Navy Refines Littoral Combat Ship Shore Training

NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO, Calif. – The eyes of a half-dozen crew of Littoral Combat Ship USS Jackson (LCS-6) were staring at computer displays, tracking contacts and consulting manuals in the warship’s dimmed pilot house as the bridge watch team guided the ship through foggy waters. However, Jackson wasn’t at sea. The gold crew members of […]

Sailors stand a simulated watch on the bridge of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) Integrated Tactical Trainer (ITT)-2B at the Littoral Training Facility on Naval Base San Diego, March 5, 2020. US Navy Photo

NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO, Calif. – The eyes of a half-dozen crew of Littoral Combat Ship USS Jackson (LCS-6) were staring at computer displays, tracking contacts and consulting manuals in the warship’s dimmed pilot house as the bridge watch team guided the ship through foggy waters.

However, Jackson wasn’t at sea. The gold crew members of the San Diego-based LCS were working on their individual and team watch-standing skills in the integrated tactical trainer at LCS Training Center Pacific ahead of a navigation assessment. Other Jackson gold crew sailors worked on their Personnel Qualifications Standards and Train-to-Qualify requirements in virtual labs.

Crews enter the immersive trainers to work through simulated scenarios in a realistic, full-scale simulation, where they can fail without fear and unlimited do-overs.

“This is orientation. This is knowledge,” Capt. Dustin Lonero, the commanding officer of LCS Training Facility Pacific told USNI News. “So when they get to their ships, they are ready to integrate it at a much quicker pace.”

That’s particularly important for the LCS community, whose blue/gold crews rotate to their forward-deployed hull every four to five months and must be ready to hit the ground running and operate their ship. With few ships typically available for at-sea training at their home station, the LTF serves a key role to provide that needed training and certification for both individual sailors and crew of off-hull ships.

“Each sailor is valuable,” Lonero said. “You can’t afford to have a sailor who’s not up to speed.”

The simulated training systems, with integrated ship navigation and combat systems, are known as Surface Training Advanced Virtual Environment-LCS. LTF-Pacific has three full-sized spaces that replicate the pilothouse, with bridge wings and 180-degree window screens that enable high-res external imagery that can mimic the swells and movements of a ship underway. Consoles and stations – including for the officer-of-the-deck (OOD), junior officer-of-the-deck (JOOD) and readiness control officer (RCO) and interior communications – are exactly as they are in the real ships.

“Everything here is the exact same model you’ll see on ship,” Lt. Cmdr. George Bank, the LTF-Pacific’s executive officer, said during a recent tour.

About 80 military personnel along with 12 civilian workers and 30 contractors work at LTF-Pacific, plus an additional 30 contractors who provide maintenance as needed, officials said. An East Coast counterpart, LTF-Atlantic, was established in September 2022 in Mayport, Fla., for the LCS-1 USS Freedom fleet of ships. The LTF provides Train-to-Qualify courses that teach sailors new to LCS about its systems and train them to be watchstanders and Train-to-Certify courses for crew certification.

U.S. Marines with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369, Marine Aircraft Group 39, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW), land an AH-1Z Viper on USS Jackson (LCS-6) during exercise Steel Knight 23, in the Pacific Ocean, Dec. 10, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

The LCS community has minimally-manned crews by design, with hybrid sailors taking on multiple responsibilities compared to surface warfare crews on other warships. Crews on deploying hulls rotate overseas to their ships, so foundational work to build and sharpen LCS-specific skills happens ashore, mostly in simulation trainers.

Sailors training at the LTF get oriented to their hull’s systems and equipment before stepping aboard, and “they can integrate with the crew quickly,” Lonero said. That’s important, he noted, amid manning gaps that don’t leave much time for that orientation once sailors get to their hulls.

Lonero took command on Nov. 1, when the LTF was established and renamed in a Navy realignment of Surface Combat Systems Training Command. The name change from Center for Surface Combat Systems and realignment define the command’s critical mission of training surface warfighters, according to the Navy.

Upgrades Ahead

Naval Academy Midshipmen navigate a simulated Independence-variant Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) in the Integrated Tactical Trainer (ITT) of the LCS Training Facility on board Naval Base San Diego on Aug. 2, 2021. US Navy Photo

The $46.6 million LTF Pacific, which opened in 2017 in a renovated warehouse near the waterfront, has three integrated immersive trainers, three bridge trainers, a mission bay trainer and virtual reality labs where smaller groups of students learn the intricacies of their rate, watch duties and tasks. It provides both basic phase certification and sustainment training for crews that are off-hull or preparing to get underway for training certification or large-scale exercises.

The Alpha integrated trainer is down while it gets long-term upgrades and software updates until April, and Bravo trainer will follow in June, Lonero said.

“The big one that we have our eye on is the Lethality and Survivability upgrades,” he said.

Alpha trainer is funded for the L&S upgrades, which include more consoles and software upgrades and a new combat systems suite, starting in Fiscal Year 2024. Bravo and Charlie trainers also will be upgraded, but there’s no time frame yet.

“We are just trying to match the fleet so we can just service the legacy ships and service L&S ships as well,” he said. “We are looking at numbers and we’re kind of reading the tea leaves to see when the transitions are occurring so we can adjust our timelines accordingly.”

Consoles and computer suites will change, said Mike Mershon, director of LCS Training Facility Pacific.

“For LCS-2, it’s almost a complete gut job of the combat systems part. The bridge will be the same. The watch stations are going to be in the same space, but it’s a whole new combat systems. They’re standardizing it.”

“Just like any ship in the Navy, they’re constantly getting the new and the better,” Mershon said.

If the Navy moves ahead with changing LCS mission packages from surface to mine warfare, “then we’ll match the transition as well,” Lonero added. The facility already provides a mine countermeasures capstone course for minemen, “and eventually we’ll start doing MCM certification.”

“I think the Navy is still trying to come up with what they want to see on the certification and sustainment of an MCM mission package ship. So we are just trying to lean forward and we’re just trying to build our own,” and they plan to provide a proposal to Afloat Training Group, he added. “By next year, I think, hopefully that’s ironed out.”

Risks and Training Ashore

Sailors simulate the navigation of a littoral combat ship, inside the Integrated Tactical Team Trainer 2 at the Center for Surface Combat Systems’ LCS Training Facility (LTF), April 6, 2021. US Navy Photo

Simulated training lets crews train and work on crew coordination when they cannot get to sea. They can push the limits without the risk if underway, officials say.

“Anybody can be a great watchstander in (Southern California operating area) when the weather is great, when there’s no traffic. But how do you handle things when there’s some pressure on you, there’s a lot of traffic, the weather’s bad? How do you make decisions then?” Lonero said. “This gives a window for a CO to look through to see how the watchstanders handle those situations.”

Simulation trainers can push crews and bridge watch teams through stressful events. It’s a balance to provide enough challenges for the crew to learn, even to fail, and provide enough leeway “to control the ship as they see fit,” he said. “This is a good place to test that.”

“All those extra hours that you get in – whether it’s in BRM or crew cert or just coming in for stick time – is really valuable. It’s hard to get that out in SOCAL,” he added. “You don’t get close to what you’re seeing when you’re on deployment in the South China Sea, with two [PLA Navy] shadows and a ton of traffic and your radar is going down, or something like that. There are some situations that are tough to prepare for, but if you’re going through some of the scenarios that we have here, you’re going to have a leg up.”

That means replicating missions in real-world waters, where crews have to manage congested channels, tricky ports, rough weather and the peering eyes – and sometimes dangerous maneuvering – of foreign ships and patrol boats. Among the missions that LCS crews are asking for more lately are escort and freedom-of-navigation operations, the latter a particularly dicey mission in the South China Sea.

Filling Training Needs

The littoral combat ship USS Jackson (LCS-6) sits pierside in San Diego, Calif. US Navy Photo

Unlike deploying warships that get time to train underway heading west from San Diego on deployment, the rotational nature of LCS crews that fly to their overseas port means they have to hit the ground running.

“It’s not your typical warm-up,” Lonero said. Other ships deploying from the West Coast have time to train before they reach Guam, “and it slowly starts picking up in the Philippines.” But for LCS crews, he said, it’s “boom, and you’re dealing with actual Chinese ships on your first underway.”

“So the more training that you can get so you’re ready to respond for that, the better.”

Lonero, whose career includes four Persian Gulf deployments on a frigate and cruiser, has skippered crews on three littoral combat ships – USS Gabby Giffords (LCS-10), USS Coronado (LCS-4) and, most recently, USS Montgomery (LCS-8). One year, he recalled, he flew to Singapore to meet up with his ship.

“We had about five days to turn over, and then it was turn-and-burn,” he said. “There’s no workup. It’s right away into heavy traffic, dealing with the Chinese (ships), operating with a ship we haven’t done in months.”

“It’s just a lot to handle,” he added. “So, you need this, I think, if we’re going to operate this model. This is crucial” for initial training. There’s no time to waste. A junior OOD reporting aboard after completing their capstone course might get two weeks of familiarization aboard and get qualified and stand a watch, he said. “You need to get them on that watchbill in weeks,” not months.

“They may not be fully qualified watchstanders yet because they’re a couple of weeks onboard,” Mershon said. But COs “know what they’re getting from students that we output.”

The simulation trainers are well utilized, with training going into the late night, officials said. “It’s a balancing act to see who we can train and when,” Lonero said, noting “we do get a lot of requests for specialized training we try to meet.”

He said that he didn’t realize the training opportunities at the LTF until he took command. So he’s working some initiatives to spread the word across the waterfront and this year hopes to kick off a “road show” to brief about LTF and educate skippers and crews about what the facility offers.

“If you want additional stick time, other than what’s available to you, you can sign up for a sustainment course,” he said. “I want to make sure all of that is communicated very explicitly to the COs so they understand what the LTF is capable of.”

Hands-on Focus

The trainer at the Mariner Skills Training Center in San Diego, Calif., is meant to help new officers learn basic navigation, seamanship and shiphandling skills ahead of reporting to ships and serving as a junior officer of the deck. USNI News photo.

In one of the virtual reality labs, information systems technicians and electronics technicians worked through guided and unguided instruction on Day 25 of a 35-day Combat Systems Operator course. Seated at individual banks of monitors, students used avatars and waded into virtual environments as if they were aboard ship. With thick, red operating manuals in hand, they worked through the lesson plans to learn the various combat systems equipment, “from start-up to shut down,” said Electronics Technician 1st Class Anthony Reever, an instructor. The gaming-like control systems “are very intuitive.”

“This entire course is at your own pace,” Reever said. But “it’s encouraged for the students to interact with each other.”

Over in the expansive mission bay, a small group of sailors gathered outside a metal container as an instructor went over a mine warfare system. The space replicates the LCS mission bay and supports several courses, including Deck Operations and the Material Handling Equipment course. Here, sailors learn to operate forklifts to move around small metal containers, operate the boat skid for rigid-hull inflatable boats, and use a large Mobicon container handler to lift and move large containers around the large bay, said Chief Boatswain’s Mate Kendrick Taylor, an instructor. Students also get hands on the systems to operate the large stern door.

The LTF includes state-of-the-art briefing rooms where ship crews can gather for “hot washes” with instructors and review training scenarios and their watchstanders and individual performance. That can be very helpful, “as everybody has a different memory of what occurred,” Lonero said. “Here, you have the tape of what exactly happened. It makes for an effective debrief.”

