Aviation Machinist's Mate 2nd Class Zachary Saltzman, assigned to the the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard, takes off firefighting gear at Naval Base San Diego, while the fire continues to be fought. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jasen Moreno-Garcia/Released)

Sitting at dock in San Diego, the USS Bonhomme Richard was just wrapping up a comprehensive US$250 million overhaul that would have allowed it to become one of a handful of ships capable of operating the advanced F-35B fighter jet.

But the world’s most advanced amphibious ship would never get to be part of the big military push against China, for which it was designed.

Ravaged by a mysterious fire for six long days, it would tear through the ship’s 14 decks, rendering 60% of it unusable.

This week, Navy brass have decided to scrap it and the potential US$3.2 billion repair bill that would have come with it, deeming it just too expensive and too onerous to fix, Breaking Defense reported.

In contrast, scrapping the ship will cost about $30 million.

“Probably 60 percent of the ship would require replacement, including the flight deck and many of the levels below the flight deck” Rear Adm. Eric Ver Hage, commander of the Navy Regional Maintenance Center, told reporters.

That would suck time and resources away from other parts of the Navy that desperately need the money to upgrade existing ships and build new ships in the coming years, Breaking Defense reported.

The 22 year-old Bomhomme Richard was one of eight Wasp-class amphibious assault ships, which join two new America-class assault ships in ferrying Marines around the globe, along with their helicopters and fighter aircraft.

The USS America and Tripoli are F-35 capable, as will be the following ships in the class, Breaking Defense reported. 

The Navy considered multiple scenarios for the ship, including full repair and return to service, decommissioning the ship, and trying to find another role for a partially repaired ship.

“We did not come to this decision lightly,” Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite said in a statement. “Following an extensive material assessment in which various courses of action were considered and evaluated, we came to the conclusion that it is not fiscally responsible to restore her.”

The $3.2 billion repair bill isn’t far off from the price tag of a brand-new America-class ship, which comes in at around $4.1 billion per vessel, and it’s not clear that existing shipyards, already struggling under the weight of the Navy’s needs, could handle what would amount to practically a new build, Breaking Defense reported. 

“In the end, the decommissioning decision had a number of factors, one of which was, what would be the impact of the dollars spent, and the actual effort to rebuild,” Ver Hage said.

“What would be the impact on the industrial base, and the dollars spent would disrupt our strategy for investment. And then from an industrial base perspective, we had concerns that it would impact new construction or other repair work.”

The loss of Bonhomme Richard directly affects the Navy’s plans to get more F-35s out to sea, as it would have been the fifth ship modified to operate the F-35, the next-generation aircraft slated to act as the backbone of the US military’s stealthy air fleet.

“I think this will make a big impact on the amphibious fleet, since it will now be down to nine operational ships,” said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

Assuming the normal deployment cycle for amphibious ships of 7 month deployments every 32 months from US ports, and and 50% operational availability for Japan-based ships, Clark added, “that means 2 LHA/LHDs on deployment at a time. With transit time factored in, there will be gaps in either the Pacific or Middle East and no room for delays in maintenance of the remaining LHA/LHDs.”

According to The Associated Press, Arson is suspected as the cause of the July 12 fire, and a US Navy sailor was questioned as a potential suspect, a senior defense official said in late August.

The sailor was being questioned as part of the investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, an official with knowledge of the investigation said in August.

The official spoke to AP on condition of anonymity to provide details not yet made public. The sailor was not detained.

Ver Hage also declined to comment on the status of several investigations and he didn’t give a timeline for their completion, saying they “will conclude when the time is right.”

About 160 sailors and officers were on board when the flames sent up a huge plume of dark smoke from the 840-foot (256-meter) amphibious assault vessel, which had been docked at Naval Base San Diego while undergoing the upgrade, AP reported.

Firefighters attacked the flames inside the ship while firefighting vessels with water cannons directed streams of seawater into the ship and helicopters made water drops.

More than 60 sailors and civilians were treated for minor injuries, heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation.