Navy Brass Expects Captains to Ask for Help After Bonhomme Richard Fire

amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) at Naval Base San Diego
A helicopter from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 3 combats a fire aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) at Naval Base San Diego, July 14, 2020. (Garrett LaBarge/U.S. Navy)

Editor's Note: This story was originally published under the headline "Navy Brass Doesn't Plan Major Changes After Bonhomme Richard Fire, But Expects Captains to Ask for Help." After publication spokespeople for the Navy contacted to object to the characterization that no “major changes” were implemented after the blaze. In the interest of providing clear details to readers, the story and headline have been amended to note the elevation of the Naval Safety Center to a two-star command, move mention of the creation of the “Learning to Action Board” earlier in the story, and remove specific characterization of the scope of the changes.

Top Navy leaders expect ship captains to speak up when they find issues, service officials said Wednesday after the release of two major reports following the catastrophic Bonhomme Richard fire. 

Despite the fact that the reports reveal Navy-wide issues, some of which go back almost a decade, the responsibility for preventing future calamities will continue to rest largely with ship commanders, the officials said. 

Adm. Bill Lescher, the vice chief of naval operations and the Navy's No. 2 uniformed leader, said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters that the service is "not going to fix this by writing another instruction." 

Instead, Lescher hopes to "highlight the imperative for unit leaders to speak with a strong and courageous voice about what they see." 

"[Commanding officers] first have to have a strong understanding of the risk they're accepting," he explained. "It's a core skill that we are going to, again, assess, understand, teach and scale to be assertive up-echelon in saying, 'This is what I see, and this is the risk I am accepting and or need up-echelon help to resolve.'"

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In the wake of the dayslong fire aboard the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard, the service launched two investigations -- the usual command investigation that follows any serious mishap, as well as a historic "major fires review" that looked at the last 15 major fires aboard Navy ships going back 12 years. 

The major fire review found that the lessons from past fires had "not [been] effectively collected and ... lost over time." It also found a Damage Control Board of Directors that was "ineffective," and an "overwhelming majority of piers and berths at Navy installations used for maintenance" that failed to meet the requirements put in place after the 2012 shipyard fire aboard the USS Miami. 

Both new reports noted that the Miami fire, a case of arson at the hands of a shipyard worker, led to new standards commonly referred to as the "8010 manual" and the creation of the Damage Control Board of Directors. However, the command investigation, written by Vice Adm. Scott Conn, notes that the issues and compliance failures with that manual that were found aboard the Bonhomme Richard were also present on prior fires aboard three other ships: the Gunston Hall, the Oscar Austin and the Iwo Jima. 

"The considerable similarities between the fire on USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) and the USS Miami (SSN-755) fire of eight years prior are not the result of the wrong lessons being identified in 2012, it is the result of failing to rigorously implement the policy changes designed to preclude recurrence," Conn wrote. 

The report went on to urge leaders in groups that oversee fire safety for ships undergoing maintenance to "uphold" the changes that came in the wake of the Miami instead of letting "cost and schedule" take precedence.

Meanwhile, Rear Adm. Paul Spedero, the author of the major fire report, told reporters that while the Navy's "sailors are very well trained and knowledgeable in shipboard firefighting," that training "is largely focused on the underway environment when they have a full complement on board, all expertise, all critical leadership, as well as all equipment available." 

This was not the situation of the Bonhomme Richard, which was in port, minimally manned, and missing key leaders and gear.

Given the discovery of Navy-wide deficiencies and training shortfalls, service officials also announced administrative changes they hope will help ship commanders in preventing future fires.

Lescher announced that the Navy is planning on elevating the existing Naval Safety Center into the Naval Safety Command that will be led by a two-star admiral instead of a one-star and it will now report directly to the chief of naval operations and advise the Navy Secretary - the service’s two top leaders. 

The Navy also has set up a “Learning to Action Board” to both implement recommendations from the two reports and to assess their ongoing execution overtime. Lescher noted that "the first 25 of the 139 command investigation recommendations have been completed."

The Navy leaders rebuffed assertions that the fire is indicative of larger problems in the service. "The supporting data does not support or agree with the assertion that it's broadly systemic," Lescher said. 

Specifically, he noted that since the blaze, the newly-charged safety command "has done 172 spot checks across both fleets (Atlantic and Pacific), unannounced, off-hours, weekends, specifically looking at the issues that were illuminated in this report.

Of those, only "two required reinvestigation and education," he said.

The command investigation recommended that 36 people across 10 commands be held accountable for the blaze. Yet half of the names, 18 in all, were from the Bonhomme Richard and included all three of the ship's top leaders, as well as several enlisted personnel who were part of the team aboard the ship the day the fire started. Only one person outside the ship - the commanding officer of the Southwest Regional Maintenance Center and a Captain - was found to have “directly led to the loss of the ship.” 

Vice Adm. Richard Brown, commander of Naval Surface Force Pacific Fleet, was the most senior officer among those listed whose failure in his duties “contributed” to the loss.

Only one person, a junior 20-year-old sailor assigned to the ship, has been criminally charged for the blaze. Lescher said no one from the ship's chain of command is currently under investigation for criminal negligence. 

"We had evidence across all the communities -- no indication that this was a Navy-wide cultural problem," Spedero said Wednesday. 

Lescher explained that "there's variability in [commanding officer] assertiveness" and that the Navy needs to emphasize transparency so that leaders will communicate concerns openly and loudly.

There has been no word about what will happen to any of the 36 people named as accountable in the command investigation into the blaze. The report has been accepted by Adm. Sam Paparo, head of Pacific Command, and he now will determine further punishments for those named. 

Dismantling of the Bonhomme Richard began April 15 after it was determined it would take at least $2.5 billion and five years to fix the ship.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin. 

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