It also provides each CO with detailed performance information on individual sailors, which can help in crafting watch bill sections and identifying those for leadership roles. “A lot of times, it could be different than what I saw myself,” Lonero said. “Here, seeing how teams work together… and getting feedback on the performance of the leadership, I think it’s an eye-opener.”

Steel Knight Exercise Tests Marine, Navy Integration in ‘Island Fight’ Scenario 

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – A pair of helicopter gunships swept over a scrubby valley and waited overhead as the first two MV-22B Osprey tiltrotors landed on the dusty landing zone. The rear-mounted machine guns provided cover as Marines raced into the nearby brush. Far to the south, another force of Marines went ashore via landing […]

U.S. Marines with Bravo Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division, jump from a U.S. Army MH-47 Chinook helicopter with 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment during helocast training as part of Steel Knight 23 off the coast of Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Dec. 2, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – A pair of helicopter gunships swept over a scrubby valley and waited overhead as the first two MV-22B Osprey tiltrotors landed on the dusty landing zone. The rear-mounted machine guns provided cover as Marines raced into the nearby brush. Far to the south, another force of Marines went ashore via landing craft from San Diego, Calif.-based dock landing ship USS Harpers Ferry (LSD-49).

The assault forces likely won’t meet in this simulated battle, and that’s by intent. The sprawling, coastal Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, along with nine other installations and offshore ranges across a region covering 60,000 square miles, are providing a patchwork of “islands” that form the key battlespace during exercise Steel Knight 2023. The area between Camp Pendleton and San Clemente Island is serving as the key strait or strategic waterway the naval forces are tasked defend.

Nearly 10,000 Marines and sailors are participating in this year’s annual exercise in a scenario that includes additional virtual forces and that draws from the Marine Corps’ Force Design 2030 vision and joint maritime strategy to prepare forces for likely battles, including in vast maritime Indo-Pacific region. The “islands” in the scenario represent the maritime, littoral environment that military officials believe will be the next major battlefield in the future – if potential threats from China, Russia or North Korea turn real.

This year’s exercise is planned as “a simulated naval war fight against a peer-level competitor in a future littoral environment,” Maj. Gen. Ben Watson, the 1st Marine Division commander told USNI News on Monday during a media event. Steel Knight 2023, the division’s annual large-scale exercise, began Nov. 28 and wraps up Dec. 15.

A rigid-hull inflatable boat (RHIB) is staged as safety observation boat for well deck operations with dock landing ship USS Harpers Ferry (LSD-49) during exercise Steel Knight (SK23), Dec. 5, 2022. US Navy Photo

“The naval force… is going to be central to America’s ability to fight and win in that future conflict,” Watson said. “Training together as a Navy and Marine Corps – integrating staffs, making sure that our concepts and our warfighting capabilities are interoperable and able to contribute together to maximum effectiveness in that future maritime naval fight is really important, and that’s what we’re focused on here.”

“This is putting together some parts that don’t always work together and training them for a specific purpose – to be ready to go forward, contribute to deterrence on behalf of the nation,” he added. “But if deterrence fails, fundamentally, we’re the folks that need to be prepared to fight and win against a peer-level adversary in a future war fight anywhere on the globe. In this case, we’re focused on the Western Pacific.”

Units participating in SK23 include 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Logistics Group and 3rd Marine Air Wing, officials said. About 2,100 sailors are involved, including crews with four San Diego-based ships – Harpers Ferry along with amphibious warship USS Tripoli (LHA-7), dock landing ship USS Pearl Harbor (LSD-52) and littoral combat ship USS Jackson (LCS-6). Also at sea are the unmanned surface vessel Sea Hunter and other vessels supporting operations and live-fire training at the Navy’s offshore and San Clemente Island ranges.

For the exercise, the division moved most of its combat forces with 1st Marine Regiment over 300 miles to Fort Hunter-Liggett, using the training post along California’s central coast as the main operating base. “From there, they are projecting capabilities” from the shore and by helicopters and tiltrotors, Watson said, to the “forward bases to secure key maritime terrain to emplace strike capabilities and sensor capabilities to control key terrain afloat.”

Marine AH-1Z Viper with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369, Marine Aircraft Group 39, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, prepares to land aboard amphibious assault ship USS Tripoli (LHA-7) during exercise Steel Knight 23, Dec. 5, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

The exercise, Watson said, is providing another venue for Marines to train with NMESIS, the Navy-Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System, “a very capable” anti-ship, naval strike missile that Marines can land ashore and easily move as needed to help defend ships at sea or key waterways.

This year’s exercise also is the final mission rehearsal, done along with Expeditionary Strike Group 3 and I Marine Expeditionary Force, for the Marine air-ground task force deploying in several months as Marine Rotational Force-Darwin for the annual 2023 rotation to Australia.

The SK23 focus on naval integration has the command staffs with 1st Marine Regiment and Amphibious Squadron 5 integrated both at Battle Simulation Center at Camp Pendleton and at sea, officials said. Units in the upcoming Darwin rotation and training at SK23 include 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines and Combat Logistics Battalion 1, both based at Camp Pendleton.

More Blue-Green Training

A landing craft, utility (LCU) assigned to Assault Craft Unit (ACU) 1 prepares to enter the well deck of dock landing ship USS Harpers Ferry (LSD-49) during exercise Steel Knight (SK23), Dec. 3, 2022. US Navy Photo

Steel Knight, which began in 1991, long has served as a key event to exercise 1st Marine Division’s command and control among its various subordinate units, providing realistic training – including live-fire events – for its West Coast-based ground combat units. But just in the last year or two, it’s become more of an integrated naval exercise, with more ships and sailors involved.

“In the past, we’ve trained for a large part for the Navy to deliver Marines to a point where they put them ashore to accomplish objectives on the land,” Watson said, “and what we’ve really evolved to now is the Navy and Marine Corps working together to project power from the sea to the shore, but also for the Marines to be able to contribute to things like sea denial. How do we, with capabilities based ashore, to the protection, control or defense of key maritime terrain, like straits and waterways, things like that. How do we project combat power from shore out onto the water.”

The SK23 focus on naval integration has the command staffs with 1st Marine Regiment and Amphibious Squadron 5 integrated both at Battle Simulation Center at Camp Pendleton and at sea, officials said.

Navy Capt. Jennifer Ellinger participated in last year’s SK22 exercise when she commanded Amphibious Squadron 7. That training was key to prepare the Marines’ air-ground task force that deployed earlier this year for the 2022 Australia rotation. There, MRF-Darwin units, formed around 5th Marine Regiment, spent time ashore training with foreign military partners and at sea with U.S. 7th Fleet ships.

A U.S. Marine with Bravo Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division, rides on a personal watercraft as a safety observer during helocast training in Del Mar Boat Basin as part of Steel Knight 23 on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Dec. 2, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

Both services are “continuing to refine the way we plan together, we cooperate and coordinate together, especially with command and control, not only of ships but of Marines ashore,” said Ellinger, now ESG-3’s exercise control lead for SK23. That includes working on integrated naval fires, at land, at sea and in the air and on sea denial operations.

Some newer technologies are at play this year. Joining the ships at sea is Sea Hunter, which is equipped with newer technologies. It’s involved in maritime control and helping to provide the “common operating picture” during SK23, Ellinger said. Jackson is equipped with a weapons package for the Navy Sea Sparrow Mission and has an MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicle along with its with an embarked helicopter for help maritime surveillance and sea denial operations, she added.

Ellinger said the Steel Knight exercise “is an extension of 3rd Fleet and I MEF’s endeavors to continue to strengthen not only our amphibious forces but also our expeditionary combat forces. So we continue to refine and enhance the capability to interoperate.”

“We have a lot of innovation that’s being developed,” she said, “and Steel Knight is the perfect exercise for the Navy-Marine team to put into fleet experimentation new USVs along with NMESIS and other missile and communication systems that enhance cooperation and innovation.”

Air and Logistics Exercised Too

A Marine MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 164, Marine Aircraft Group 39, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, prepares to land during an air assault as part of Steel Knight 23 at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Dec. 5, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

Capt. Joseph DiPietro, a former tank officer who participated in SK22, said that it was important learning “how to work across the MAGTF and to work with our Navy partners, that way we were prepared for anything that might come up in the Indo-Pacific theater.”

Logistics was one of the top challenges DiPietro said he and his Marines faced.

“We treated the local bases as islands so you have to move things differently than if you’re just driving on roads,” said DiPietro, a communication strategy officer with 1st Marine Division. “You have to get everything either on a ship or in the air.”

They took what they practiced at SK22 once they were in Australia and, more than once, had to figure out how to move equipment across islands in the South Pacific.

“In the future operating environments that we’ll be in, you have to be creative and utilize everything, from naval shipping to civilian barges. We used a seaplane one time in Australia,” he said.

Pilots and air crews at Steel Knight are getting the chance to sharpen skills in assault force, escort, strike and armed reconnaissance missions, often working very closely with their Navy counterparts, according to exercise participants.

Capt. Tommy Gavin, a UH-1Y Huey pilot with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 169, said the squadron has integrated with Navy H-60s for missions including sea denial. “The 60s will kind of coordinate our reconnaissance flights,” including in scenarios where they’re tasked to defend a ship, said Gavin, whose squadron is based at Camp Pendleton. The Hueys are equipped with the advanced precision kill weapons system, or APKWS, rockets that can be used against targets including small enemy boats.

U.S. Marines with Marine Wing Support Squadron (MWSS) 372, Marine Air Control Group 38, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW), refuel a UH-1Y Venom with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 169, Marine Aircraft Group 39, 3rd MAW, at a forward arming and refueling point during exercise Steel Knight 23, on Red Beach, Camp Pendleton, California, Dec. 3, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

Those might be used as the squadron gears up for likely missions in and around San Clemente Island and the Navy’s adjacent, live-fire sea ranges. “Especially in exercises like this, they push us out to San Clemente Island. It’s great training out there with the ranges” and boats with pulled targets, he said, adding, “That’s really good training, integrated with the Navy there.”

The weather injected a bit of last-minute changes as plans for training missions from Hunter-Liggett got moved south when wet, wintry weather moved across northern California. The exercise is also giving Osprey pilots the chance to work and coordinate with the escorting “skids” of AH-1Z Cobra and UH-1Y Huey helicopters – one of each reconnoitered the zone and provided cover for the air assault into the LZ on Monday – that provide extra situational awareness for the transport flights.

“Approaching an objective area, we reach out to them via radio,” said Capt. Kyle Davinsizer, an Osprey pilot with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 164, based at Camp Pendleton. “They’re eyes overhead, letting us know whether or not it’s safe to land or stop where you’re at and let us sanitize the zone. They’re making sure it’s safe for us to land.”

That coordination and integration will be critical in maritime environments where naval forces are operating far away from higher headquarters “as if you you don’t have guidance,” Gavin said. In such scenarios like depicted in Force Design 2030, small units are expected to plan, act and react independently within the larger commander’s guidance and standard operating procedures.

They also practice scenarios like losing communication so they “have to develop contingency plans for all the scenarios,” Davinsizer said. “You still practice as if you don’t have communication.”

“We should know how to work together,” added Gavin, “and practicing here just improves those tactics.”

