CAVASSHIPS Podcast [Jul 10, 21] Episode 5…Avoiding Bankruptcy


Welcome to the CavasShips Podcast with Christopher P. Cavas and Chris Servello. A weekly podcast looking at maritime events and issues of the day – in the US, across the seas and around the world.

This week we talk with noted naval experts, Bryan McGrath of the FerryBridge Group consultancy and Thomas Shugart, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for New American Security and founder of Archer Strategic Consulting, to get their take on the latest Navy budget battles and to learn if the service is indeed strategically bankrupt–as suggested in a recent War of the Rocks commentary.(GRADUALLY AND THEN SUDDENLY: EXPLAINING THE NAVY’S STRATEGIC BANKRUPTCY, Chris Dougherty)

In our squawk box segment Cavas laments the year long wait for investigation finding and lessons learned from the largest in port disaster in recent memory…as he sounds off with “Remember the Bonhomme Richard!”

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This Week’s Naval Round Up:

On July 6 HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH and ships of her Carrier Strike Group 21 passed southbound through the Suez Canal and entered the Red Sea en route to the Indian Ocean, becoming the first British full-sized aircraft carrier to operate in those waters since the late HMS ARK ROYAL of the 1970s. The movement marks a significant return for the British Royal Navy, which sacrificed much of its size – including most of its frigate force – to build and equip its new carriers and protect them at sea. At the same time QUEEN LIZ was at Suez, her younger sistership PRINCE OF WALES called at Gibraltar at the other end of the Mediterranean Sea, a notable accomplishment.

In a somewhat related development – at least in terms of the Suez Canal, the infamous containership EVER GIVEN was finally released from custody on July 7 and allowed to finally exit the canal’s northern end. The ship grounded in the canal on March 23 and completely blocked the waterway that cuts between the Mediterranean and Red Seas, allowing ships headed from Europe to Asia and back to avoid the much-longer transit around Africa. The ship was finally refloated on March 29 but was held by Egyptian authorities to settle compensation claims. While shipping and maritime authorities have always known of the vulnerabilities of major choke points like the Suez Canal, the blockage and world-wide attention it garnered raised the awareness of such key maritime highways to world trade.

On July 1 the carrier USS DWIGHT D EISENHOWER passed northbound through the canal and exited the Mediterranean on July 7 headed for her homeport of Norfolk. Earlier in the deployment the EVER GIVEN’s grounding held up IKE’s transit from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. The EISENHOWER and QUEEN ELIZABETH transits illustrate the importance of Suez in easily moving naval forces from one operational theater to another.

Exercise SeaBreeze 2021 continued in the Black Sea, sponsored by the US and Ukraine and with a number of NATO forces taking part. Notably, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the US destroyer ROSS on July 4 at Odesa to show his support. In the Pacific, ships from Japan, South Korea and the US arrived at Sydney, Australia ahead of Pacific Vanguard exercises.

And on July 7 a small fire broke out in a machinery space aboard the cruiser GETTYSBURG at BAE Systems shipyard in Norfolk. According to a Navy spokesman, the fire — attributed to sparks from hot work — was quickly extinguished after it was found. Four sailors were treated and released at a local hospital. The Navy said there was no damage to the ship, which is undergoing a modernization overhaul and is not one of the seven cruisers the Navy is seeking to decommission in fiscal 2022.

Lastly, Carlos Del Toro, the Biden administration’s nominee to become the next secretary of the Navy, will go before  the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday July 13 for a confirmation hearing. At this juncture there seem to be no significant obstacles to his confirmation by the full Senate to become the 78th Secretary of the Navy. 

This Week’s Squawk…by Chris Cavas:

Remember the Bonhomme Richard

July 12 marks the one-year anniversary of the fire aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard. The big-deck amphibious assault ship was nearing the end of a major two-year, quarter-billion-dollar overhaul and upgrade that was to allow her to operate the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter. The fire broke out while the ship was pierside in the US Navy’s second-largest naval base at San Diego. The blaze was declared out on July 16, more than four days after it began. The damage was extensive and affected eleven of the ship’s fourteen decks.

Over the course of the fire, hundreds of sailors and firefighters were involved in fighting the conflagration, which was fully visible to thousands of people in the San Diego area. But at every turn, when one might have expected the fire to come under control, it did not. While a series of decisions were made on how to fight the fire, none of them were successful – at least until after four days and the ship was a near-wreck.

The disaster was unprecedented. Not since the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had a major warship been lost in the heart of a large American naval base. The closest such event was in 2012, when a fire – later determined to have been started by an arsonist – caused severe damage to the submarine Miami while in dock at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. That fire, which was put out after nine hours, caused so much damage the Navy reckoned the cost of repair wasn’t worth it, and the Miami was decommissioned.

It didn’t take the Navy long after the Miami fire to determine a number of fixes were needed to improve fire watch and fire-fighting procedures for ships in overhaul, and those directives began to be issued only a few weeks after the Miami fire. The arsonist was eventually convicted and sent to prison.

Yet it has been a year since the Bonhomme Richard burned and no one has been held accountable, no cause revealed, no public report on the event been issued. The Navy cites multiple ongoing investigations, but it should not take a year to figure out what happened. There are two major issues: first, how did it start? Completely separate from that is the question — a fire started, then what happened?

But there is no accounting, no acceptance of responsibility. No indication that what happened on the once-mighty Bonhomme Richard will not happen again. The burned out-hulk of the ship now lies at an obscure Texas scrapyard, never again to go to sea. It is out of sight – and in danger of falling out of mind.

The time is long past for the Navy to have publicly provided answers to what caused the loss of the Bonhomme Richard. That a year has gone by with no official report looks and smells like a deliberate coverup.

Slogans like Remember the Maine, Remember Pearl Harbor and Remember 9/11 remain famous for their call to remember those responsible for those disasters.

To those well-worn phrases I’ll add, Remember the Bonhomme Richard.

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