naval Station San Diego. Scores of Navy and civilian firefighters have fought the blaze for over 72 hours and it is difficult to tell from afar how much progress is being made. One thing is clear: The ship will likely be, at best, out of action for years or, at worst, stricken from Navy rolls. In either case, there will be considerable impact to ongoing naval operations, force development efforts, and naval integration initiatives. While navalists tend to judge navies by the number of ships that comprise them, the plain truth is that not all ships are created equal. The loss of some ships is much worse than others. That is what Americans are watching happen before their eyes. Confidence in the Navy is shaken.
To provide conventional deterrence and forward-deployed assurance, the U.S. Navy relies on a finite number of force packages. They include the carrier strike group — comprised of a large, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, a carrier air wing, and three to five surface combatants (cruisers and destroyers) and logistics ships — and the expeditionary strike group — comprised of an amphibious assault ship (such as the Bonhomme Richard), two additional amphibious warships, and a Marine expeditionary unit of over 2,000 marines whose mobility is provided by the ships and aircraft of the overall expeditionary strike group. Additionally, one to two surface combatants provide offensive and defensive power to the expeditionary strike group. Attack submarines may be associated with a larger formation but generally operate independently. Moreover, ships deploy independently or in small groups to support combatant commander requirements for exercise participation and other allied engagement.
The carrier strike group and the expeditionary strike group are, however, the basic formations of U.S. naval power. The ships at the heart of these formations — known colloquially as “big decks” — are large, capable, expensive, and critical. In the case of the aircraft carrier, such ships are so critical that Congress has set a minimum of 11 as the number of aircraft carriers the Navy must maintain by law. There is not a similar requirement for the number of amphibious assault ships like the Bonhomme Richard that the Navy must maintain, though there are currently 11 in the inventory. Unlike aircraft carriers, which are optimized for maritime power projection and sea control missions (anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, and integrated air and missile defense), amphibious assault ships are optimized to project U.S. Marine Corps power ashore through a mix of fixed-wing attack aircraft, armed helicopters, and combat infantry. Because of the central role played by the limited number of aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships in command and control, warfighting, and logistics, the Navy’s approach to force readiness is built around the cycle of upkeep, maintenance and modernization, training, and deployment of these ships. Under the “Optimized Fleet Response Plan,” the employment cycles of the ships in an expeditionary strike group or carrier strike group are built around the big deck, with the end product being a deployable expeditionary strike group or carrier strike group capable of meeting the desired missions of combatant commanders.
Based on this description, it should be clear why the loss of the Bonhomme Richard — even for only a few years — would be disruptive to the Navy’s provision of ready forces forward. We are told that the Bonhomme Richard was approaching the end of an extensive two-year overhaul period during which some $250 million was spent on upgrades and mid-life enhancements. Presumably, the ship would have spent much of the next year regaining basic proficiencies before joining up with other ships of its expeditionary strike group and embarking marines and their aircraft for additional advanced training. At the end of this training, the force would be evaluated against a set of like operational scenarios before deploying forward, most likely in support of the Seventh Fleet in the Western Pacific and the Fifth Fleet in the Middle East. Now, none of this will happen — at least not with the Bonhomme Richard.
Instead, one of the other 10 amphibious assault ships will likely be removed from its current cycle and accelerated into the spot that the Bonhomme Richard occupied. With this change will come several challenges that might include compressing maintenance periods, unit-level training opportunities, and well-deserved downtime for a crew that would likely have to “short cycle” into another extended deployment long before its “turn” were due. If this consideration were the only one, it would be bad enough — but it is not the only one.
Part of what was completed in the Bonhomme Richard’s recent maintenance overhaul was a series of flight deck modifications that would enable the ship to properly integrate the Marine Corps’ version of the Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35B. In fact, that sort of integration is almost certainly what the ship would have done in its next deployment. Of the 11 amphibious assault ships, only three have had the necessary F-35B modifications. The Bonhomme Richard would have been the fourth, with the Navy recently announcing that the USS Boxer would undergo the F-35B modifications as part of its upcoming two-year, $200 million overhaul. At this point, the Navy has made no decisions about which ship will pick up the Bonhomme Richard’s commitments. However, there are not many options.
From a fleet design perspective, the loss of the Bonhomme Richard presents drawbacks, two of which merit discussion and flow from F-35B integration. The first drawback is the pace at which the Department of the Navy can pursue greater U.S. Navy/U.S. Marine Corps integration through the “lightning carrier” concept in which multiple F-35Bs are employed from an amphibious assault ship to provide considerably more striking power than legacy fixed-wing craft provided in the past. The promise of this concept was recently demonstrated by the USS America’s expeditionary strike group when it was operating in the Western Pacific with 13 F-35Bs embarked. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger — while wavering in his support for F-35B acquisition in the numbers previously desired — has stated his commitment to the lighting carrier concept.
