The final assessment of the USS Bonhomme Richard fire reveals that the U.S. Navy is hobbled by questionable training, a shortage of personnel, and a general unpreparedness to fight and prevail in a war. If they are to play a meaningful role in a cross-strait conflict, U.S. ships must be able to fight in range of Chinese missiles. The Bonhomme Richard disaster, a fire in the port of San Diego, might not seem relevant here, but it is: It demonstrates the Navy’s egregious damage-control inadequacies. If these are left unaddressed, the Navy will face a serious erosion of its combat power after only a handful of Chinese missile barrages.
Successive secretaries, undersecretaries, and retired officers have warned about these issues, but nothing is changing. As early as 2010, Vice Adm. Phillip Balisle identified personnel inadequacies in an independent review of the surface force. In 2012, then-Undersecretary of the Navy Robert Work argued that the Navy’s operational pace had created a recipe for disaster. In 2013, Vice Adm. Thomas Copeman identified a “downward spiral” in readiness, which he claims drew the ire of then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert. Warning after warning continued, with no results — even after the Fitzgerald and McCain collisions in 2017.
Three years later, the affectionately nicknamed Bonnie Dick was lost to a fire in port. Disasters like this happen at sea and during shore maintenance. They stem from the same issue: an overstressed force too small to operate at the tempo demanded of it.
A USS Wasp-class amphibious assault ship, the Bonhomme Richard was one of the most flexible tools in the modern fleet. Big-deck amphibious assault ships like the Wasp-class and their successors, the America-class landing helicopter assault ship, provide reasonable air combat facilities, can transport a battalion-strength Marine expeditionary unit, and conceivably could field short take off drones. These amphibious assault ships are America’s “firefighters,” able to deploy to hotspots in lieu of capital ships as they have done in the Middle East and North Africa since the 2014 rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
The Bonnie Dick debacle has cut America’s amphibious assault ship force to nine, with no plans to accelerate ship construction or re-activate the older USS Peleliu. Thus, the U.S. Navy could be short a ship when facing multiple contingencies — for example, a Taiwan Strait conflict concurrent with a major Russian military operation in the Baltic.
Even more concerning, however, are the damage control implications of the Bonnie Dick fire. The ship was destroyed for a single reason: The already overworked and shorthanded crew had grossly inadequate damage control training. Damage control is a labor-intensive task and will remain so even as new technologies reduce necessary crew numbers for day-to-day operations. And the war that the Navy and the United States should be prepared to fight in the Indo-Pacific will place U.S. warships in harm’s way, well within the range of Chinese anti-ship missiles. Unless the Navy addresses its personnel shortfalls and damage-control training practices, China could erode U.S. combat power at minimal offensive cost.
The Navy’s investigation essentially identified a disastrous failure at all levels of command. The Bonnie Dick’s crew, in San Diego with the ship for maintenance, had grossly insufficient firefighting training. Naval investigators have not confirmed how the fire began in the ship’s lower vehicle stowage area, although a sailor at that duty station has been charged with aggravated arson. It took 10 minutes for the deck officer to learn of the fire, in part because the crew had to use cellphones rather than radios. The deck officer delayed in responding, allowing the fire to grow. It took an hour for firefighters to reach the fire’s location. Around two hours after the fire started, a miscommunication led to another officer switching off power to the aft of the ship, rendering inoperable the Bonnie Dick’s firemain system and foam sprinklers. Hence firefighters left the ship after only two hours. The flag officers responsible for the ship never implemented a coordinated strategy, preventing firefighters from gaining a viable foothold for the next four days.
The Bonnie Dick’s crew was reduced since ships in maintenance need not maintain their full complement of officers and sailors. In a separate review on fire response, the Navy claimed that training emphasized damage control at sea with a full crew, rather than in port, explaining an incident like the Bonnie Dick fire. Yet American warships routinely deploy without enough sailors aboard, driven by a combination of budgetary and personnel constraints, operational tempo, force reduction, and bureaucratic blindness.
The Navy, and the U.S. military more broadly, have tacitly returned to the “Third Offset” approach that faded into the background after the Obama administration. It relies on a specific reading of US military success in the late 1970s and 1980s, one that emphasizes the role of high technology in compensating for personnel disadvantages.
This understanding tells only half the story. The capabilities that the U.S. military fielded to counter Soviet advantages and solidify European deterrence lack meaning absent two intellectual changes: AirLand Battle, the first instance in which the U.S. Army and Air Force grasped the operational level of war to the degree of the Soviets; and the Maritime Strategy, which broadened pressure on the Soviets to multiple theaters. Nevertheless, technological change will play an undeniable role in military power in the next ten years, as advancements from hypersonic missiles, better unmanned vessels, and networking systems come to fruition. This is the logic behind the Navy’s “Divest to Invest” scheme, which sheds older surface combatants for a more distributed force of smaller manned and unmanned warships.
However, it will take time for new forces to reach the fleet. Until that point — until manned systems are almost phased out of frontline forces — the United States will rely upon traditional warships for naval combat. And even as unmanned systems replace traditional fighter aircraft, automated processes simplify targeting, and small unmanned vessels are fielded, traditional warships require significant crews for damage control.
Indeed, damage control is the single most labor-intensive task in a modern Navy. It is also critical because the United States both lacks the capabilities to rely only on “standoff strikes” and will expose its ships to enemy fire. A fleet short on sailors will not be able to keep its ships fighting. Even minimal damage will slash U.S. combat power. Moreover, the defense industrial base is too small to produce new warships and conduct wartime repairs simultaneously. It is this structural weakness that China has identified. China’s military need not destroy U.S. naval forces in the Pacific, but only knock them out of combat for long enough to consolidate its gains.
For all the high technology of modern military forces, the United States still needs sailors, soldiers, airmen, and marines to fight its wars. No technological wizardry will remedy the personnel crisis that the Navy faces. Only a coherent strategy that justifies the necessary budget will.
Seth Cropsey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and director of Hudson’s Center for American Seapower. He served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy.
Harry Halem is a research assistant at the Hudson Institute and a graduate student at the London School of Economics.