A helicopter from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 3 combats a fire aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard. Photo: US Navy / Lieutenant Joseph Pfaff

Do you fix it, do you replace it with a new one, do you pull an old one out of mothballs and overhaul it, or just bite the financial bullet and lose it altogether?

Those are the big questions being faced by US Navy leaders as they decide how to move forward with the damaged hulk of the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard, David B. Larter of Defense News reported.

The Navy has not yet produced an estimate to repair the damage to the ship, which burned for five days in July. Assessing the full extent of the five-day fire that gutted much of the upper decks and levels of the ship will take some time yet.

But no matter what the Navy decides, it will be painful.

The service is facing a budget crunch, with the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine slated to have an outsized impact on the service’s budget for years.

That means replacing the older Wasp-class amphibious assault ship (LHA) with a more capable and much more expensive America-class LHA would be challenging without a congressional largess.

Officials who spoke on background said that the Navy’s working assumption is that the repairs could cost as much as, or even exceed, US$1.5 billion — roughly equal the original cost of construction, the Defense News report stated.

But that would still be significantly less than the cost of building a new big deck to replace the Bonhomme Richard.

In a phone call with Defense News, a Navy official who spoke on background said there were four ongoing investigations regarding the July Bonhomme Richard fire.

The USS Bonhomme Richard burned for five days in San DIego Harbor, leaving it heavily damaged. US Navy photo.

Naval Sea Systems Command is conducting an investigation and a failure review board, geared toward safety and lessons learned. A command investigation is delving into how the ship’s chain of command handled the situation.

And finally, a Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigation joined by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is also on scene.

On top of everything else, the damage assessment team has to “take a back seat” to the criminal investigation while it is ongoing, the official said.

This has hampered progress toward getting a fuller picture of what needs to be done and how much it will all cost to repair, the official said. All four investigations feed into one another and the official explained the best guess now is that the results may not be available until the end of the year, either in November or December.

The consensus among Navy analysts who have seen the damage to Bonhomme Richard in pictures and heard it described by the chief of naval operations in a July memo obtained by Defense News, is that large sections of the ship will need to be re-fabricated entirely.

“You may have to just cut it off and rebuild it above the hangar deck,” said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and analyst with the Telemus Group. “Put her into dry dock and rebuild her from the hangar deck on up.”

It’s also unclear if the West Coast’s limited dry dock infrastructure, already strained to keep up with maintenance and new ship construction, would be able to support such a plan.

“I think Bonhomme Richard is a total constructive loss and they’re just not admitting it yet,” said Sal Mercogliano, a former civilian mariner and maritime historian with Campbell University. “The amount of damage done to her is difficult to assess because she burned and held all that heat for so long.

“Even in a building that catches on fire, you immediately start worrying about the integrity of the structure. That’s magnified on a ship because you have all that steel that conducts all that heat throughout the structure.

“You would have to analyze every centimeter to see where the weaknesses in the steel are, let alone getting her underway and putting all those stresses on the hull.

“She was cooked for six days. In the commercial industry, we’d write it off and get the insurance money.”

If the damage assessment team finds that the hull is too damaged to be salvaged, Hendrix suggests looking at one of the older classes of big-deck amphibs, such as the Tarawa-class ships. Both Peleliu and Nassau are in the reserve fleet.

“Even if you broke one of the Tarawas out, they still can’t do the F-35,” Mercogliano said. “It doesn’t have the flight deck for it and it’s an open question as to whether the elevators could handle it.”

For Mercogliano, if the Navy doesn’t want to lose the capacity, it may just have to bite the bullet and buy a new one from the shipbuilding fund.

“You’d be better off spending the money to get a brand-new ship and getting 30- to 40 years out of it,” he said.