The loss of the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) will have been a tragic waste if it does not prompt consideration about the lessons learned, and the serious and broad implications it raises.1 If the Navy is not ready for firefighting and damage control, what else is missing in the run up to great power competition at sea?
It has been nearly three years since the Bonhomme Richard burned pierside in San Diego. Since then, the October 2021 report on the fire and the recently announced discipline of Navy uniformed personnel and civilians have shed light on the situation. Last month, the Government Accountability Office filed its own report on the incident, making numerous recommendations to the Navy. The details of the incident are troubling enough. The implication that a similar deficiency might exist while at sea has deadly implications for shipboard firefighting and battle damage control.
According to retired Navy Rear Admiral Leonard F. Picotte, the Bonhomme Richard fire was not the result of design flaws:
. . . the shipboard design had very little, if anything at all, to do with that fire getting out of control. As the published public report of the fire established, the ship was lost because the basic fundamentals of shipboard training in damage control, firefighting, electrical isolation, tagging out, and flammable storage were not followed. No ship can survive a major fire if the firefighting equipment is tagged out, the critical space cannot be isolated because electrical cables and hoses are running through it without quick disconnects being installed, and flammable materials are stowed improperly throughout the ship.2
Design flaws need to be re-engineered and corrected as soon as they are detected. Operational errors also must be corrected through effective standardization and training programs. Most pernicious, however, are errors of judgment, especially when attributable to generalized, cultural behavior.
Firefighting and damage control are key to the Navy’s culture—whether pierside, while underway in peacetime, or in combat. Firefighting and damage-control best practices are like blocking and tackling in football: they must be deeply embedded in behavior because they are so basic and vital to success.
One key aspect is scope and scale necessary while fighting to save a ship. This is why Navy crews have been so large in the past. Fighting fires and repairing damage at sea are extremely labor intensive, despite efforts at automation and remote control. In short, crew size is one key indicator of warfighting seriousness and preparation.
The Navy’s Bonhomme Richard report revealed an obvious failure to address the fundamental task of damage control at the pier where fires and flooding are a regular occurrence and when the ship’s vitals were open and vulnerable. There is a reason in-port officers of the deck learn early the fatalistic saying that the flooding always puts the fires out. This is also why “Every sailor a firefighter” is a common saying and a solid reality.
It is not as if incidents like this have not happened before. As the result of a 2012 shipyard fire under eerily similar circumstances, the Los Angeles–class submarine USS Miami (SSN-755) was written off as a total loss. The Navy produced an-depth report then, too. Had the results of that report been taken to heart, could the Bonhomme Richard fire have progressed as it did?3
From the Navy’s own conclusions, the Bonhomme Richard fire reveals command, training, and operational failures at every level. The Navy cannot afford to let these conclusions and lessons go to waste; it will have to grapple with the operational and training implications raised by the fire.
The Reality of War at Sea
What does the Bonhomme Richard fire say about the fleet’s ability to control damage in the flammable confines of a ship, even during peacetime? Ships are inherently vulnerable. The damage control environment aboard Bonhomme Richard was inherently perilous. Anyone who has lived through even the briefest and simplest Navy pierside maintenance availability should understand this. Navy leaders at every level should have recognized and planned for this reality, and the report says so. Instead, on board Bonhomme Richard numerous failures ensured that damage control would be overwhelmed, and, as a result, the ship was lost.
More than a century ago, Winston Churchill described the reality of war at sea in the runup to World War I:
If you want to make a true picture in your mind of a battle between great modern ironclad ships,” he said in Parliament, “you must not think of it as if it were two men in armor striking at each other with heavy swords. It is more like a battle between two egg-shells striking each other with hammers.
Had damage control been taken seriously and practiced more professionally in the first place, it is likely that the Bonhomme Richard fire never would have progressed beyond five minutes. Especially during long overhauls, crew turnover is high, and experienced sailors will be replaced by personnel new to the ship, and perhaps even to the fleet. This is when the command functions of foresight, training, and organization are so vital to overcoming the lack of experience.
The devastating fire on the Bonhomme Richard presents questions about the mindset and capabilities of the Navy at a time when it faces the possibility of sustained war at sea against a peer adversary. If the Navy cannot plan for and deal with pierside fires damage, will it be able to deal with battle damage imposed by other navies?4
The damage to the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) caused by a mine strike in 1988, and the efforts of her captain, Paul Rinn, and crew, are a case study in combat preparedness and a model emulated by successive generations of commanding officers, according to Bryan McGrath, a retired U.S. Navy destroyer captain and noted naval affairs expert and consultant.
Captain Rinn had enormous influence in the way that captains who commanded after him approached their job. What we all heard from our captains and what we all heard from the training pipeline was a similar story: We’re going to practice this [damage control] over and again, until it’s perfect. And then we’re going to practice it perfectly over and over again. That’s what I told my crew maybe 500 times. That is the legacy of Paul Rinn and the lessons that came out of Samuel B. Roberts: They were ready. They had prepared. They . . . thought through things. And they performed when it was most important.
Ask the Right Questions
There was some revision to damage control procedures following the 2017 collisions involving the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and John S. McCain (DDG-56).5 Revision is well and good, but implementation is what counts. It appears clear that in the case of Bonhomme Richard, training to new procedures was inadequate. Was this unique to Bonhomme Richard, or was she symptomatic of a broader problem?
