When the Bonhomme Richard caught fire in port in San Diego last July, it was at the end of two years of expensive upgrades supporting the full integration of the F-35B vertical and short take-off and landing (VSTOL) stealth strike fighters. It was preparing to play a big role in the Navy’s plan to expand its tactical aviation assets in the Pacific.
The comprehensive $250 million overhaul it had just completed would have allowed the Bonhomme Richard to become one of a handful of ships capable of operating the F-35B.
That plan was sunk with the apparently deliberate sabotage by one of its own crew.
On Thursday the Navy said an unnamed sailor has been charged with setting the fire aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard last July that burned for days and led to the scuttling of the ship at an added cost of $30 million. Defense One reported:
A criminal investigation into the blaze revealed enough evidence to bring charges against the sailor, who was a member of the ship’s crew at the time of the fire, according to a U.S. 3rd Fleet statement.
“Evidence collected during the investigation is sufficient to direct a preliminary hearing in accordance with due process under the military justice system,” Cmdr. Sean Robertson, a spokesman for U.S. 3rd Fleet, said in the statement.
That hearing, ordered by 3rd Fleet commander Vice Adm. Steve Koehler, will lead to recommendations about whether the sailor should stand trial by court martial, Robertson said in the statement.
The fire aboard the amphibious assault ship started July 12, 2020, while it was undergoing maintenance at Naval Base San Diego. It burned for four days before it was finally extinguished. The blaze burned through 11 of the ship’s 14 decks and destroyed its forward mast and superstructure. About 40 sailors and 23 civilians were treated for minor injuries.
This may be one of the worst cases of sabotage in US military history. As American Defense News (ADN) reported last July, Defense News stated:
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.
ADN also noted that “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.”
Cost of replacing the destroyed warship is estimated at about $4 billion. ADN