Navy Tests Reloading Missiles on Destroyer in San Diego Bay, Open Ocean Tests Tougher Task

A pairing of a guided-missile destroyer and a supply ship in San Diego Bay last week was the Navy’s latest test to learn how to resupply its warships with missiles during a high-end conflict. The Military Sealift Command-sponsored reloading test matched USS Spruance (DDG-111) with the offshore support vessel MV Ocean as a test platform to support logistics experimentation […]

Sailors aboard Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Spruance (DDG-111) guide training ordnance into the ship’s forward vertical launch system (VLS) cells during a proof-of-concept test in San Diego, Oct. 4, 2022. US Navy Photo

A pairing of a guided-missile destroyer and a supply ship in San Diego Bay last week was the Navy’s latest test to learn how to resupply its warships with missiles during a high-end conflict.

The Military Sealift Command-sponsored reloading test matched USS Spruance (DDG-111) with the offshore support vessel MV Ocean as a test platform to support logistics experimentation for fuel, stores, passengers and ordnance delivery.

The test marked the first time the Navy has used an offshore support vessel to test the reloading of the vertical launch system aboard a warship, officials announced.

The experiment, which ran Oct. 4-7, involved only training loads and was held pierside at Naval Air Station North Island in Coronado, Calif., and in San Diego Bay, Cmdr. Sean Robertson, a 3rd Fleet spokesman told USNI News. Crews maneuvered training canisters – some empty, some weighted – but none had live ordnance during the tests, Robertson told USNI News.

“There was an open-ocean work scheduled. They did not do it. They had some safety concerns,” he said. “Because of excessive roll, they didn’t do the open-ocean transfer.”

It’s unclear if the Navy would conduct an open ocean, at-sea reloading of a ship’s VLS. “They’re working out the after-action reports, and there will be a determination” at some point, Robertson said. He declined to speculate when that might occur or with which mix of ships and support vessels.

Concept Tested Earlier

Military Sealift Command fleet experimentation ship MV Ocean Valor maneuvers alongside Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Spruance (DDG 111) in order to conduct a proof-of-concept evolution in San Diego, Oct. 5, 2022. US Navy PhotoThe Navy, in recent years, has been pursuing the capability to reload a warship’s VLS while at sea and, presumably, closer to the maritime fight. The recent years’ VLS reloading experimentation has involved a number of Pacific Fleet ships.

In 2021, the dry cargo ship USNS Amelia Earhart (T-AKE-6) and guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) experimented with VLS reloading at sea, Robertson said. That was preceded in 2019 by two separate VLS-reloading tests, which “were pierside and protected harbor only. There were no open ocean events.”

The first one that year was in May 2019 and involved the guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG-54) and the dry cargo/ammunition ship USNS Richard E. Byrd (T-AKE-4). Both ships had participated that month in the combined maritime exercise Pacific Vanguard off Guam. The second, held in August 2019, involved the dry cargo/ammunition ship USNS Washington Chambers (T-AKE-11) and guided-missile destroyer USS Wayne E. Meyer (DDG-108).

Three years earlier, in 2016, the Navy put VLS reloading to the test with initial experimentation with the auxiliary ship USNS Bob Hope (T-AKR-300) and the guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG-52).

Also in March 2019, Navy cargo handling and Navy Munitions Command crews did an expeditionary ordnance reload demonstration at Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station, Calif., with the guided-missile destroyer USS Michael Murphy (DDG-112). The crews used forklifts and cranes to load Standard Missiles 2s into the ship’s VLS cells, according to a Navy news story about the event, held during exercise Pacific Horizon 2019.

Options for the Pacific Fight 

An SM-2 missile launches and destroys an airborne training target during a successful first test of the updated AEGIS Baseline 9 weapons system aboard the guided-missile cruiser USS Mobile Bay (CG 53) on Oct. 24, 2017. US Navy Photo

The ship-to-ship transfer of missiles, especially in the open ocean, is no small feat. Missiles in the Navy’s fleet of cruisers and destroyers are stowed in individual cells of the MK-41 Vertical Launch System, but they can’t be reloaded while the ship is underway. The missiles must be loaded by cranes — which would be difficult to do at sea.

A ship today needs to return to a port or reach a safe, calm harbor where it can reload its VLS from a support ship – and be a safe distance from threats from adversaries, like China or Russia. That also means that ships, especially in the vast Pacific region, will be out of the fight for days or weeks, with time lost to transit but also with the added potential enemy threats from air or space.

The loss of a warship that needs to travel far to a safe harbor to get its resupply of missiles is a problem for the surface fleet.

“Those ships are gone for a month, basically. If the fight is only going to last a month or two, that means you get one use out of them and that means they’re out of action for the remainder of the war,” naval analyst Bryan Clark told USNI News.

What’s needed is a reload capability closer to the front, “maybe a few days away, maybe in the Third Island Chain or Second Island Chain islands,” in the case of conflict with China, said Clark, a senior fellow and director of the Center for Defense Concepts and Technology at the Washington, D.C.-based Hudson Institute. “Or you can even do it alongside a really big ship, like an [mobile landing platform] or an ESD, that allows you to make it so there are more locations to reload and, more importantly, you can reload closer to the area of action.” Those larger ships, like the expeditionary sea bases, also could offer protection in calm seas.

Auxiliary ships like the fleet of T-AKEs and LMSR vessels, if tasked, could be positioned “outside the fight. The whole purpose is to make it so it’s only a few days away, as opposed to it being two weeks to a month away to reload,” he said. “You’ve got a shrinking surface fleet, so we need every ship to contribute as much as possible.” Clark had authored a 2017 paper – Commanding the Seas: The U.S. Navy and the Future of Surface Warfare – that noted the shortfall in VLS reloading capability and early experimentation.

Challenge of the Open Ocean

Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold (DDG-65) on June 24, 2022

Navy officials “probably need to figure out a way to reload surface combatants with air defense missiles to get them to get back in the fight so they can continue to protect the carriers and protect places like Guam. That’s probably why you’re seeing a renewed interest in this idea. That’s why this hasn’t been fixed a long time ago,” Clark said. The surface fleet “would like to see itself as very much this strike contributor, where reloading makes a big difference. But it’s really just not been in practice a major element of their contribution to these war fights, at least as how they’re played out in war games.”

A reload ship tasked to support might be 1,000 miles or three days’ travel away – “that’s far enough away where the PLA would have to decide, do I want to expend a really expensive and scarce intermediate-range ballistic missile on this ship, which may not be something that they’re willing to do,” he said. “You can put the reload ship far enough away and still get benefit from it, because it’s still going to be a lot closer than having to drive the DDG all the way to Guam, potentially, but more likely Yokosuka or Hawaii or maybe Australia. But having the reload ship in the second or third island chain is going to be a lot closer than any of those other options.”

The main obstacle to doing this, he said, “is the willingness of the Navy to outfit some of those auxiliary ships with some of this capability.” The Navy has auxiliary ships in the maritime prepositioning force – although that may take it out of the fleet that supports the Marine Corps – as well as the MSC surge fleet that could be repurposed, as seen in some of the reloading experiments.

“It’s certainly doable,” he added if the Navy “wants to spend the money to buy the gear and then outfit these ships and position them out in the Pacific. I would think that from INDO-PACOM’s perspective, I think that investment makes a lot of sense from a deterrence point of view.”

“The question is,” Clark said, “does the Navy share that idea or does the Navy say, ‘I’d rather spend that money on buying more missiles to fill up my existing magazines or spend it on making sure that we get all the upgrades done to the existing DDG fleet’?”

West Coast ACV Overturns in Training, No Injuries Reported

The Marine Corps ordered a stop to waterborne operations in the surf zone for its fleet of Amphibious Combat Vehicles after an ACV overturned in the waters along Camp Pendleton, Calif., the service announced Friday evening. Under the halt, no ACV is permitted to launch from or land on an ocean beach. An ACV assigned […]

An ACV with 3d Assault Amphibian Battalion, 1st Marine Division onshore and USS Anchorage (LPD-23) and two Navy safety boats in the water. USNI News Photo

The Marine Corps ordered a stop to waterborne operations in the surf zone for its fleet of Amphibious Combat Vehicles after an ACV overturned in the waters along Camp Pendleton, Calif., the service announced Friday evening.

Under the halt, no ACV is permitted to launch from or land on an ocean beach.

An ACV assigned to Assault Amphibian School suffered “a reported mechanical malfunction” around 7:45 p.m. on Thursday, the Marine Corps said in a news release.

“Of the three crew members inside the vehicle, none sustained injuries or required medical attention,” according to the release. “The incident is currently under investigation.”

The Marine Corps suspension will last until more testing and data is collected and analyzed, according to the release. Amphibious Vehicle Testing Branch-sponsored surf operations are allowed.

Land-based operations are not affected, and the ACVs can still operate in protected waters and in the open ocean, Marine Corps spokesman Capt. Ryan Bruce told USNI News.

At Camp Pendleton that means the ACVs can launch into the water or swim ashore from the base’s boat basin, a protected harbor that has ramps and a sandy shore.

“Open-water operations are still good to go,” Bruce said.

Officials did not detail the mechanical issue that led to the vehicle overturning in the surf.

The surf in the region just south of the base was reported to be 2 to 3 feet. The ACV was reportedly still stuck in the sand Friday morning. It wasn’t clear whether crews had recovered and removed the vehicle from the training beach by late afternoon.

The suspension comes just three weeks after the service cleared its growing fleet of ACVs to resume open-water operations following a two-month pause after a pair of ACVs were disabled in the surf during a July 19 training event at Camp Pendleton involving 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion. Amid that investigation, the Marines also delayed the first operational deployment of the ACV, which was supposed to be part of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s overseas deployment with the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group.

That followed a months-long pause in waterborne operations after the fatal July 2020 sinking of an AAV during shore-to-ship training. Multiple investigations found serious failures in training, certifications, standard operating procedures, maintenance requirements and naval integration involving the AAV. It also raised similar concerns as both services prepared for the first ACV shipboard operational deployment.

“We’re taking a deliberate and methodical approach to fielding this platform,” Lt. Gen. David Furness, the deputy commandant for plans, policies and preparations, said in the release. “This adjustment to current guidance ensures our Marines have the ability to safely train and maintain proficiency with the platform while we work to conduct additional testing.”

The suspension of surf-zone transiting is the latest disruption to waterborne training for the Marine Corps’ AAV/ACV community.

The ACV, built by BAE Systems, is replacing the Marine Corps’ aging fleet of tracked Assault Amphibious Vehicles. The wheeled ACVs have been undergoing a series of testing and operations with the 1st Marine Division and I Marine Expeditionary Force in California, including water and well-deck operations with Navy amphibious ships this year.

BREAKING: Former Bonhomme Richard Sailor Ryan Sawyer Mays Acquitted of Arson

This post has been updated with additional details. NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO, Calif. — A military judge today acquitted a young sailor accused by the Navy of setting a 2020 fire that ultimately destroyed an amphibious warship as it neared completion of a major modernization and overhaul. Capt. Derek Butler’s findings – not guilty of […]

Federal firefighters assess damage in the hangar bay aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) on July 15, 2020. US Navy Photo

This post has been updated with additional details.

NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO, Calif. — A military judge today acquitted a young sailor accused by the Navy of setting a 2020 fire that ultimately destroyed an amphibious warship as it neared completion of a major modernization and overhaul.

Capt. Derek Butler’s findings – not guilty of arson and of hazarding a vessel – puts an end to a two-year ordeal for Seaman Recruit Ryan Sawyer Mays. As a 19-year-old deck seaman, he was fingered by a shipmate who claimed he saw Mays near where the fire began in the former USS Bonhomme Richard’s (LHD-6) lower vehicle deck.

At hearing the verdict, given briefly by the judge, there was a loud collective gasp in the courtroom and Mays, standing between his attorneys, dropped to his chair and sobbed loudly.

After a minute or so, a crying, red-faced Mays hustled to the galley and tightly hugged his wife. His father came to him and tightly held him.

“I never had a doubt,” he told Mays. “I love you, ” his mother said.

Mays

Defense attorneys had argued that there was more than enough reasonable doubt in the Navy’s prosecution to find him not guilty of the charges. They said he’s consistently pressed his innocence and questioned whether it was arson that started the blaze or just an accidental fire sparked by faulty vehicles or lithium-ion batteries that were stored in the area, which sailors and contractors working on the ship had used as a junkyard.

Navy criminal investigators accused Mays of starting the fire because he was angry at dropping from the training course to become a Navy SEAL. During court sessions, prosecutors described him as disgruntled and unhappy about his assignment to a ship stuck at the pier for maintenance.

“Seaman Mays’ life has been put on hold,” Lt. Cmdr. Jordi Torres, the lead defense attorney, argued on Thursday morning during closing statements. The sailor who claimed to have seen Mays in the Lower V “is the only evidence the government has … if there’s even an arsonist to begin with.”

“There was no open flame that they recovered, ” Torres said, adding that “apparently having a lighter makes you an arsonist.” Investigators found a small lighter during a search of Mays’ personal belongings.

The lead prosecutor, Capt. Jason Jones, has argued there was sufficient evidence to convict Mays on both counts. He denied Mays’ attorneys’ contention that investigators and prosecutors were biased in their fervent pursuit of the young sailor.

“There has never been a myopic focus on Seaman Mays,” Jones said. He defended the investigation and prosecution, adding that “we’ve proven it beyond a reasonable doubt.”

In 2020, Mays was held for three months in pre-trial confinement in a San Diego brig, but was released without being charged. Then, in July 2021, the Navy formally charged him but did not order his confinement as the case wound through a preliminary hearing and then went to trial.

Defense attorneys grilled investigators and government experts in fire forensics and engineering over their conclusions and argued the investigation failed to present any specific, strong physical and forensic evidence that Mays was in the deck at the time and had set the fire.

An MH-60S Knight Hawk helicopter from the ‘Merlins’ of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 3 and fire boats assist in US Bonhomme RIchard firefighting efforts on July 13, 2020. US Navy Photo

Investigators, Torres said, did not pursue possible links to two other recent fires – a burned mattress aboard amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD-2), berthed at Pier 8, the afternoon the fire broke out aboard Bonhomme Richard and, a few weeks earlier, a small fire aboard BHR in a cup in an engineering space.

“We really don’t know what happened there entirely,” Torres argued, “because NCIS didn’t investigate it. ”

Investigators questions Mays for nearly 10 hours one day in early August 2020 before he was confined to the brig. At one point in the investigation, he began to cry. “I didn’t do anything. Let me go,” he said in a video clip played in court Thursday during Torres’ closing arguments.

“This is not a close call ” the attorney told the judge. “The evidence did not support a conviction. Not by a long shot. Seaman Mays is innocent.”

“This court must find him not guilty now,” he added, “and finally let him go.”

Government, Defense to Make Closing Arguments in Bonhomme Richard Arson Case

NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO, Calif. – Through two days of testimony, defense attorneys sought to disarm the government’s case against a young sailor accused of setting a fire that led to the destruction of an amphibious warship in 2020. The attorneys called on over a dozen witnesses to refute the Navy’s contention that Seaman Recruit […]

USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) sits pier side at Naval Base San Diego on July 16, 2020. US Navy Photo

NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO, Calif. – Through two days of testimony, defense attorneys sought to disarm the government’s case against a young sailor accused of setting a fire that led to the destruction of an amphibious warship in 2020.

The attorneys called on over a dozen witnesses to refute the Navy’s contention that Seaman Recruit Ryan Sawyer Mays deliberately set a fire inside the former USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6), leading to a July 12, 2020, blaze that ultimately destroyed the ship. Federal agents had detained Mays three weeks later, suspecting him of arson after another sailor claimed he saw him in the area where the fire began.

The undesignated, deck seaman, 19 at the time, spent three months confined in the military’s brig in San Diego before he was released. Navy officially charged him in July 2021 with aggravated arson and hazarding a vessel, the latter which carries a life prison sentence if convicted.

Mays has claimed he’s innocent of the charges. His attorneys spent this week trying to convince the trial judge, Capt. Derek Butler, that there’s reasonable doubt to fully acquit the sailor.

The lack of physical evidence tying Mays to the fire gives enough doubt to the government’s investigation, they argued. Important evidence was poorly handled, they contend. The lead investigator and a government expert ruled out possible causes of the fire that couldn’t be disproved.

Investigators fixated on Mays, who one sailor claimed to see in the vicinity of the fire, even as they investigated at least one other sailor as potential suspects, his attorneys said. Mays – pining to return to SEAL training after dropping out – was portrayed as a disgruntled sailor aboard a ship in the 88th week of an extensive maintenance overhaul.

Lt. Cmdr. Jordi Torres, lead defense attorney, said its “very, very low standard” of the government’s presentation.

“There really isn’t any evidence” that Mays started the fire, Torres said on Sept. 23 during the trial.

But “you have circumstantial evidence all the time,” countered the lead prosecutor, Capt. Jason Jones, before adding “there is strong evidence of his guilt.”

Today, prosecutors and defense attorneys get in their final word during closing arguments.

Then it will be up to Butler to decide, since Mays elected to have the judge alone, rather than a military jury, decide his fate.

Mays

“I still think the government has a huge hurdle to get over to prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Gary Barthel, who represented Mays for his Article 32 preliminary hearing, said outside the courthouse Wednesday afternoon. “There is no middle ground. If he finds Mays not guilty of arson, then it’s not guilty of hazarding a vessel. There’s no middle ground.”

“If the judge were to find Mays guilty of arson, he would have to find him guilty of hazarding a vessel,” Barthel said. “If he finds him not guilty of arson, he cannot then go and find him guilty of hazarding a vessel, because the two (charges) are connected.”

Barthel, a retired Marine Corps officer and former judge advocate now in private practice in California, has been observing court proceedings since the court-martial began Sept. 19.

During the Article 32 hearing, the hearing officer found there was insufficient evidence and recommended no charges, but the Navy nonetheless ordered Mays to a general court-martial.

The judge, however, is independent from the command that ordered the trial and he “is going to deliberate on the evidence,” Barthel said, adding he believes the judge “is going to evaluate everything that has been presented.”

The Navy’s command investigation into the fire pointed to suspected arson as a cause, based on the criminal investigation conducted by Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Four days after the fire began, ATF agents and its National Response Team of investigators descended on Pier 2, where Bonhomme Richard was berthed as it prepared to wrap up a long, $249 million maintenance availability that was upgrading the ship to accommodate the F-35B Lightning II advanced multi-mission jet.

ATF Special Agent Matthew Beals, a certified fire investigator, led the agency’s report into the “origin and cause” of the fire and concluded that someone started the fire using a petroleum distillate liquid on thick, cardboard boxes packed, stacked and strewn about in the ship’s Lower V deck. ATF and NCIS agents combed through questionnaires and began interviewing members of the ship’s crew. By early August 2020, they zoomed in on Mays as the leading suspect.

Barthel said that as the fire was burning through Bonhomme Richard, the Navy already had assumed it was arson, labeling the ship “an active crime scene” even before the team of agents and investigators could access the Lower V deck where the fire was first reported.

Causes of Fire Debated

The location of the lower vehicle deck aboard Bonhomme Richard (LHA-6). USNI News Graphic

With arson suspected, investigators honed in on a section in the Lower V where what seemed like telltale signs of heavy fire and heat marked the origin of the fire. Over several weeks, they took photos of the destruction and debris on that deck and in the Upper V deck and ramps leading between the decks and the hangar bay. They recorded videos, including several walk-throughs with some of the ship’s crew who were in the vicinity or tried to access the deck as the fire began to spread. They inspected cables and wires, collected and analyzed data from heat sensors and scrutinized alarms and consoles in the ship’s damage control center.

Beals, one of the prosecution’s key witnesses, said that all helped pinpoint the general area where the fire originated.

Defense attorneys didn’t dispute that. But they disagreed with Beals’ conclusion that someone deliberately lit the cardboard boxes on fire. ATF’s own tests to replicate an open flame – like a BBQ lighter – and ignitable liquid against cardboard boxes showed that fire would initially peter out or take many minutes to grow and spread.

Mays’ attorneys suggested two possible causes from other items that were in the area of origin: An accidental fire caused by a spark in one of two forklifts or discarded lithium-ion batteries that ignited.

Beals had ruled out as a cause of an accidental ignition, such as from an electrical malfunction from the forklifts or lithium-ion batteries that were in the space or even a discarded cigarette.

But defense attorneys argued ATF was quick to dismiss other potential sources and causes of the fire. ATF’s investigation, they said, lacked detailed photographs and inspections of the forklifts, and it had no mention of Li-Ion batteries – a known fire hazard – that were strewn about in the area.

Andrew Thoresen, a forensics electrical engineer, scoured the Lower V during a four-hour visit to Bonhomme Richard in December 2020.

“I knew it was going to be quite the task to get it done in the amount of time” the Navy gave him, Thoresen testified Tuesday.

One forklift had signs “indicative of arcing. Electrical arcing,” he said in questioning by Torres, and he said he saw evidence of abrasion where wire touching a metal frame on the vehicle could spark. He also explained how different metal types like copper and aluminum in the vehicle can react to one another and melt at different temperatures.

Thoresen disagreed with ATF electrical engineer Michael Abraham, the government’s expert witness who testified last week that it was a “globule” of melted copper that hadn’t sparked any fire. But ATF didn’t do a detailed inspection of the forklifts or conduct an arc mapping “to substantiate how you eliminate it or how you identify it as a cause,” Thoresen said. “I can’t eliminate it” as a possible cause.

Same with the Li-Ion batteries, Thoresen said, which “cause fires all the time.”

He testified that he “was concerned because I see these fail so regularly.”

Although investigators took a photo of some batteries in an orange bucket in the Lower V, the ATF investigation, completed in January 2021, did not mention them. It wasn’t until Mays’ defense attorneys raised the issue that Beals collected eight “18650” Li-Ion batteries and scanned them at the National Fire Lab in Maryland.

Thoresen said an arcing event in the Lower V could have ignited combustibles that were in the area. Investigators had noted papers in the cardboard boxes along with a box of hand sanitizer bottles, office equipment, CO2 bottles and assorted trash in the vicinity.

Uniform in Question

US Fire Pump forward-looking infrared (FLIR) imagery of BONHOMME RICHARD. US Navy Photo

Barthel said the hardest hurdle Mays’ attorneys faced was the testimony of a sailor who told investigators he saw Mays wearing coveralls in the Lower V deck before sailors reported the fire.

