U. S. Navy officials said the fire aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault ship undergoing maintenance and upgrades at a port in San Diego, was put out last Thursday. The temperatures up to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit (about 650 degrees Celsius), it melted aluminum and incinerated wiring, plastics and combustibles like drywall, bedding and office supplies, while filling the 850-foot (260-meter) vessel with thick smoke.
The true extent of the damage, however, remains unknown. Engineers will need to get into the ship to assess the destruction once the spaces inside cool down, officials said.
The Navy’s top officer, Adm. Mike Gilday, said Friday there would be a thorough investigation into the cause of the USS Bonhomme Richard fire.
“We will fully investigate what happened here so that we learn all that we can from this terrible tragedy,” said Gilday, the chief of naval operations.
“It is too early to make any predictions or promises of what the future of the ship will be,” said Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck, commander of the Navy’s Expeditionary Strike Group Three. “Whether or not it will be repaired will be determined.”
Either way, the long-term impacts are significant. The Bonhomme Richard, which resembles a baby aircraft carrier, was being upgraded to accommodate some of the newest and most sophisticated warplanes in the US arsenal, Marine Corps F-35Bs.
It was to be one of only four ships in the US fleet with the ability to handle the F-35Bs — meaning its absence will be felt.
“As tensions mount with China in the South China Sea, as well as with North Korea, the loss of this ship and her capabilities will make it more difficult for the Navy to meet all its war-fighting requirements,” said John Kirby, a CNN military analyst and former US Navy admiral.
Timothy Heath, senior international defense researcher at the Rand Corp., said deploying F-35s continuously in the Indo-Pacific region would have served as a visible reminder of the US military’s technological edge over rivals such as China.
“The advanced capabilities of the F-35 outclass those of any Chinese fighter, providing an edge in air-to-air combat,” he said. “The US Navy’s effort to operate expeditionary task forces with F-35s on a continuous basis in the Indo-Pacific will be dealt a serious blow.”