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Fires happen on ships. And they can be quite destructive. There have been a number of major fires on aircraft carriers that were nearly catastrophic; Oriskany (1953), Bennington (1955), Oriskany (1966), Forrestal (1967), Enterprise (1969), Constellation (1988). And, while not technically an aircraft carrier, Bonhomme Richard last year. The distinction is that in all the cases except one, the ships returned to operational status in less than a year. In the case of the Bonhomme Richard, the ship is a total loss and is already headed to the breakers.
This past week the Navy formally charged a 19 year old Seamen Apprentice for setting the fire.
That fire resulted in the loss of a what in any other Navy in the world would be their flagship. Not simply a $3 billion ship, but one that cannot be replaced for at least 3 years, assuming construction were to begin today.
By displacement, at 41,000 tons Bonhomme Richard is the second largest ship the Navy has ever lost. USS Lexington, sunk by enemy action on 8 May 1942, at 48,000 tons, still is the largest. But it’s worth noting that with the exception of the 4 aircraft carriers lost in World War II, and the battleships sunk during the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, the US Navy hasn’t lost a capital ship since USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbor, February 15, 1898.
And yet, so far all the Navy has done is charge one 19 year old.
And issued this incredibly insightful statement from Vice Admiral Kitchener after his command “assessed compliance with guidance” for ships undergoing maintenance as specified by Naval Sea Systems Command and “found gaps:”
We found that in some cases maybe we weren’t doing as well as we should have.
Thankfully, everything else is great in the Navy. Except maintenance on much of the fleet is behind schedule. And ship procurement costs continue to rise. USS Ford still isn’t operational. In fact, 4 of the 11 weapons elevators still are not operational. This should make us all scratch our heads; why aren’t all the elevators the same? Get one running, then they would all run? But that isn’t so. In fact, early in 2020 the Navy said that all would be operational before the July 2021 shock trial; they weren’t.
And some day the Littoral Combat Ships will get their various warfare modules…
To return to Bonhomme Richard, I have no doubt that one disgruntled sailor can start a fire.
What worries me is that no one seems to be answering why this one sailor was so successful. Why did the fire so quickly get out of control that it consumed the ship? Where was the fire-fighting team, the damage control team on hand to address this sort of thing? The responses that: “the ship was undergoing repairs, manning had been reduced, certain systems had been secured because of various work that was being performed, etc., etc., etc.," simply are inadequate. The guidance that Naval Sea Systems Command has issued is extensive; there is a long “laundry list” of steps that are supposed to be taken when a ship secures (turns off) a safety system of one type another, to include reducing manning while in an extended yard period. These are based on simple but profound lessons, lessons that have been learned over hundreds of years at sea. One of them is that manning should never be allowed to fall below the minimum necessary to handle any emergency. If that means people don’t go home on weekends when you are in the yards, then people don’t go home on weekends.
The Admiral’s comment that: “we weren’t doing as well as we should have,” comes across as flippant, when you consider that it was addressed to tax payers who will need to come up with another $3 billion, to parents who entrust him and his brother senior officers with their kids, and to citizens who trust him and other senior officers to guard this country.
The full mishap report is to be released in September; we will have to wait to see what it says. But in the meantime, Navy leadership, which seems to spend a great deal of time trying to make sailors happy, should consider some words of wisdom from an old boss of mine: You may not be having fun, but you better be doing it right.
About Pete O'Brien
Peter O’Brien has more than 30 years of successful leadership and planning experience in a wide range of organizations afloat and ashore on three continents. Mr. O’Brien’s Navy career included ten years at sea, more than a dozen years stationed overseas and multiple ...