While the Navy made a review of damage-control at sea and pierside after the Bonhomme Richard fire, how seriously were those recommendations taken? New training and protocols have since been established, but are they enough? These questions should be answered publicly, given how deeply the Bonhomme Richard fire shook the confidence of the public. This iterative disaster-response/public-review cycle must be in place.
The review process provides opportunity to raise related fundamental questions. How seriously does the Navy take the possibility of war at sea? Naval warfare is particularly susceptible to attrition.6 Modern warships are too complex to be replaced easily. There is a fundamental difference between land warfare and replacement of ground combat systems on the one hand and war at sea and controlling and repairing Navy fleet battle damage on the other. The Navy must tackle both the everyday challenges of peacetime damage control and prepare for the exigencies of war-at-sea battle damage repair.
The integrated, cascading challenges of pierside circumstances and contingencies of a complex overhaul were not thought through in the case of Bonhomme Richard. Have the Navy’s leadership and oceanic, numbered fleet, and force commanders—and by extension battle group and individual squadron and ship commanders—thought through their higher-level integrated, cascading challenges?7
By their nature, “new-old” pierside and fleet-wide problems such as these have precedents, and histories, and solutions all there for the reviewing. Do Navy ships today have the requisite organic repair capability and capacity to stay afloat and stay in the fight?8 Starting with damage control, if there is anything to the adage that it is better to sweat in peace than bleed in war, then a good first step would be to put several emerging bright lights who are senior enough to do something about it in charge of ruthless correction and execution.
Every sailor must be a firefighter and a damage controlman. Ships and fleets must conduct in-depth reviews of their own chances in various battle damage scenarios, and given the opportunity at all levels to think seriously about and contribute to battle damage repair. Crews and manning must be optimized for firefighting and damage control scenarios and sufficient to fight through significant battle damage. Basic and advanced shipboard firefighting courses must be rigorous. Repair parties and crews must be drilled until firefighting and damage control are second nature.
There is a structure to damage control challenges and a logic to their solutions. Apply that structure and logic to these broader Navy challenges. Take the Samuel B. Roberts pledge: “We’re going to practice this [damage control] over and again, until it’s perfect. And then we’re going to practice it perfectly over and over again.”
1. Other Proceedings authors have addressed several of the issues raised herein. Writing a year before the Bonhomme Richard fire, Petty Officer First Class John C. Minor, U.S. Navy, is eerily prescient, and pessimistic, regarding the broader implications of not being ready for effective damage control: “The U.S. Navy is not prepared for a major conflict at sea.” After the Bonhomme Richard fire, Commander Joel I. Holwitt and Captain Mary K. Hays, U.S. Navy, made the case for building firefighting proficiency across every watch team in “Every Sailor a Firefighter.”
2. See Diana Stancy Correll, “Ship Fires Cost the Navy Dearly, but Lessons Still Need Learning”; and the GAO April 2023 report on Navy Ship Fires: Ongoing Efforts to Improve Safety Should Be Enhanced. The GAO made three recommendations to the Navy, including that it “establish a process for consistently collecting lessons learned; an organization to analyze the effects of fires; and service-wide goals, performance measures, and a process for monitoring and reporting progress for fire-safety training. In written comments, the Navy concurred with all three recommendations.”
3. Critics might say submarines are different from surface ships, and so they are, but the fundamentals of in-port damage control are the same.
4. The damage control deficit revealed in the loss of Bonhomme Richard presents a provocative and disturbing cascade of questions about the mindset and capabilities of the U.S. Navy, at a time when it is facing the distinct possibility of sustained war at sea against proliferating naval peers—those who possess the weapons that can reach out and strike the fleet. In other words, what happens when damage is not accidental? Peer competitors will try to impose damage. If the Navy cannot plan for and deal with pierside damage, how can it be expected to have planned for and be able to deal with battle damage imposed by other navies—which is the whole point of war at sea—where enemy intent is involved, key damage control systems may be compromised, and the threat environment persists?
5. Perhaps the question that should be asked here is to what degree did shipboard leadership help or hinder damage control efforts in the Fitzgerald and McCain collision (a particular problem in Bonhomme Richard).
6. Because modern naval combat systems are so complex, and modern munitions are so precise, it may be enough for the enemy to get a “mission kill” without going for a “seaworthiness kill.” This makes organic in-theater combat system repair capability vital.
7. As with pierside firefighting, how would we even know how the Navy is doing? What process is in place to judge an officer’s readiness to fight his or her ship, battle group, or the fleet? How are prospective at-sea commanders prepared, tested and grilled in the basic requirement of their profession? How can this characteristic be revealed, let alone tested, based solely on the selection and promotion criteria of successful command at sea and ashore under placid peacetime conditions and despite repeat Pentagon staff tours? How does an oceanic fleet commander know that his numbered fleet warfighters can plan, command, and fight a war at sea? Likewise, how are battle group commanders groomed and selected for this one essential ability, from before the time they first commanded at sea?
8. As a reminder, the entire U.S. War Plan Orange was scrapped and rewritten when the Navy realized in the 1930s that in any realistic scenario Philippine bases seized by the Imperial Japanese Army would not be available for battle damage repair. Even if the bases were available, there were inadequate facilities to repair ship damage incurred enroute, and progressive flooding would mean the loss of damaged ships after a battle with the Japanese fleet. The issue was one of a complete failure by the U.S. Navy up to that point to build up the requisite fleet support infrastructure. The result was the fleet train of Beans, Bullets, and Black Oil fame. See The Story of Fleet Logistics Afloat in the Pacific During World War II by Rear Admiral Worrall Reed Carter, U.S. (Retired).