The second fleet design concept impacted by the Bonhomme Richard’s loss is the ability to gather more data in the ongoing debate over whether the Navy should move away from large, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers to smaller ships that would be slightly larger than current amphibious assault ships. Over time, the operations of F-35B-configured amphibious assault ships would provide force planners with more information about flexibility in fleet design since these ships could potentially assume some or all of the peacetime power-projection missions currently carried out by the Nimitz- and Ford-class carriers, which are roughly twice the size of the amphibious assault ships and considerably more expensive.
The Bonhomme Richard fire raises another question: How tough and survivable can a ship be in combat if it is burning out of control in port during peacetime? While it takes three to five years to build a modern warship, there are very few places to do so. And, as was recently shown by the two-and-a-half years of repairs to the USS Fitzgerald after its 2017 collision, it takes time to repair major damage to a modern warship. Some will look at this fire and conclude that continuing to build and operate large, vulnerable ships makes little sense in an age of proliferating anti-ship missiles and greater visibility of ship movements through a variety of sensors.
Several points argue against this view. First, while we don’t know exactly how this first started, we do know some things. The fire started on a Sunday morning in port, with only the duty section — roughly a sixth or seventh of the total crew — onboard. Given the low ratio of humans to cubic feet of ship, the chances that the fire had time to spread without being noticed were high. Were the ship underway with its crew of approximately 1,100 sailors present, the likelihood of the fire spreading as quickly as it did without being noticed would be low. Once a fire is reported, a team of firefighting experts known as the “at-sea fire party” or sometimes the “flying squad” immediately deploy to the source to assume firefighting efforts and either put the flames out or begin the critical process of isolating the fire by setting boundaries above, below, and proximate to the fire’s source. Those boundaries include charged firehoses, physical barriers, and ventilation modifications designed to starve the fire of oxygen and inhibit its spread. Put another way, a good case could be made that, even though fighting a fire at sea with a full crew is challenging, it is ultimately a better option than trying to do so pier side on a Sunday morning with a fraction of the crew present.
Secondly, while ships at sea are vulnerable to attack, it has always been thus. The threats of high-speed maneuvering missiles, stealthy submarines, and high-performance aircraft have bedeviled Navy force planners for decades. And, for decades, the Navy has come up with suitable counters. Conventional deterrence demands that naval forces be not only capable of denying or punishing an adversary but also willing to risk valuable things in pursuit of these aims. Additionally, large, multi-purpose warships — like the rest of the Navy — spend the overwhelming majority of their service lives deterring combat, not engaging in it. Meanwhile, considerable utility derives from their size and ability to project power forward, thousands of miles from U.S. shores. This is not to say that Americans should be unconcerned with vulnerability. Rather, vulnerability should not be their primary concern.
Finally, in the past few days, some have raised the question of whether this fire is just one more in a series of events over the past few years that indicates something is wrong with the Navy on a systemic level. There have been collisions of ships and reliefs of Navy secretaries, would-be chiefs of naval operations, and aircraft carrier commanding officers and program managers. Now, there is also a ship burning at a pier. The mounting record of scandal, buffoonery, and bad news seems to point at something fundamentally wrong with the Navy — and it is getting harder to refute this charge. But refute it I will.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the Navy — its direction, character, design, reputation, and mistakes. I have also spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about the last three years of bad news. In doing so, I have wracked my brain in order to find common elements in the disasters and scandals that lend themselves to pre-conceived solutions. Some will dismiss my thoughts as the ruminations of a hopeless advocate, too close to the problem to see that there is one. So, here are a few questions for those who point at the systemic failure argument:
What are the systemic issues you believe are at the heart of the Navy’s problem?
Can these systemic issues be decomposed into discrete contributors that a reasonable person would agree can be directly tied to actual setbacks?
If what we see is a problem of culture, which elements of the culture contributed to that problem? How would you go about changing these elements? Where are these enhancements most efficiently and effectively focused to achieve the desired changes? How would you ensure that the positive elements of the culture are retained?
If what you see is a leadership problem, which leaders are implicated? At what level? What could they be doing better? Is it because the Navy picked the wrong leaders? How do you know? If the Navy did pick the wrong leaders, how would you alter the process to achieve your desired results?
There is a certain blithe incompleteness bound up in the systemic failure argument unless one is willing to do the hard work of decomposition into actionable approaches tied to observed problems. I have not seen much in the way of good thinking on this subject.
Where does this leave Navy leadership as it deals with perceptions of incompetence and the recent record that seems to support it? Try this: Assume that no matter what it is you are doing — at whatever level of command you operate — that you are not quite as good at it as you think you are. Moreover, take immediate action no matter how small that action might be to remedy it and tell your subordinates that this is what you are doing. There is no level of authority in the Navy that is beyond this approach. It is not a mindset that requires vast infusions of resources and it promotes a fundamentals-based response to problems of great complexity. What it requires is brave self-assessment and a fearless dedication to improvement. Until such time as an internally consistent systemic argument for the Navy’s ills surfaces, this is a sound guide to the first steps to improvement.
Bryan McGrath is the managing director of The FerryBridge Group LLC. He counts the Navy among his clients, but these opinions are his own and are shared here first.