By any standard, last week was a downbeat week for U.S. Navy news. First the Navy staff released its long-awaited report chronicling the fire that immolated a major amphibious warship, USS Bonhomme Richard, at its moorings in San Diego a year ago. Naval magnates declared the ship a total loss. Unsurprisingly, then, the rapporteur, Vice Adm. Scott D. Conn, is unsparing in his judgments. He finds fault not just with the ship’s crew but with senior officers throughout the U.S. Pacific Fleet hierarchy.
Consequences will doubtless follow.
The money quote from the Bonhomme Richard report, though, comes from the vice chief of naval operations, Adm. Bill Lescher, who endorsed its findings: “The loss of this ship was completely preventable.” That seems fair. While an arsonist allegedly kindled the blaze, the ship’s damage-control organization failed utterly to extinguish it. Much of the vessel’s installed firefighting equipment was offline while the ship underwent a refit and upgrade. The crew neglected to perform routine upkeep on most of the rest. And no one even tried to use it to fight the fire.
As Adm. Conn puts it, “At no point in the firefighting effort were any [installed fire-suppression systems] used, in part because they were degraded, maintenance was not properly performed to keep them ready, and the crew lacked familiarity with their capability and availability.” For example, an “aqueous film-forming foam” (AFFF) station was installed in the compartment where the fire was ignited. An AFFF station dumps foam on a fire to smother it, generally with good results.
If you use it, that is. You activate AFFF by pushing a button. That’s not a difficult feat of fire science — yet no one performed it, or apparently even thought to. To yours truly that stands out as the most damning single fact revealed by Bonhomme Richard investigators. It bespeaks materiél and human failures of epic proportions.
Later in the week, the Heritage Foundation piled on with its annual Index of U.S. Military Strength, which rates the Navy’s adequacy unto its missions as “marginal” trending toward “weak.” There’s not a whole lot new in the report for navy-watchers apart from its startling verdict. Long story short, the Heritage researchers deem the fleet too small, too old, and too ill-resourced for an age when ambitious great-power rivals prowl the seven seas. They say the navy needs to bulk up by about a third, from just under 300 to 400 ships, to adequately cope with its duties. Otherwise it will continue trying to do more and more with an aging fleet that’s middling in size and stagnant in numbers. It will wear itself out.
It’s another harsh but fair judgment.
Now reread these stories through the eyes of decision-makers or spectators in Beijing, Tokyo, Manila or Canberra. Impressions count — and fair-minded audiences might form the impression that American naval power is in decline. Two collisions in Far East waters cost the lives of 17 sailors in 2017, and there were two others that year to boot. Bonhomme Richard burned in 2020. Just this month, the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Connecticut struck an underwater object in the South China Sea and had to put into port to survey the damage.
Observers could be forgiven for detecting a pattern. And if they do? They might infer that competence is on the wane in the Navy and that, as a result, the United States is less and less able to keep its security commitments to allies and friends. After all, the finest weapon is no better than its wielder. Warships with incompetent or apathetic crews underperform. If the impression that the U.S. Navy is in terminal decline takes hold among antagonists such as China and Russia, it could tempt them into adventurism from the Taiwan Strait to the Black Sea to the Arctic Ocean.
Deterrence would fail if Beijing or Moscow concluded it could pursue predatory aims with little fear of pushback from Washington.
And if allies and partners came to doubt America could keep its solemn commitments to them, they would look elsewhere for security. Self-help is the most basic principle in international relations. Allies that saw the United States as untrustworthy might launch into an arms race with overbearing neighbors in hopes of restoring some semblance of military balance. Some might even contemplate building nuclear weapons to deter large-scale aggression. The United States’s strategic position in East and South Asia and Western Europe would grow ever more tenuous as allies distanced themselves from their superpower patron.
So mending the Navy’s image is more than a matter of training sailors and correcting material woes, crucial though those efforts are. It’s about shoring up deterrence and alliance diplomacy. It’s worth noting that even false perceptions count in peacetime strategic competition. As strategist Edward Luttwak points out, it takes a battle to decide which force is stronger and more skilled. But since battles don’t take place in peacetime, observers tender their best judgment about which force would prevail if they did fight. Whichever contender observers believe would have won in wartime “wins” a peacetime encounter at sea. It prevails in the war for perceptual advantage, making itself a more formidable foe or attractive ally.
The perverse thing is this: Audiences able to influence the outcome of a competition may be unschooled in naval affairs, but their opinions count all the same. If the perception sets in that a bumbling U.S. Navy now faces off against a sleek, well-handled People’s Liberation Army Navy or Russian Navy, U.S. diplomacy could suffer a grave setback. That would be bad for America, its allies and partners, and the world.
Let’s fix our problems — and burnish our good name for seamanship and tactical acumen.
James R. Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and the author most recently of “Habits of Highly Effective Maritime Strategists” (2021). The views voiced here are his alone.