This post has been updated to include additional information from NAVSEA.
A salvage company began removing the island on damaged amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) this week as part of the process to get the ship ready for towing and then dismantling.
Bonhomme Richard was damaged in a days-long fire at the pier in San Diego, Calif., last summer, and on Nov. 30 the Navy declared the ship would be decommissioned. Much of the damage on the ship was in the island, mast and flight deck areas despite the fire starting in a lower vehicle storage area.
In a phone call with reporters announcing the decision to decommission, Rear Adm. Eric Ver Hage, the commander of Navy Regional Maintenance Center and the director of surface ship maintenance and modernization, explained that the ship would be harvested for parts while still at the pier in San Diego, decommissioned in a ceremony of some kind, possibly towed to storage in the Pacific Northwest if needed, and ultimately towed to a scrapping yard in the Gulf Coast for dismantlement. The entire process will cost about $30 million – significantly cheaper than the billion-dollar-plus cost estimate to convert the amphibious assault ship to some other kind of Navy asset or $3 billion to rebuild it as an LHD.
Ver Hage said in November that the timeline was still unclear but could range from about nine to 12 months.
Naval Sea Systems Command announced this week that the island-removal began Feb. 23 and said “removal of the island will improve the ship’s structural integrity and readiness for tow. The removal process will reduce the island’s height down to just above the ship’s flight deck.”
Salvage company Smit Americas is conducting the work under an existing contract with the Navy.
NAVSEA spokesman Alan Baribeau told USNI News that the command “has an existing emergency salvage services contract on the West Coast with SMIT Salvage Americas, Inc. (Smit Americas), available for salvage, harbor clearance, salvage related towing, ocean engineering and point-to-point towing. Under this contract, awarded in 2018, Smit Americas has provided salvage services on NAVSEA operations which includes the initial USS Bonhomme Richard response, recovery of a support barge from Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho, and removal of a tugboat which obstructed navigation on the Columbia River,” he said when asked about previous uses of the existing contract.
“As part of the ship tow preparations, the USS Bonhomme Richard island removal is now being executed under this contract at a cost of approximately $2 million.”
In October 2018, the Navy signed a contract worth up to $215 million with Smit Americas “for salvage related towing, harbor clearance, ocean engineering project and point-to-point towing services. The primary purpose of this contract is to provide services to assist in the performance of salvage of ships, craft, cargo, and other items as tasked (e.g., aircraft, weaponry, equipment); salvage related towing, harbor clearance; and point-to-point towing; and ocean engineering projects in support of the Supervisor of Salvage, SEA. Work will be performed along the North and South American West Coast, and is expected to be completed by September 2023.”
On the same day, the Navy also awarded a similar contract to Smit Singapore for the same work description, value and timeline, and covering work in the Western Pacific region.
The NAVSEA statement this week notes that a final timeline for towing and dismantling the ship is still being determined.
Complicating the effort is the fact that four investigations are still ongoing: 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 took place on the ship leading up to the fire compared to existing policies and procedures.
Ver Hage said in November that preparations for decommissioning, including the ongoing salvage effort to take reusable systems off the ship, would continue despite the ongoing investigations.
“I don’t see that as holding us back from properly decommissioning and harvesting and making the ship ready for towing,” he said at the time.
The investigations were expected to wrap up by the end of December, and the Navy has not commented on why they are still ongoing more than seven months after the fire.
Despite the ongoing investigations, the Navy in August decided to remove the aft mast, which was unstable after the significant damage it sustained in the fire. To do the work, the Navy used one of its own cranes and contracted for another with Smit Americas.
The Navy “modified an existing LHD-6 salvage/firefighting delivery order to SMIT AMERICAS to cut, rig, remove and dispose of the aft mast. The delivery order was issued as part of NAVSEA’s existing Emergency Salvage Services contract for the West Coast,” a Navy spokesman told USNI News at the time.
General Dynamics NASSCO, which was doing maintenance on the ship at the time of the fire, was also awarded a $10-million contract for fire-related cleanup efforts on the ship.
In September, the crew started pulling off gear from the ship, partly to help with the damage assessment and partly to identify systems that could be salvaged and reused on other ships in the fleet.
“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,” Ver Hage told USNI News in the November call.
“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.”