- USS Bonhomme Richard was lost to fire in 2020, but it completed a final act of service before it was scrapped.
- The Navy used the ship to practice battle-damage repairs at sea, according to Seapower Magazine.
- Battle-damage repair skills have atrophied but are again gaining attention amid great-power competition.
The burnt hulk of a US Navy warship lost to a fire completed one last act of service on its way to be scrapped, Seapower Magazine, citing a Navy admiral, reported this week.
The amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard, which the Navy commissioned in 1998 at a cost of $US750 ($AU1,002) million, or roughly $US1.2 ($AU2) billion today, was set on fire last July in San Diego while it was pier-side for maintenance.
The fire burned for four days, melting parts of the ship and completely gutting it. Repairing the vessel would have cost more than the ship was worth, so the Navy opted to scrap the vessel.
This past summer, as the decommissioned and partially disassembled Bonhomme Richard was being towed from its former homeport in San Diego to Brownsville, Texas for scrapping, the Navy used the ship to practice carrying out battle-damage repairs at sea.
The warship was in the Gulf of Mexico, still about 300 miles (483km) from its final destination, when the Navy sent out mobile diving and salvage personnel, Seapower Magazine reported.
“All of the [Naval Sea Systems Command] commands [and] fleet commands were involved,” Rear Adm. Eric Ver Hage, commander of the Regional Maintenance Center and director of Surface Ship Maintenance and Modernization for NAVSEA, said at a recent naval symposium.
“They were able to cut metal, flood spaces, de-water spaces, patch the holes at sea. It was really, really realistic,” Ver Hage said, explaining that “we’re going to do more of that.”
As The Drive noted, the military personnel involved in the exercise are members of battle-damage repair teams, which are tasked with responding to and repairing a damaged warship to the point that it can be brought back to a shipyard or maintenance center.
The admiral added that during future exercises in which decommissioned ships are used for target practice, such as Sink Exercises, the Navy will use it as an opportunity to further improve its ability to conduct battle-damage repairs.
Challenges from 21st-century adversaries
Repairing battle damage at sea is valuable skill, especially in a near-peer fight, but that capability has atrophied since World War II, America’s last great-power conflict. Renewed great-power competition with Russia and China, however, has highlighted the need to revive it.
Recent investigations into Navy capabilities have revealed shortcomings in how the service responds to catastrophes aboard its warships. A newly released investigation into the devastating Bonhomme Richard fire, for instance, highlighted a number of deficiencies that ultimately led to the loss of the ship.
Former 3rd Fleet commander Vice Adm. Scott Conn said that “although the fire was started by an act of arson, the ship was lost due to an inability to extinguish the fire,” explaining in the investigation that “repeated failures allowed for the accumulation of significant risk and an inadequately prepared crew, which led to an ineffective fire response.”
A watchdog sounded the alarm this summer, warning that the Navy is not as ready as it really needs to be to repair battle-damaged ships were it to find itself in a great-power fight.
A June report from the Government Accountability Office said “the rise of 21st century adversaries capable of producing high-end threats in warfare – referred to as great power competitors – revives the need for the Navy to reexamine its battle damage repair capability to ensure it is ready for potential conflict.”
The GAO added that “depending on the nature of the conflict, the Navy may not be able to rely on additional ships to replace damaged ones-making the need for battle damage repair capability all the more important.”
Navy officials told the GAO that “the Navy could handle a single battle damage event,” but they were “uncertain how the Navy might handle multiple simultaneous or near-simultaneous events” like what the service would experience in a high-intensity conflict with a near-peer adversary.
The GAO reported that the Navy is still “in the early stages of determining how it will provide battle damage repair during a great power conflict.”