Personnel Specialist 2nd Class Kenji Velasco hadn’t mentioned Mays by name during his first interview with ATF and NCIS agents in August 2020. But Velasco, who was interviewed eight times by investigators and at one point thought he might be a suspect, testified last week for the government that he was certain that it was Mays he saw and not someone else.

Defense attorneys chose not to recall Velasco to the stand this week. Instead, they called on a sailor who testified seeing Mays around or at that morning’s 7:45 a.m. Sunday muster on the flight deck and wearing the Type III camouflage working uniform.

Mays “was the only one not wearing coveralls,” Matthew Gonzales, a former operations specialist, said Monday in questioning from Torres. After, “we split off and we get our individual assignments,” mostly cleaning duties, and he and Mays “went to go look for cleaning supplies” and split up. He said he later saw Mays in NWUs during a muster in the hangar bay.

Gonzales was interviewed four times by NCIS, Cmdr. Leah O’Brien, one of the prosecutors, reminded him. O’Brien’s questioning of Gonzales’ account of Mays’ whereabouts that morning quickly turned snippy.

“I said I knew where his cleaning station was. I did not know where exactly he was located,” Gonzales said when she pointed out what he argued were inconsistencies in the former sailor’s comments to NCIS.

“I am not lying,” Gonzales said.

Hopeful, Not Disgruntled, Sailor

Sailors and Federal Firefighters combat a fire onboard USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) at Naval Base San Diego, July 12. On the morning of July 12, a fire was called away aboard the ship while it was moored pierside at Naval Base San Diego. Local, base and shipboard firefighters responded to the fire. USS Bonhomme Richard is going through a maintenance availability, which began in 2018. US Navy photo.

Prosecutors, during last week’s testimonies, portrayed Mays as a disgruntled, disrespectful sailor who was angry about dropping from the Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL course and subsequent reassignment to the “fleet Navy,” as he called it.

Mays, whose family sat in the courtroom during the trial, elected not to take the stand and testify in his defense. His attorneys sought to soften the government’s characterization. Midshipman 3rd Class Joshua McGill, a former intelligence specialist aboard Bonhomme Richard in 2020, had befriended Mays and they became workout buddies.

“We both dropped from BUD/S training and wanted to go back,” McGill testified via video call from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. They shared a mutual interest in fitness “and talked about how to go back.”

Two days before the fire, McGill said, he and Mays had met up for some physical training and decided to do a 24-hour workout challenge. Starting about 4:30 p.m. that Friday, they did drills at a local San Diego gym, went to Coronado “and we did about an hour swim,” and went to a local park for a “run and ruck.” They hit the track and pull up bars at Naval Base San Diego and sand dunes at the beach.

It was “something to do that weekend. We figured it would help us train to go back to BUD/S,” McGill said.

Mays, he said, was interested in explosive ordnance disposal, and both had interest in the Navy’s search-and-rescue school.

By early morning Saturday, “we decided we were done,” McGill said, and they drove to the berthing barge around 4 a.m. He said he met Mays later that day, and they hung out with other people at a local beach. On the morning of the fire, he testified he saw Mays “a few times that day…. He was on a hose team” and wearing the Type III uniform.

Other Sailors Suspected

Federal San Diego firefighters prepare to fight a fire aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) on July 13, 2020. US Navy Photo

Defense attorneys have argued the Navy’s investigation fixated on Mays as a suspect and overlooked other possible people – a sailor or contractor or someone else who could have accessed the ship and deliberately set the fire.

Miya Polion was on Bonhomme Richard the morning of the fire, preparing to start engineering duty with a 7:45 a.m. muster. That took place in the hangar bay rather than in the Lower V due to planned hot work by contractors, Polion, a former damage controlman, testified Tuesday.

After morning colors, she testified, she headed down to the well deck to get snacks from the vending machines about 8:03 a.m. The air was “foggy,” she said.

As she was walking up the ramp, “I saw a guy running out of the Lower V,” she said. “He had jumped over a cone and he was running up toward the hangar bay.”

He stood about 5-8 or 5-9 and had brown skin and black, curly hair, and he wore blue coveralls and black boots.

“I never stopped looking at him, because it’s kind of weird you’d be running on the ship if there wasn’t a casualty,” she said when questioned by Lt. Tayler Haggerty, a defense attorney.

Polion said didn’t know his name at the time, she said, but she had noted it in NCIS’s questionnaire and she was questioned by agents. At one point, NCIS called in her duty section so she could identify the person she saw. She did, she testified, and it was Elijah McGovern, a fireman recruit who subsequently was questioned by NCIS four times and investigated last year until his separation from the Navy.

O’Brien, in cross-examination, tried to cast doubt on Polion’s ability to clearly see and identify the person she saw, noting that investigators determined, during a video recorded walk-through aboard the ship, he would have been 111 feet away from her. Polion said she mostly knew sailors in engineering and said “I saw him on the barge a lot.”

As they investigated Mays, investigators also had pursued McGovern as a potential suspect in part because the investigation found he had done Google searches on his phone that included “heat scale fire white,” NCIS Special Agent Maya Kamat testified Tuesday. But the sailor told them he was researching fire-breathing dragons for a fantasy novel with a friend in Texas and showed them a manuscript of the work, Kamat said.

When graffiti about the fire popped up on the ship and in porta-potties – one included “ha ha ha I did it. I set fire to the ship” – investigators looked into several sailors including McGovern, and a handwriting expert analyzed their handwriting samples.

Thomas Murray, a forensic document examiner with the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory in Georgia, testified he “didn’t see any evidence there was more than one writer” and he saw “some similar characteristics” between McGovern’s and the graffiti. But when questioned by O’Brien, Murray conceded that additional samples would have provided a stronger conclusion either way.

Agents stopped investigating McGovern when he left the Navy, Kamat said. McGovern, who was coming off duty the morning of the fire, hasn’t been charged, and prosecutors told the judge last month that they had been unable to locate him.

Defense Begins for Accused Bonhomme Richard Arsonist

NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO, Calif. — The government’s prosecution against a young sailor accused of arson, which ultimately destroyed an amphibious warship in 2020, centers on one shipmate’s claim he saw that sailor where the fire started shortly before it was reported. That’s the picture Navy prosecutors painted last week during Seaman Recruit Ryan Sawyer […]

An MH-60S Knight Hawk helicopter from the ‘Merlins’ of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 3 and fire boats assist in US Bonhomme RIchard firefighting efforts on July 13, 2020. US Navy Photo

NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO, Calif. — The government’s prosecution against a young sailor accused of arson, which ultimately destroyed an amphibious warship in 2020, centers on one shipmate’s claim he saw that sailor where the fire started shortly before it was reported.

That’s the picture Navy prosecutors painted last week during Seaman Recruit Ryan Sawyer Mays’ general court-martial on charges of aggravated arson and hazarding a vessel. A conviction on the latter charge carries a punishment of up to life imprisonment.

Trial judge Navy Capt. Derek Butler heard testimony from nearly two dozen sailors, investigators and experts over the past week. On Monday, defense attorneys got their shot to convince the judge that Mays is not guilty and that the Navy’s case rests on a questionable investigation that lacks convincing evidence of arson and ignores other potential causes of the fire. The case is expected to wrap up by the week’s end.

The fire began aboard USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) at about 8 a.m. on July 12, 2020, and burned for five days. The blaze is among the Navy’s costliest, destroying the amphibious assault ship just as the ship neared the end of a $249 million modernization to accommodate the F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters multi-mission jet. Contractors with NASSCO, a shipbuilding company contracted to do the maintenance availability, hadn’t yet signed the ship back to the Navy, but sailors living in a berthing barge had begun to move back aboard.

Navy officials ultimately decided not to repair the ship – an estimated $3 billion loss – and sold it for scrap.

A sweeping command investigation into the fire pointed to suspected arson as a cause, based on the criminal investigation conducted by Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The investigation also highlighted widespread failures, inaction and inadequate training by the ship’s leadership and crew, revealed significant gaps in command relationships and found serious gaps and shortfalls in capabilities for fire suppression and fire attack.

Blaze Began in Lower Stowage Deck

Diagram of the fire aboard Bonhomme RIchard. US Navy Photo

Four days into the fire, ATF fire investigators with a national response team began to examine the ship’s damaged, sooted hull once the onboard fires abated. They zeroed in on an area in the ship’s lower vehicle stowage deck where they believed the fire began around 8 a.m. and shortly after duty section turnover. NCIS and ATF agents questioned dozens of the ship’s crew and collected scores of questionnaires ATF had provided them, and they sifted through debris recovered from the Lower V. Agents then cast eyes on a handful of sailors, including Mays, who they suspected of intentionally setting the fire.

Prosecutors last week arranged testimony that placed Mays in the vicinity of the Lower V, which on the weekend of the fire was packed with a mix of cardboard boxes, buckets, hoses, coils, scaffolding, forklifts and other equipment and trash. One sailor described it as “a junkyard.”

ATF Special Agent Matthew Beals, a certified fire investigator, led the agency’s report into the “origin and cause” of the fire. A 21-year veteran of the ATF, Beals said he’s investigated 225 fires over his career, and upon hearing of a Navy ship aflame at the naval base, the San Diego-based agent testified that he offered NCIS the bureau’s services.

NCIS “deferred the origin-and-cause portion (of the investigation) to ATF,” Beals said when testifying Sept. 20.

In his investigation and inspection of the ship’s Lower V deck, the agent said he believes the fire began when someone put a flame to a petroleum distillate liquid applied on thick, cardboard boxes known as “triwalls.” That fire, he concluded, spread to other items in the space.

Capt. Jason Jones, a Navy prosecutor, asked if any liquid accelerant was found at the site. None was found, Beals said, adding that it could have evaporated or been consumed in the fire. He believes a flame, potentially from a lighter or a match, was used to set the fire intentionally. He based the analysis in part on a series of field tests done in January 2021, six months after the fire. Beals also acknowledged that the contents of a metal pail he found in the Lower V were not collected and analyzed.

“I didn’t feel it warranted sending it to the lab,” he said, adding that its contents were “already contaminated.”

The investigation had noted a sailor who reported seeing someone – alleged to be Mays – walking in the Lower V with a bucket in their hand within a half-hour of the fire being reported.

He ruled out any accidental ignition, such as from an electrical malfunction from forklifts or lithium-ion batteries that were in the space or a discarded cigarette, all of which Mays’ attorneys have raised as potential causes of the fire.

A Second Look at Batteries

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Graphic of the suspected Arson site in the Lower “V”

ATF’s origin-and-cause investigation, finalized in January 2021, however, did not include detailed inspections or scans of the Li-ion batteries. Defense attorneys during Mays’ Article 32 preliminary investigation hearing in December 2021 raised the batteries as a possible source of arcing, creating a spark that led to the fire. Subsequent inspection of eight batteries that Beals believed to be those ATF photographed in the Lower V after the fire were collected in December 2021 – 17 months after the fire – and taken by Beals to the National Fire Lab in Maryland. The agent testified that after CT scans of the batteries, the ATF “eliminated” them as the cause of the fire.

