On July 12, 2020, an explosion rocked the deck of the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6), a Wasp-class landing helicopter dock currently in service with the United States Navy. Soon thereafter, fire spread across the vessel and migrated into the island's superstructure. Although the fire is still roaring as of this morning, and a thorough inspection has yet to be conducted, The Intelligence Ledger assesses that the vessel will be a total constructive loss. The destruction of the Bonhomme Richard will have terrible consequences for the Navy, a service that is already constrained by growing threats and insufficient number of hulls.
Timeline of Events
At 8:30 AM on July 12, a fire was reported in the vehicle storage area of the wasp-class landing helicopter dock USS Bonhomme Richard. Thankfully for the crew, the vessel had been stripped of the majority of her ordinance prior to beginning an extended refit at Naval Base San Diego. At the time of the initial fire report, roughly 200 members of the 3,000 man crew were on the ship conducting routine activities and maintenance. They immediately sought to control the blaze as crews from the San Diego Fire Department (SDFD) were dispatched to the installation.
Since the US Navy, SDFD, and federal firefighters established a unified fire command yesterday afternoon, an 1,800-yard safety perimeter has been established, two teams of firefighters and sailors have been rotating in and out of the ship, and all crew members have been accounted for. At a press conference, the commodore of the Bonhomme Richard's expeditionary strike group (ESG), Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck, stated that the ship is currently loaded with 1,000,000 gallons of diesel fuel. As of the release of this article, it does not appear as though the fire has reached or damaged the vessel's fuel tanks.
Although the fire began in the well deck, fire and smoke is now pouring out of the aft, bow, and majority of the ship's superstructure. Thus far, no lives have been lost, and injuries are relatively light.
Impact of Fire on US Operations
The loss of the USS Bonhomme Richard will have significant, albeit temporary consequences for the United States Navy.
The United States Department of Defense has touted the ability of its landing helicopter docks, namely the Wasp and America classes, to serve as light carriers in times of high intensity conflict or national emergency (Hurricane Katrina, COVID-19). This falls outside their traditional roles as amphibious warfare ships, which typically revolve around the support of a marine expeditionary unit (MEU). As part of an ESG, LHDs can transport, land, and sustain a ground force with a combination of helicopters, aircraft, and landing craft.
In support of this new mission as a light carrier, the Navy has modified or is in the process of modifying six of its eight Wasps with the equipment needed to operate F-35s. As all America-class vessels retain the ability to support the F-35 right out of the shipyard, no additional modification is needed. With the loss of the Bonhomme Richard, the number of F-35 capable LHDs drops to just nine.
It remains to be seen if the White House will accelerate production of the new America-class to offset the loss of the Bonhomme Richard. Even if the Department of Defense receives the authorization to speed up production, it would take months to refit the facilities needed. Just one US shipyard currently builds the America-class, and as such, would be significantly constrained in its ability to pump out more hulls.