Last Monday morning, I had the privilege and the pleasure to board the US Navy amphibious ship USS Bonhomme Richard, which was anchored in Manila Bay for a goodwill visit. The ship, I believe, leaves today for its homeport of Sasebo, Japan, prior to returning to the United States for mid-life servicing.
The ship is also commonly referred to as the “BHR” or LHD-6. It is the sixth out of eight so-called Wasp-class “Landing Helicopter Dock” ships currently active with the US Navy in different parts of the world. Interestingly, BHR or LHD-6 came after LHD-5, which is the USS Bataan. Yes, that’s right. There is a US Navy ship in service today named after a province in the Philippines.
The USS Bataan Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) were reportedly the first ships to respond after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, sailing immediately to New York Harbor from their port in Norfolk, Virginia. Materials available online also noted that later on, during Operation Enduring Freedom, the USS Bataan ARG stayed on station off the coast of Pakistan and completed the longest sustained amphibious assault in US history with sailors not touching ground for over four months.
Listed as USS Bataan’s involvements are the Iraq war; providing relief to the victims of hurricane Katrina; assisting in the humanitarian relief efforts following the 2010 Haiti earthquake; it was deployed to Italy to assist in enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya in 2011; and, it was part of the 2014 air campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, among others.
As for the BHR, it has an equally interesting history of involvement in both military and civilian operations, particularly disaster relief and humanitarian efforts. Its primary mission, of course, is to embark, deploy, and land elements of a Marine landing force in amphibious assault operations by helicopter, landing craft, and amphibious vehicle. Thus, it carries in its belly over 1,000 Marine troops and their equipment at any given time.
It reportedly had secured Pacific waters as part of Operation Southern Watch. And, like the USS Bataan, it was also deployed as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. Later, it also supported Operation Iraqi Freedom by offloading more than 1,000 Marines and gear into Kuwait, after which it operated miles off the coast of Kuwait and became one of two “Harrier Carriers” along with the USS Bataan in the Persian Gulf.
Information available online indicated that it then detached in 2004 to provide relief efforts in Sri Lanka following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and its subsequent tsunamis. In 2005, the ship helped airlift relief supplies to the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. Since then, it had been part of various military exercises around the world. In 2009-2010, its ports of call included East Timor; Phuket, Thailand; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Oahu, Hawaii.
It was in 2012 that the BHR reportedly took the place of USS Essex as the command ship for Expeditionary Strike Group Seven and switched its homeport from San Diego, California to Sasebo, Japan. From Japan, it sailed to assist in the air-sea rescue operation of the capsized South Korean ferry in April 2014. Now on its 20th year since commissioning, it is heading home for servicing.
To get an idea of what the BHR is all about, the US Embassy invited a small group of journalists to board the ship along with some distinguished visitors from the Diplomatic Corps as well as Philippine Defense and military officials. It was a very interesting tour of a ship that one US Marine official described as a “floating airport.”
For that is what the BHR is, really. Sized about two-thirds of a regular aircraft carrier, the BHR secures the Asian region with its load of helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, amphibious as well as armored vehicles, heavy equipment, and about 2,500 Navy crew members and a Marine expeditionary force.
Unlike an aircraft carrier, the BHR does not have a catapult. Thus, it carries mainly aircraft that can take off and land on their own power. But, also unlike an aircraft carrier, the BHR can lower its rear into the water to load or deploy amphibious vehicles for beach landings. In times of emergency, it can sail to the Philippines from its Japan port in about three to four days.
If you ask me, between a ship that can take the fight to the sea, and a ship like the BHR, the Philippines can be better served by investing even in just one LHD-type naval vessel. BHR, for instance, has a 15-bed Intensive Care Unit and a 44-bed hospital ward. But, in time of emergency, the ship space for bunks can be converted into a 600-bed hospital if necessary.
Moreover, the BHR is accustomed to feeding about 2,500 people with four meals daily. It runs on steam, with boilers running on the same jet fuel used for the aircraft on board. The ship also has its own ability recycle the condensations from its propulsion system and at the same time generate potable water for drinking and cooking and for sanitation use, among others.
Ship officials told journalists that just before reaching Manila, two appendectomies were done on board, with one patient having resumed duties, and another in recuperation. The BHR is a city in itself, which can easily be supplied through airlift even while on duty. And given its capabilities, ship captain US Navy Captain Larry McCullen, Jr. aptly described it as a sort of “Swiss Army Knife.”
While offshore, BHR directs air traffic and flight operations. It caters to helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft in need of servicing and refueling. In short, it is a floating airport that can be easily deployed to where there are deep enough waters, and from its belly it can deploy amphibious vehicles and landing crafts for beach landings.
As a civilian, I look at BHR’s capabilities in relation more to peace time than in war. And with typhoon disasters fairly common here, we could be served well by such a vessel if we had one. During Yolanda, the US actually sent over the USS George Washington Carrier Group. However, how often can a foreign government deploy an entire carrier group to the Philippines for disaster relief operations? Yolanda’s case was unprecedented.
Moving forward and planning ahead, rather than a submarine, for instance, which I hear is what the Philippine military prefers to buy, a vessel like the BHR will be most suitable given our archipelagic nation. If and when necessary, such a vessel can be completed by a small fleet of sea planes and heavy-lift helicopters to further boost its capability to assist in disasters.
Yes, a ship like the BHR can cost upwards of $1.5 billion. And it will take a lot of money to maintain and operate it. In this regard, aid, grant, support, or donation from foreign governments will help in procuring such a vessel for the Philippines. This is where diplomacy comes into the picture. That is, if there is the Philippine political will to get something like this done.
Marvin A. Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council.