Loss of U.S. Navy ‘Lightning Carrier’ Will Harm Its Pacific Strategy

U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Austin Haist via Wikimedia Commons

The U.S. Navy is valiantly trying to save the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHA-6) from the fire still ravaging the warship since Sunday morning. The impressive amphibious assault flattop is one of the Navy’s so-called ‘Lightning Carriers’ due to its ability to launch a number of F-35B stealth fighters from its flight deck.

As a young Marine Corps officer, I deployed in the Western Pacific aboard an older Tarawa class LHA in the late 1980s  – The USS Peleliu (LHA-5 at the time) and I was in awe of that massive multirole helicopter assault ship. These newer aviation-centric Wasp class ships, however, are even more fearsome.

With the rise of the vertical and short take-off and landing F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, the Bonhomme Richard was at the end of two years of upgrades supporting the full integration of the F-35Bs. It was preparing to play a big role in the Navy’s plan to expand its tactical aviation assets in the Pacific.  This could now be in jeopardy.

Local San Diego news CBS-8 reported that Rear Admiral Philip Sobeck briefed that Naval forces were “doing everything they can” to save the ship more than 24 hours after an explosion and fire erupted on its lower decks, sending temperatures as high as 1,000 degrees in parts of the vessel and leaving it listing in the water.

Sobeck – the Expeditionary Strike Group Three commander – added that the cause of the blaze remains unknown, also noting that since the ship was undergoing maintenance, its built-in flame-suppression system was inoperative at the time of the blaze.

The Wall Street Journal reported that “Navy officials said it could be days before the fire is contained, and pictures and video Monday captured plumes of smoke billowing from the ship into San Diego’s sunny skies.” If the ship is lost it would be the first “carrier” or major capital ship lost by the US Navy since WWII.

And the damage to the Navy’s Pacific expanding strategy will be real. As noted by Defense News:

The loss of Bonhomme Richard, whether a total loss or just lost for extensive repairs, deals a significant blow to the Navy’s plans to have F-35Bs continually deployed in the Pacific. And with Monday’s announcement that the United States had formally rejected China’s claims about the South China Sea, any accompanying boost in naval presence could be slowed by the fire.

Bryan Clark, a retired submarine officer now at the Hudson Institute said, according to Defense News,  “It’s a big problem, considering the F-35B is the … Navy’s only fielded and deployable 5th Generation fighter…We will want those deployed most of the time.”

Clark added, “Only half of [our 10 amphibious assault ships] are able to carry F-35B…So the loss of Bonhomme Richard will impact the Navy’s ability to provide Combatant Commanders sea-based F-35s…” Clark was also quoted in the Wall Street Journal explaining another factor – “You are losing one of the few platforms that you could use to fill in for a carrier in the Middle East when our attention is focused on the Pacific.”

The U.S. Navy had recently deployed the newest USS America class amphibious assault ship – the replacement for the retired USS-Peleliu – loaded with F-35s and V-22 Osprey tilt-rotors – to fill in for our COVID-sidelined supercarriers in the Pacific. With the Bonhomme lost permanently, or for a long period due to major repairs, the US will now need to scramble to find alternatives.

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Paul Crespo

Paul Crespo is the Managing Editor of American Defense News. A defense and national security expert, he served as a Marine Corps officer and as a military attaché with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) at US embassies worldwide. Paul holds degrees from Georgetown, London, and Cambridge Universities. He is also CEO of SPECTRE Global Risk, a security advisory firm, and President of the Center for American Defense Studies, a national security think tank.

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