Beals also dismissed two forklifts near where the fire began as culprits in the fire. He testified that ATF’s experts disagreed with Mays’ experts that arcing had occurred in the engine space of one of the forklifts. Federal investigators did no further inspection of the forklifts.
“They were left in place in the Lower V,” Beals testified.

Defense attorneys raised the possibility that a malfunction in one of the forklifts led to arcing that started the fire. But ATF electrical engineer Michael Abraham, testifying for nearly three hours on Sept. 21, said what the defense’s expert claimed was arcing in the forklift was just a “globule” of melted copper. Copper melts at 1,985 degrees Fahrenheit.

“We considered all potential sources of ignition,” said Abraham, who was part of the National Response Team assigned to the Bonhomme Richard fire investigation.

He said he visually inspected both forklifts and determined the globule would not have caused the fire, nor would the Li-ion batteries that he examined at ATF’s lab, he added.

But in cross-examination by Lt. Cmdr. Jordi Torres, one of Mays’ attorneys, Abraham acknowledged that he hadn’t included the Li-ion batteries in five pages of notes he took from his post-fire inspection aboard Bonhomme Richard, although he recorded seeing 9-volt and other batteries among the debris. He disagreed with the attorneys’ contention that internal damage or ruptures inside batteries could have started a fire.

Mays’ defense attorneys this week are expected to call their own experts in electrical engineering to testify and chip away at the government’s arguments and raise reasonable doubt of the allegations against Mays.

A Sailor’s Accusation

US Fire Pump forward-looking infrared (FLIR) imagery of BONHOMME RICHARD. US Navy Photo

Personnel Specialist 2nd Class Kenji Velasco, one of several sailors who testified on Sept. 22, told the court that it was Mays who he saw in the Lower V deck, wearing a mask and carrying a pail, before the fire was reported.

Velasco’s identification has been questionable. Velasco was more confident in identifying who he spotted that morning than in eight previous times he spoke with NCIS and ATF investigators, defense attorneys noted. In his initial interviews with agents, Velasco hadn’t identified the person he saw by name, but he eventually suspected Mays after discussing it with several other deck department sailors.

Operations Specialist 3rd Class Andrew Cordero testified that he and several others spoke with Velasco in the days after the fire about what they did and saw that morning. During those conversations, they started to think that Mays might have been the one who Velasco told them he saw go down to Lower V. They discussed what that person was wearing, and the “boot camp coveralls” that Velasco described he saw was something that they’d seen Mays wear previously.

“You all started thinking, Seaman Mays?” Lt. Tayler Haggerty, a defense attorney, asked Cordero. “Yes,” he replied.

Mays’ attorneys contend that he was wearing coveralls that morning, not the Type III working uniform. Petty Officer 2nd Class Ray Smith testified that he would have seen Mays during the 7:45 a.m. muster on the flight deck and he said he would have chewed him out if he wasn’t wearing coveralls since “I don’t like people mustering in Type IIIs.” Smith recalled first seeing smoke about 15 minutes after muster.

Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Beau Benson, recalled to the stand on Sept. 23 by prosecutors for a second time, testified that Velasco “was fixated on one person” and had asked him what time he, as a deckplate supervisor, had given Mays an assignment following muster.
“He was just fixated on him in particular,” he said.

BHR Sailors’ Recollections

Sailors and Federal San Diego Firefighters equip gear before providing firefighting assistance on board USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) on the morning of July 13, 2020. US Navy Photo

Eight sailors, all Bonhomme Richard crew members at the time of the fire, took the stand on Sept. 19 to recall what and who they saw the morning the fire began. Nearly 140 of the 1,000-person crew were on duty, according to the Navy’s investigation, and 10 minutes elapsed after smoke was first spotted before the fire was reported

Benson testified that he was standing near the top of the ramp to the Lower V when he saw white smoke, and he reported it to the officer of the day.

Senior Chief Brian Six heard the 1MC call and hustled to the hangar bay, where he saw “bellowing black smoke.” The veteran sailor said “it wasn’t like electrical smoke” but was “almost like petroleum.” He heard “a lot of popping and crackling, and you could hear the roar of the fire.”

Carrying a firefighting thermal imager as he tried to go down the ramp to the Lower V around 8:30 a.m., Six recalled high heat emanating from the bulkheads and visibility just “two or three inches in front of my face.”

Photos taken by Chief Jason February in the initial firefighting efforts show increasingly thick, dark smoke pouring into the ship’s vast hangar bay – coming up the ramp from the Upper Vehicle deck that’s above the Lower V – in the first half-hour after the fire was reported. Teams of firefighting sailors gathered in the hangar bay and later were joined by federal and local firefighting crews before two explosions two hours later forced evacuation from the ship.

“There was no visibility whatsoever down there,” Damage Controlman 3rd Class Nelson Ernesto PablosGarcia testified.

He was pulling roving duty when he heard alarms go off sometime before 8:10 a.m. and was told to check it out. He told February “to sound battle stations” and he ran to get equipped with a SCBA mask before trying to get down to the Lower V. Heat from the fire, though, kept preventing him from reaching the landing.

Damage Controlman 1st Class Jeffrey Garvin was on duty as a fire marshal when he heard a report via the ship’s 1MC speakers of “black smoke” in the Lower V. Garvin testified he ran up to the hangar bay “and I see smoke bellowing out … black, thick, very dark.”

Garvin said he was pushed back by smoke in an attempt to go down the ramp.

“It was intense smoke. Super hot. It was something I’d never felt before,” he testified.

He saw an “orange glow” and described an “excessive heat and inability to breathe.”

In cross-examination by defense attorney Torres, Garvin said that he tried to get down to the Lower V on his own initiative to try to make sure no one was down there. He was visibly upset , recalling how he couldn’t do it.

“You’re supposed to make sure everybody is safe,” he said.

Sarcasm or Confession?

The location of the lower vehicle deck aboard Bonhomme Richard (LHA-6). USNI News Graphic

The judge also heard testimony on Sept. 23 from two sailors who had escorted Mays between the NCIS office at the San Diego base and the military brig located at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego. Mays was driven to Miramar, where he would be held in detention for several months, after some 10 hours of interrogation by NCIS and ATF investigators.

Prosecutors argued that statements the detained Mays made while he was in an office at the San Diego base awaiting a medical exam amounted to a confession.

Senior Chief Master-at-Arms Jeremy Kelley testified that he heard Mays say “‘I’m guilty I did it,’ or words to that effect.

In questioning by Torres, Kelley said “you could hear his frustration. He sounded frustrated.” He conceded that he had told NCIS that it was possible that Mays was being sarcastic.

When Cmdr. Leah O’Brien, a prosecutor, asked Kelley if Mays’ tone had changed from the casual conversation during the drive from the naval base, he said “it was very different” and added, “I took it seriously.”

Master-at-Arms 1st Class Carissa Tubman testified that Mays became less chatty and less “playful” as he sat six feet away, waiting to be taken to the doctor.

Mays

“At that point, he was a little nervous. He kind of sat there quiet,” Tubman said. “He was mumbling under his breath… I heard, I’m guilty I guess I did it. It had to be done.”

Mays had enlisted in May 2019 and completed the Pre-Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL program at Great Lakes Naval Training Center, Ill., on Sept. 30, 2019. He reported to the Naval Special Warfare Training Center in Coronado, Calif., as a BUD/S student and, during his second attempt at the course, had voluntarily dropped just days into the first week of the first phase. He left Coronado on March 3, 2020, and reported to Bonhomme Richard two weeks later. He’s been assigned to Amphibious Squadron 5 in San Diego since April 2021.

Mays’ sour attitude came from frustration after dropping from BUD/S and assignment to Bonhomme Richard as an undesignated seaman, according to testimony and the investigation. Mays often talked about returning to the training course and openly complained about the deck department and shipboard duty and cursed out the “fleet Navy,” sailors recounted.

Senior Chief Boatswain’s Mate Michael Simms, testifying on Sept. 21, described Mays as cocky, disrespectful and unhappy with doing grunt work, like painting and cleaning, as a member of the ship’s deck department, but in cross-examination acknowledged that “it’s not the most glamorous job in the Navy.”

Trial Begins for Alleged Bonhomme Richard Arsonist

NAVAL BASE, SAN DIEGO, Calif. – To military prosecutors, the fire that led to a 2020 conflagration that destroyed a multi-billion dollar amphibious warship was “a mischievous act of defiance” by a young sailor angry that he dropped from Navy SEAL training. But defense attorneys contend that Seaman Apprentice Ryan Mays is innocent, the target […]

An MH-60S Knight Hawk helicopter from the Merlins of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 3 provides aerial firefighting support to fight the fire aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) on July 14, 2020. US Navy Photo

NAVAL BASE, SAN DIEGO, Calif. – To military prosecutors, the fire that led to a 2020 conflagration that destroyed a multi-billion dollar amphibious warship was “a mischievous act of defiance” by a young sailor angry that he dropped from Navy SEAL training.

But defense attorneys contend that Seaman Apprentice Ryan Mays is innocent, the target of a questionable federal investigation into the July 2020 fire aboard USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) that has little evidence to tie him to the blaze.

Mays, 22, a Kentucky native, is facing two felony charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice – one count of aggravated arson (Article 126) and one count of willful hazarding a vessel (Article 110). The latter charge carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

A military judge, Capt. Derek Jones, is presiding over the two-week general court-martial and will determine the fate of May, who opted for a trial by judge rather than have a military jury hear the case.

Bonhomme Richard was berthed at Pier 2 at Naval Base San Diego on the Sunday morning of July 12, 2020, when a fire broke out in the ship’s lower vehicle deck. The ship was at the end of a $249 million scheduled maintenance overhaul that included upgrades to the ship’s combat systems and flight deck to accommodate the Marine Corps’ new fleet of F-35B Lightning II joint strike fighter jets.

Only a fraction of ship’s company was aboard the 844-foot-long vessel that morning. That weekend, junior sailors began moving back aboard the ship, which was in the 88th week undergoing work under the maintenance availability contract the Navy had issued to BAE Systems.

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Graphic of the suspected Arson site in the Lower “V”

On Monday, prosecutors argued that Mays had a grudge against the Navy and hated doing the drudge work of the deck department. Mays was assigned to the ship after dropping out of the Basic Underwater Demolition Training/SEAL course and his frustration caused him to set his ship afire.

“It was a mischievous act of defiance gone wrong,” Cmdr. Leah O’Brien told the court in opening statements Monday morning.

“There is absolutely no doubt that fire was arson,” O’Brien said, and she argued that “there was nobody in the Lower V… except for one sailor, Seaman Recruit Mays.”

Mays became a suspect after another sailor told Navy and federal fire investigators that he had seen Mays in the lower vehicle deck before the fire broke out.

Investigators, however, in prior testimony, haven’t identified the specific source of what started the fire, which spread quickly from the ship’s lower vehicle stowage area and grew as it spread across most of the ship’s 14 decks. It took hundreds of firefighters and sailors nearly five days to get the fire to get under control. The Navy eventually sold the hulk for scrap.

Mays has denied any role in the fire. His attorneys have argued that fire investigators – led by agents from the Bureau Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service – skipped other possible suspects and selectively left out evidence of other potential causes in the final fire investigation they submitted to the Navy.

“Cognitive bias led this entire investigation astray,” Lt. Tayler Haggerty, one of May’s three military attorneys. Mays, “is innocent,” she said.

