This post has been updated with additional historical details.
The Navy decided to scrap the amphibious assault ship that burned for nearly five days earlier this year, concluding after months of investigations that trying to rebuild and restore the ship would take too much money and too much industrial base capacity.
The July 12 fire aboard USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) began in the lower vehicle storage area but ravaged the island, the mast and the flight deck as it burned its way through the inside of the big-deck amphib. The ship remained watertight throughout the ordeal and hasn’t been moved from its spot on the pier at Naval Base San Diego, but between the fire itself and the days-long firefighting effort, about 60-percnet of the ship was ruined and would have had to be rebuilt or replaced, Rear Adm. Eric Ver Hage, the commander of Navy Regional Maintenance Center and the director of surface ship maintenance and modernization, told reporters today in a phone call.
“After thorough consideration, the secretary of the Navy and the chief of naval operations have decided to decommission the Bonhomme Richard due to the extensive damage sustained during that July fire. In the weeks and months since that fire, the Navy conducted a comprehensive material assessment to determine the best path forward for that ship and our Navy,” he said.
Three main options were considered: rebuild and restore the ship to its original function of moving Marines and their gear around for amphibious warfare; rebuild the ship to a new configuration for a new mission, such as a submarine or surface ship tender or a hospital ship; or decommission and scrap the ship.
Ver Hage said restoring Bonhomme Richard to its original form would have cost between $2.5 billion and $3.2 billion and taken five to seven years. That work would have taken place in the Gulf Coast, he said.
Rebuilding the ship for a new purpose would have cost “in excess of a billion dollars” and also taken about five to seven years. Though cheaper than rebuilding to the original configuration, Ver Hage said it would be cheaper to just design and build a new tender or hospital ship from scratch.
Decommissioning the ship – and the inactivation, harvesting of parts, towing and scrapping the hull – will cost about $30 million and take just nine to 12 months.
“Examining those three courses of action, we reached the conclusion that we needed to decommission the platform,” he said.
The inactivation can’t start just yet, as four investigations into the fire are still ongoing. Bonhomme Richard is already being prepped for towing, though, and Ver Hage said harvesting of some systems has been happening since September and will continue. Once the investigations end, more substantive work can be done to take out larger systems that could be reused by other ships in the fleet, inactivate the ship, and either tow it to the Gulf Coast for scrapping or tow it to storage in the Pacific Northwest until a Gulf Coast yard is ready for it.
Four investigations are taking place in parallel: a Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) criminal investigation, which now includes the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF); a command investigation led by Vice Adm. Scott Conn, the commander of U.S. 3rd Fleet; a Naval Sea Systems Command failure review board, which will look at safety, structural and design issues related to the ship and how changes could be made to prevent a fire from moving through the hull the way it did on Bonhomme Richard; and a NAVSEA safety investigation board to examine the events that look place on the ship leading up to the fire compared to existing policies and procedures.
The Navy will now be down an amphibious assault ship – and one that had been recently upgraded to accommodate the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter – which will be a blow to operators. However, Ver Hage said the comprehensive assessments looked at what would happen to the industrial base and new ship construction for the fleet if the Navy opted to rebuild Bonhomme Richard, and the price – not in dollars, but in burden on the industrial base – was too great to justify.
“In the end, the decommissioning decision had a number of factors, and one of which was, what would be the impact of the dollars spent and the actual effort to rebuild, what would be the impact on the industrial base? The dollars definitely would disrupt our strategy for investment. And then from an industrial base perspective, we had concerns that it would impact new construction or other repair work, and we knew that Gulf Coast would be the spot to get the building or the restoration done because of the capacity and their capabilities – but in the end made the decision for multiple factors, as I mentioned, that decommissioning would be the way to go,” Ver Hage told USNI News during the call.
Bonhomme Richard was nearing the end of a maintenance period when the fire broke out, and among the work that had been done to the ship was a modernization of computer and other systems to support F-35B Joint Strike Fighter operations.
By September, the crew was already removing from the ship gear that hadn’t been damaged by fire or water, Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck, the commanding officer of Expeditionary Strike Group 3 in San Diego, told USNI News during a visit to the pier on Sept. 18.
“We’re not dismantling Bonhomme Richard at all, we’re just preserving what we can,” he clarified, saying the gear could be put back into the ship if it was going to be rebuilt or could be put into the supply system if the ship was inactivated.
“The things that you can plug and play, we’re using that for other class ships, other things, and keeping sort of the supply system going.”
Ver Hage told USNI News during the media call that the ship was extensively damaged, and part of assessing that damage was pulling out gear and looking at it more closely on the pier – everything from antennas on the mast to launching gear in the well deck.
“We knew that, whether we were going to repair or upgrade to a different configuration or decommission, that we needed that gear off the ship. So that allowed us to move out with confidence on getting the most sensitive equipment off the ship. And now that we have a decommissioning decision, we’re going to get after some equipment that might be a little heavier, maybe down in the engineering spaces or electrical components or things that we would have left in place if it was going to be reused, if the ship was going to be brought back to life,” the rear admiral said.
Ver Hage’s team at Naval Sea Systems Command is working with Naval Supply Systems Command to determine what else to scavenge off the ship that could be useful in building up the readiness of other ships in the fleet.
It’s unclear if any of the systems just installed during the recent modernization period could be saved. The Navy spent about $250 million for an 18-month availability to upgrade Bonhomme Richard to support the F-35Bs. Ver Hage said that work was “clearly a loss” for the Navy and Marine Corps.
Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday made the decision to scrap the ship last week, just before Thanksgiving, Ver Hage said. They informed Navy leadership and Congress today.
It’s still unclear what will happen with the ship’s crew, though Ver Hage said Naval Surface Force Pacific would work with the personnel system to ensure all Bonhomme Richard sailors are taken care of.
Ver Hage did not want to comment on what this could mean for future Navy procurement and trying to insert another amphibious assault ship to help replace Bonhomme Richard.
He said the current America-class LHAs cost about $4.1 billion apiece and that Ingalls Shipbuilding has a hot production line, simply saying that the Navy is in a good place for LHA construction for now.
Since the end of World War II, the Navy has lost less than 30 ships due to unforeseen circumstances, USNI News reported following the fire aboard the Los Angeles-class nuclear attack boat USS Miami (SSN-755) in 2012. The last ship scrapped ahead of its planned decommissioning date was USS Guardian (MCM-5) after the mine countermeasures ship was grounded on the Tubbataha coral reef in 2013 and had to be dismantled.