July 21, 2020

Why We Need the Bonhomme Richard

The amphibious assault ship has a valuable role within the U.S. Navy’s fleet.

While much of the media was focused on the toppling of statues and the latest case count of the Wuhan coronavirus, a fire was raging through the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6), an 840-foot amphibious assault ship. It took five days to put out the fire, so the ship’s going to be out of action for a while. There’s even talk that she may be retired.

Retirement would be a big mistake, though. Throughout our nation’s history, U.S. Navy ships have taken a licking and returned to service. In some cases, the ships had very close calls. But the need to get the Bonhomme Richard back into service is also best answered when we consider both how long it took to build her and how long it could take to build the latest amphibious assault ship.

The Bonhomme Richard was ordered in December 1992, the sixth Wasp-class amphibious assault ship. She was commissioned in August 1998. That’s nearly six years — quite a long time to get her into the fleet.

Newer ships take even longer. It took six years to build USS Tripoli (LHA 7), the latest America-class amphibious assault ship, from laying down the keel in 2014 to her commissioning last week. But the Tripoli was actually ordered in 2012, so the entire process was actually eight years.

Our amphibious assault ships are major assets for the U.S. military. These ships can carry aircraft, but their primary mission has been to serve as the centerpiece of Marine Expeditionary Units. A MEU includes a reinforced battalion of Marines, the bulk of whom are on a ship like the Bonhomme Richard.

In addition, the Bonhomme Richard carries a variety of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, as well as the pilots, maintainers, and support personnel for the planes. The Wasp-class ships also carry three air-cushion landing craft, highly versatile transports that can bring troops and vehicles ashore from the ship. In a pinch, the ship can also serve as a light carrier, with 20 F-35B Lightning or AV-8B Harrier V/STOL multi-role aircraft, along with MH-60 Seahawk helicopters.

Our amphibious assault ships aren’t as large or powerful as aircraft carriers, but they’re very versatile. Losing the Bonhomme Richard for good would thus be a long-term blow — and even her lengthy repair time will affect the Pacific Fleet. Why? Because it’s one of only eight Wasp-class amphibious assault ships in addition to the Navy’s two America-class vessels.

Just as the Navy prematurely retired and then scrapped old carriers, it has permanently disposed of two of its older Tarawa-class amphibious assault ships — one was sunk as a target, while the other one was scrapped. Three others remain in reserve.

Those ships should be brought out of reserve, if only to help fill in while the Bonhomme Richard is repaired. Then, the Navy would do well to consider building more of these ships — as well as the carriers, escorts, and auxiliary ships needed to support them.

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