Mays

Mays had mustered on the flight deck the morning of the fire as the crew was on their Sunday holiday routine, Haggerty said. He did light chores in his assigned spaces before he heard calls of “black smoke” ring out. “He was never in the Lower V,” Haggerty told the court. “So why are we here?”

The attorney argued that investigators dismissed another sailor as a potential suspect for starting the fire, even after they learned that sailor, Fireman Elijah McGovern, had done internet searches that morning for “heat scale white” and “fire color heat scale.” McGovern had been standing watch before the fire started, and investigators who questioned him had said that he said those internet searches were part of his interest in his personal writings about fire-breathing dragons.

It’s unclear whether McGovern, who last year was separated from the Navy, will be called on to testify. Navy prosecutors last month told the judge that they had no luck locating him.

Haggerty described McGovern as having his own grudge against the Navy.

“He did not like being in the Navy,” he said.

She noted that McGovern, whose nickname was Arc, was considered a suspect in what was an inconclusive investigation into a series of graffiti scrawled on ship and portable toilets after the Bonhomme Richard fire. He was eliminated as a suspect even though a handwriting expert found him to be a possible match. Those writings included comments like, “I did it[.] I set the ship on fire. Fuck the ship. One down three to go,” she said.

Defense attorneys also have argued that the fire investigation didn’t examine other potential sources of the fire, including discarded Lithium-ion batteries stored in the Lower V area where fire investigators agree the blaze began.

Seven former Bonhomme Richard sailors testified on Monday – several by video call – and described seeing smoke and their firefighting reporting and response in the initial hour after the fire began

One sailor, Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Beau Thomas Benson, described the area in the Lower V area as a cluttered catch-all, a “junkyard” filled with ship and contractor gear.

Damage Controlman 3rd Class Nelson Ernesto PablosGarcia, during questioning by lead prosecutor Capt. Jason Jones, described thick smoke that filled the area by the Upper and Lower vehicle decks and heat so intense he could feel it through his boots. He made several attempts to reach the lower deck via the ramp but was pushed back by the heat and lack of full protective firefighting and breathing equipment in those early moments of the fire.

The location of the lower vehicle deck aboard Bonhomme Richard (LHA-6). USNI News Graphic

The fire “will get hotter by the foot,” PablosGarcia said. He had to close his eyes and nearly got blinded because of the heavy smoke.

Damage Controlman 1st Class Jeffrey Garvin, a fire marshal on duty when the fire broke out, was visibly shaken during questioning on the stand when asked about events that morning.

“It was very intense smoke. Super-hot. It was something I had never felt before,” Garvin testified. He tried to reach the Lower V deck but was turned back by “excessive heat and the inability to breathe.”

Garvin left the hangar bay at times, unprovoked, to reach the space where he and several sailors reportedly saw “orange” glow. He was concerned there were crew members there.

“You’re supposed to make sure everybody is safe,” he said.

The handheld thermal imager he held showed the heat in the spaces to be 900 degrees and higher. The imagers max out at 1,100 degrees, with the screen going white.

Before testimony began, both sides argued over the inclusion of evidence for the judge to weigh about a separate and smaller fire that was reported aboard Bonhomme Richard just a few weeks before the huge blaze. ATF Special Agent Matthew Beals described that fire as a report of a fire in a styrofoam cup.

During questioning by a defense attorney Lt. Cmdr. Jordi Torres, Beals admitted “there was no analysis of the liquid” in the cup, which the attorney said was found in an engineering maintenance space aboard the ship in June 2020 after a sailor reported seeing “12-inch flames” and smoke. The incident wasn’t included in the larger Bonhomme Richard fire investigation.

The trial continues Tuesday, with fire investigators and fire forensics experts expected to testify as the government’s case continues.

New Details Revealed in ‘Fat Leonard’ Escape, Detention as Manhunt Continues

An international manhunt continued Tuesday for Leonard Glenn Francis, a former defense contractor and convicted mastermind of a multimillion-dollar U.S. Navy corruption case who fled custody from home detention Sunday morning, just weeks before he was to be sentenced to federal prison. Francis, a Malaysian national and the former president of Singapore-based Glenn Defense Marine […]

U.S. Marshals wanted poster for Leonard Francis

An international manhunt continued Tuesday for Leonard Glenn Francis, a former defense contractor and convicted mastermind of a multimillion-dollar U.S. Navy corruption case who fled custody from home detention Sunday morning, just weeks before he was to be sentenced to federal prison.

Francis, a Malaysian national and the former president of Singapore-based Glenn Defense Marine Asia, was convicted in 2015 after taking a plea deal in exchange for helping U.S. prosecutors implicate three-dozen military officials. Since at least 2018, he has been living in home detention in San Diego under court-approved “medical furloughs” for treatment of renal cancer and other health issues, according to federal court documents. He was scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 22 before District Court Judge Janis Sammartino.

But at about 7:30 a.m. Sunday, the GPS tracker affixed to Francis’ ankle alerted federal monitors that it “was being tampered with,” a U.S. Marshals Service official told USNI News.

That alert prompted monitors with U.S. Pretrial Services to check on his status, which, per protocols, means ruling out scenarios including a faulty tracker. That agency handles all federal defendants on pretrial or pre-sentencing release.

“They just can’t assume somebody is on the run and call U.S. Marshals,” said Supervisory Deputy U.S. Marshal Omar Castillo, with the U.S. Marshals Service in San Diego. “We got the call from them around 2:30 in the afternoon, and that’s when we went out to the residence.”

About a half hour later, the Marshals’ team arrived at the home, in an expensive area known as Carmel Valley, “to see if in fact he had possibly left or if he just had an issue with the GPS,” Castillo said. When they got there, the deputy marshals confirmed Francis wasn’t there.

Looking through the windows, after announcing their presence, they could see “the house was empty,” he said. Someone found an unlocked door, and “found the GPS monitor inside the house … and the scissors that he used to possibly cut it were right next to the GPS monitor.”

Before the marshals got to the house, San Diego Police Department had been alerted, either by Pretrial Services or Francis’ attorneys, to conduct a welfare check on Francis, Castillo said.

More than seven hours passed between when federal authorities were alerted by the GPS monitor and when marshals arrived at the house. Castillo said he didn’t know what caused the lapse in time. Marshals don’t get involved in any of the monitoring actions “until a judge actually issues a bench warrant for a defendant to be brought back … for pretrial release violation,” he added. It wasn’t clear whether Sammartino issued the warrant. U.S. Pretrial Services provides probation and pretrial work for the federal courts.

Unknown to federal monitors, Francis had been moving belongings out of the property – he lived there with his mother and children, according to court documents – for several days as neighbors told federal authorities they saw several U-Haul trucks “coming in and out of the residence,” Castillo said. “There was more than one” seen on Friday or Saturday.

Undated photo of Leonard Francis

“We are following leads that have come into our national number, as well as our website, and we are following some leads that we have established ourselves,” he said. “As of now, we think he’s probably going international. It sounds like he’s been planning this for a while.”

Castillo said he didn’t know what security arrangements were in place at Francis’ residence. He understands that Francis had security monitoring him, issued by the court, but paid for by Francis.

“I can tell you nobody was there when we showed up,” he said. “Nobody was there.”

It’s unclear how much time Francis had spent detained in U.S. physical custody before or after his conviction on a guilty plea. He had been living in home detention for at least four years, according to unsealed court documents.

That arrangement, approved by Sammartino with prosecutors’ support, was based on round-the-clock monitoring by a GPS ankle bracelet and a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week physical guard at Francis’ residence. That residence included a one-bedroom apartment, rented condominium and a gated single-family home, according to court transcripts.

Sammartino, a long-time district judge, has been overseeing the bulk of the cases brought forth from San Diego-based federal prosecutors who have led the long-running, wide-ranging investigation into Francis and GDMA’s alleged fraud and bribery of Navy and military officials, including senior officers serving with the Japan-based U.S. 7th Fleet.

“Our office is supporting the U.S. Marshals Service and its San Diego Fugitive Task Force in their efforts to bring Leonard Francis back into custody,” Kelly Thornton, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California, said in a statement Tuesday. “We will have no further comment at this time.”

Prosecutors have garnered federal convictions against 33 of 34 U.S. Navy officials, defense contractors and GDMA officers charged in the case, including Francis.

“We can confirm that NCIS is working jointly with the U.S. Marshals Service, Defense Criminal Investigative Service and U.S. Attorney’s Office to locate and apprehend Mr. Francis,” the Navy said in a statement to USNI News. “Out of respect for the investigative process, we cannot comment further at this time.”

Francis’ escape comes just two weeks before he was due to show up in a San Diego courtroom to be sentenced for his role in the case.

Francis was 50 years old when he, along with his company, in 2015 pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery, bribery and conspiracy to defraud the United States, charges that could net him a 25-year prison sentence.

How Francis could escape from a four-years’-long home detention isn’t clear. But court documents unsealed last month reveal that Sammartino, as well as federal prosecutors, had lingering concerns about Francis’ commitment to adhere to judge-approved, pretrial restrictions that would enable him to get medical treatment in San Diego for unspecified ailments. This includes reported Stage 4 renal cancer, according to the transcripts, and other health issues related to aging.

Undated photo of Leonard Francis

Francis’ defense attorneys repeatedly requested that he be allowed to continue living at home while he received medical care, rather than be medically treated by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. That request came after he had undergone some medical procedures and was receiving a series of medical treatments that required constant and regular medical monitoring. Those treatments, at times, required adjustments to the private security guards that were required to watch him round-the-clock, including when he moved into a condominium, rented from a medical doctor, for medical care. It wasn’t clear, from available court records, where the security guards were stationed, and how many. During one December 2020 court hearing, his attorney said that two guards alternated 12-hour shifts, a situation that raised concerns when one guard left the property for an extended lunch during a time when a federal pretrial monitor showed up to check on Francis.

“I don’t want to make this more complicated than it is, but in the event that something were to happen and the facility were to be empty one morning and he’s not there and he’s back in Malaysia for whatever reason,” she said, regarding her concerns about setting up that temporary convalescent location.

At one point, Sammartino repeated concerns in court about Francis’ honesty after Pretrial Services told the court that the security guard at Francis’ residence wasn’t on site during one unannounced visit. Francis was paying those security guards. Sammartino ordered all sides to her courtroom, and Francis, speaking by phone, apologized to her and said it wouldn’t happen again.

“Understood,” Francis’ lead attorney, Devin Burstein, replied, according to a transcript.

The judge questioned whether or not the U.S. Marshals Service would monitor Francis, saying that her name was on the the decision to let Francis outside of jail “without any security.”

“You’re not telling me he can’t afford this anymore, because he’s affording everything else, which is infinitely more expensive than the security individual,” Sammartino said.

Sammartino had approved those “medical furlough” requests multiple times, starting at least December 2017 – including in late 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic became more concerning to Francis’ medical condition – and even after she had received, unsolicited, a November 2020 letter from a San Diego-area bariatric surgeon who had been treating Francis that gave him a clean bill of health.

At a hearing to discuss that matter, the judge seemed to question her decision to allow Francis to remain in home detention. Francis had been released, by federal authorities, on his own recognizance and with a GPS bracelet, but without needing to post a monetary bond, as is common in cases where there’s a concern about escape.

