Big, Ugly Dock Ship Could Replace the U.S. Navy’s Burned-Up ‘Bonhomme Richard’
The Navy has awarded a $10-million contract to begin post-fire clean-up, but that doesn’t mean the service plans to repair the badly-damaged BHR. Restoration could cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take years, potentially making it more cost-effective simply to replace the 22-year-old ship.
But replace her with what? The Navy has options. And the ugliest option might actually be the best one.
The Navy could accelerate production of new America-class assault ships, which like BHR and her seven Wasp-class sisters are big-deck vessels that combine troop-berthing, vehicle-storage, a floodable well-deck for landing craft and a full-length flight deck.
Just one U.S. shipyard, the Huntington-Ingalls yard in Pascagoula, Mississippi, builds the aviation-optimized Americas. America and her sister ship Tripoli already are in commission. Bougainville began production in 2019 and could join the fleet in 2024.
The Navy wanted to buy the next America, the unnamed LHA‑9, in 2024. Congress wanted to start construction in 2023 and, in 2019, appropriated $650 million to begin paying the $3.9‑billion tab. But the administration of Pres. Donald Trump in early 2020 diverted that $650 million in order to pay for a few miles of the administration’s wall on the southern U.S. border.
Accelerating LHA‑9 would require hundreds of millions of dollars in advance funding. But if Trump wins re-election in 2020, there’s no reason he wouldn’t also divert that money to his border wall. The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power of the purse, but the Republican-dominated U.S. Supreme Court twice has endorsed the unconstitutional diversion of Congressionally-appropriated funding.
Instead of building a new assault ship to replace BHR, the Navy could acquire a different kind of vessel — or mix of vessels — with equivalent capabilities. U.S. Marine Corps commandant Gen. David Berger forcefully has argued for this approach in order to expand and diversify the amphibious force.
“We must continue to seek the affordable and plentiful at the expense of the exquisite and few when conceiving of the future amphibious portion of the fleet,” Berger said. “We must also explore new options, such as inter-theater connectors and commercially-available ships and craft that are smaller and less expensive, thereby increasing the affordability and allowing acquisition at a greater quantity.”
A bigger landing fleet with more different types of ships would be more resilient in the face of Chinese missile attacks, Berger explained. “It would be illogical to continue to concentrate our forces on a few large ships. The adversary will quickly recognize that striking while concentrated is the preferred option. We need to change this calculus with a new fleet design of smaller, more lethal and more risk-worthy platforms.”
“Our naval expeditionary forces must possess a variety of deployment options, including L‑class [amphibious ships] and E‑class [expeditionary] ships, but also increasingly look to other available options such as unmanned platforms, stern-landing vessels, other ocean-going connectors and smaller more lethal and more risk-worthy platforms.”
The Navy already is buying ships that could make good substitutes for vessels such as BHR. The service is in the process of buying as many as six expeditionary sea-base ships, or ESBs.
Each ESB is 764 feet long. The type’s huge, 52,000-square-foot flight deck can accommodate every rotorcraft in the U.S. inventory. Under the flight deck is an open-air well-deck for landing craft. An ESB can slightly submerge this lower deck to allow landing craft to sail on and off. There’s berthing on an ESB for hundreds of people. The type easily could add additional berthing.
The main difference between an ESB and an LHA is that the latter can support F‑35B jump jets — the flight deck on the former apparently is too flimsy for fixed-wing planes. A conversion of a commercial tanker design, the ESB also is lightly-built and lightly-armed compared to an America.
An ESB doesn’t look like much. It might even be fair to call the type “ugly.” But that’s not to say an ESB can’t fight.
“We bring multiple missions to the streets out there,” Capt. David Gray, the skipper of the new ESB Woody Williams, told USNI News as Williams set sail on her first deployment in July. “We’ll provide another asset for them to be out there, to allow more flexibility for the amphibs that are out there and the other ships out at sea. We can do other missions that are in the lower end while they’re out doing the larger end, but when it comes to it we can all hit the high-end missions together.”
It wouldn’t be hard to add another ESB to the shipbuilding plan. After all, an ESB is cheap at just $650 million. There’s a four-year gap between the last ESB the Navy bought in 2019 and the next ESB it plans to acquire in 2023.
National Steel and Shipbuilding Company in San Diego, which has built all the ESBs so far, is busy building new fleet oilers. But the ESB design isn’t overly-complex. Another yard — namely, Huntington-Ingalls — should be able to build the type.