“Number one, he could be here,” Sammartino told attorneys at one status hearing. “Number two, what I have traditionally told other defendants in pending cases in this overall conspiracy is that this has been a legitimate medical furlough, and at the point of which it is no longer a legitimate medical furlough, the court may take a different position.

“The other concern I have is, if he is not (redacted), I’m concerned. Is he paying his security team? What is his status? I even went so far as to wonder if he is still in this country. So I would like to hear all of those addressed. And the other thing is, Mr. Burstein, Mr. Pletcher, you have been very diligent in this matter, and it surprises me that I hear this from the doctor directly and not from you when there was a change of [medical] circumstance.”

Francis’ attorney told her that Francis continued to pay his round-the-clock security team and he was living in the house with his children.

“He’s not going anywhere,” said the attorney, who later added that Francis had moved out of the condo, which he had rented from the doctor who he had a falling out with over a billing issue, according to the transcript.

A U.S. Pretrial Services representative told the judge that Francis was monitored, even throughout the times when medical treatments required that the GPS bracelet be removed.

At a status hearing in January 2021, Sammartino questioned the status of Francis’ health and, at one point, raised the possibility of having an independent, third-party medical expert come to the court and explain Francis’ current health and future expectations. He was expected to testify at several pending trials of Navy officials, including five former 7th Fleet officers.

Defense attorneys argued that he would do so in 90-minute increments, with 15-minute breaks to accommodate his medical condition, as was the practice when Francis testified at an earlier military court-martial.

But when that trial began last spring, Francis wasn’t on the witness list. It’s unclear why he wasn’t called to testify. The latest court transcripts available on the publicly accessible website were from a December 2021 status conference, when the judge extended the medical furlough until May 23, 2022.

A federal jury convicted four of the five Navy officers – Capts. David Newland, James Dolan and David Lausman and former Cmdr. Mario Herrera – in late June on charges of accepting bribes from Francis. They are set to be sentenced next month.

The jury couldn’t agree on a verdict for the fifth officer, Rear Adm. Bruce Loveless. Loveless, a former fleet intelligence chief, has continued to contest the charges and is seeking an acquittal. Sammartino has denied his motion for mistrial, and a status hearing is set for Sept. 30 in San Diego.

Attorneys Argue Over Graffiti Confessions, Alternative Suspects in Bonhomme Richard Fire Criminal Hearing

NAVAL STATION SAN DIEGO, Calif. – While firefighting crews and sailors massed at Naval Base San Diego’s Pier 2 to attack a fire spreading across former USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6), a small fire scorched a mattress on another amphibious assault warship berthed a mile away. That fire, on a rack in troop berthing aboard Wasp-class […]

USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) sits pier side at Naval Base San Diego on July 16, 2020. US Navy Photo

NAVAL STATION SAN DIEGO, Calif. – While firefighting crews and sailors massed at Naval Base San Diego’s Pier 2 to attack a fire spreading across former USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6), a small fire scorched a mattress on another amphibious assault warship berthed a mile away.

That fire, on a rack in troop berthing aboard Wasp-class USS Essex (LHD-2), was extinguished by a petty officer, leaving the compartment on the ship’s 02 level in a smoky haze.

The fire was minor in scale compared to the conflagration that consumed much of the 844-foot-long Bonhomme Richard and its 13 decks. But the mattress fire in COVID-restricted berthing aboard Essex revealed some parallels to the larger fire. A military judge on Wednesday ruled that those similarities are worthy of further examination by defense attorneys representing a junior sailor accused of setting a fire that led to the $3 billion loss of the 22-year-old Bonhomme Richard, which the Navy decommissioned in 2021 and sold for scrap.

USS Essex (LHD-2) arrives at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii for RIMPAC 2020 on Aug. 10, 2020. US Navy Photo

Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays, 22, is charged with aggravated arson and hazarding a ship. Mays has denied the allegations, and his attorneys contend that criminal investigators have overlooked other suspects and dismissed potential causes of the fire.

A Naval Criminal Investigation Service probe did not identify any suspects for the July 12, 2020, Essex fire, believed to have been started when someone lit a flammable cleaning wipe found on the charred but flame-resistant bedding.

During a two-day pretrial hearing this week in a courtroom at the 32nd Street naval base, defense attorneys argued that NCIS and federal investigators did not pursue potential links between the two ship fires that occurred the same day at the same base along the same waterfront. They raised the possibility that one person might have set both fires. Investigators do not know what time the fire aboard Essex began, as some time had passed before it was reported that afternoon and the ship secured its brow. A duty fire marshal testified that anyone with a CAC card could access the ship.

The location of the lower vehicle deck aboard Bonhomme Richard (LHA-6). USNI News Graphic

While the government determined that the Essex fire was unrelated to the Bonhomme Richard blaze, “that does not mean we are foreclosed from evidence that these two fires were related,” defense attorney Lt. Tayler Haggerty argued before the military judge, Cmdr. Derek Butler.

Prosecutors countered that any connection between the two fires is “sheer speculation,” noting a lead federal fire investigator had identified no link.

Bonhomme Richard “is a massive, incendiary fire,” Lt. Chesley Nyaradi told the court. “The other is a smoldering fire that eventually put itself out or someone put it out.”

Injecting evidence about the Essex fire into the Bonhomme Richard case would create “a trial within a trial,” forcing them to litigate an incident that happened on another ship, she argued.

NCIS Special Agent Alexandra Baruffi, who led the Essex investigation, testified Tuesday that investigators suspected someone unhappy they were stuck in COVID isolation prior to going underway had started the fire, and they looked into several persons of interest.

“Ultimately, no suspect was identified,” Baruffi said, adding that she found no links to the Bonhomme Richard fire.

When questioned by Haggerty, the agent admitted that she had not interviewed the duty fire marshal who doused the smoldering mattress fire.

“There were suspects in the case that the government eliminated for no good reason. They were done with this,” Haggerty argued to the judge. But the fire aboard Essex “poses a relevant alternate theory” in the case of the fire aboard Bonhomme Richard.

Butler agreed, noting the government’s evidence “does not rule out the possibility.”

That two ships had fires on the same day “is a matter relevant to pursue,” the judge said. “The investigation did not identify a prime suspect, leaving the matter ripe. … There’s another
possible perpetrator here.”

“Another possible suspect in the case,” he added, “is not a waste of time.”

Investigators’ Actions Questioned

Ryan Mays

Mays’ attorneys have argued that NCIS agents and a U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigator fixated on Mays early on as the suspect in the Bonhomme Richard fire. The Navy’s prosecution against Mays is shaping up as largely based on one eyewitness’ claim of seeing Mays in the ship’s lower vehicle ramp where the fire broke out, an alleged confession overheard by one brig chaser when Mays was detained a month later and what federal investigators said were Mays’ denigrating comments about the “fleet Navy” during nine hours of interrogation by federal investigators that they concluded was motive for arson.

Haggerty said the government readily dismissed sailors suspected in the Bonhomme Richard fire, including Fireman Elijah McGovern, who was spotted in the lower vehicle deck that morning and who investigators learned had Googled “heat scale” before he went home after standing watch. ATF fire investigator Matthew Beals, who identified Mays as the alleged arsonist, testified that McGovern said the search was part of his research for a collaborative fantasy novel with a friend in Texas that involved fire-breathing dragons.

The government didn’t charge McGovern, who left Bonhomme Richard that morning after standing watch, Haggerty said.

Defense attorneys have sought to question McGovern, who last year was separated from the Navy. Lt. Cmdr. Jordi Torres, the lead defense attorney, told the judge that McGovern had lied about his whereabouts the morning of the fire, and his testimony at trial could “cause doubt to Seaman Mays’ culpability.”

Evidence shows that McGovern could be a suspect, Torres told the judge during the hearing.

But it’s unclear at this point whether McGovern will testify or if the prosecution will location him.

“We are actively looking for him to secure him for trial,” Cmdr. Leah O’Brien, a prosecutor, told the judge. “We’re still looking.”

McGovern, originally from Michigan, separated from the Navy on March 3, 2021 as an E-1 Fireman Recruit, according to his Navy biography obtained by USNI News.

Graffiti Confession

Diagram of the fire aboard Bonhomme RIchard. US Navy Photo

The debate over the relevance of the Essex fire was just one of a half-dozen motions the judge considered this week as the Bonhomme Richard arson case marches toward the start of Mays’ general court-martial on Sept. 19.

Defense attorneys sought to quash inclusion of a handwriting expert’s testimony and information about graffiti found on porta-potties at the pier and aboard Bonhomme Richard, including the words,“Ha ha ha I did it. I set fire to the ship.” Another warned: “1 down 3 to go” – a possible reference to the big-deck amphibious ships home ported at the naval base. Graffiti found aboard the ship likely involved soot from the fire.

Prosecutors submitted images of the graffiti and suspects’ handwriting samples to the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory (USACIL) at the Defense Forensic Science Center in Georgia. A forensic document examiner, Thomas Murray, testified by phone that it seemed to be a single writer, and analyses of several sailors’ handwriting pointed to another Bonhomme Richard sailor – not Mays – as a likely source.

A handwriting analysis of graffiti that said “1 down 3 to go” appears to be “taunting law enforcement, Torres said, suggesting that it was McGovern who wrote the graffiti.

Prosecutors argued that such graffiti is hearsay and not legitimate confessions and said McGovern denied starting the fire.

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Graphic of the suspected Arson site in the Lower “V”

Under O’Brien’s questioning, Murray noted some limitations in analyzing the writing samples and graffiti images he reviewed. The judge hadn’t yet ruled on the graffiti’s admissibility.

Attorneys also argued over Mays’ alleged confession after he was detained at the base for a 10-hour period of questioning by the NCIS and ATF agents in August 2020.

One of the brig chasers, Master at Arms 1st Class Carissa Tubman, testified that she heard a handcuffed Mays mutter, “I’m guilty I guess I did it. It had to be done.”

His attitude, Tubman said, had soured from his earlier more playful and “sarcastic” demeanor as the evening went on, and he complained that he didn’t like working on the ship.

The other two chasers with Tubman did not report hearing Mays’ confession, Torres said. Tubman, in response to a question from the defense attorney, said her hearing is “decent.”

Prosecutors have argued that Mays became resentful at the Navy when he dropped from the Navy SEAL program. He had enlisted with a Navy SEAL contract, but five days into the first phase of the Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL course in Coronado, Calif., which followed several weeks of orientation training, he dropped on request.

Defense attorneys hinted at an ankle sprain that Mays grappled with at the time, and said he hoped to get assigned to another BUD/S class. Why he dropped from BUD/S “is irrelevant,” Haggerty said. But prosecutors and investigators have pointed to his purported disdain for the fleet Navy as the motive for torching his own ship after he failed to become a Navy SEAL.

Work as a deck seaman on the Bonhomme Richard was “beneath him,” said Lt. Shannon Gearhart, another prosecutor. The fact that the junior sailor had to return to living on the ship – it was wrapping up a $249 million shipyard overhaul – had “wore him down.”

Butler, the judge, denied the defense’s request and will allow Tubman’s testimony and statements about Mays’ remarks to be used as evidence in the trial.

Mays, who was assigned to Amphibious Squadron 5 after the fire and demoted to E-1, has not yet decided whether a military jury or just a judge will hear the evidence and decide his fate.