Report to Congress on Constellation-class Frigate Program (FFG-62)

The following is the Dec. 21, 2022, Congressional Research Service report, Navy Constellation (FFG-62) Class Frigate (Previously FFG[X]) Program: Background and Issues for Congress. From the report The Navy began procuring Constellation (FFG-62) class frigates (FFGs) in FY2020, and wants to procure a total of 20 FFG-62s. Congress funded the first FFG-62 in FY2020, the […]

The following is the Dec. 21, 2022, Congressional Research Service report, Navy Constellation (FFG-62) Class Frigate (Previously FFG[X]) Program: Background and Issues for Congress.

From the report

The Navy began procuring Constellation (FFG-62) class frigates (FFGs) in FY2020, and wants to procure a total of 20 FFG-62s. Congress funded the first FFG-62 in FY2020, the second in FY2021, and the third in FY2022. The Navy’s proposed FY2023 budget requests the procurement of the fourth FFG-62.

The Navy’s FY2023 budget submission estimates the procurement cost of the fourth FFG-62 at $1,091.2 (i.e., about $1.1 billion). The ship has received $6.0 million in prior-year advance procurement (AP) funding. The Navy’s proposed FY2023 budget requests the remaining $1,085.2 million needed to complete the ship’s estimated procurement cost. The Navy’s proposed FY2023 budget also requests $74.9 million in AP funding for FFG-62s to be procured in future fiscal years.

Four industry teams competed for the FFG-62 program. On April 30, 2020, the Navy announced that it had awarded the FFG-62 contract to the team led by Fincantieri/Marinette Marine (F/MM) of Marinette, WI. F/MM was awarded a fixed-price incentive (firm target) contract for Detail Design and Construction (DD&C) for up to 10 ships in the program—the lead ship plus nine option ships. The other three industry teams reportedly competing for the program were led by Austal USA of Mobile, AL; General Dynamics/Bath Iron Works (GD/BIW) of Bath, ME; and Huntington Ingalls Industries/Ingalls Shipbuilding (HII/Ingalls) of Pascagoula, MS.

As part of its action on the Navy’s FY2020-FY2022 budgets, Congress has passed provisions relating to U.S. content requirements for certain components of each FFG-62 class ship, as well as a provision requiring the Navy to conduct a land-based test program for the FFG-62’s engineering plant (i.e., its propulsion plant and associated machinery).

The FFG-62 program presents several potential oversight issues for Congress, including the following:

  • the Navy’s emerging force-level goal for frigates and other small surface combatants;
  • the reduction in the FFG-62 program’s programmed procurement rate under the Navy’s FY2023 five-year (FY2023-FY2027) shipbuilding plan;
  • the accuracy of the Navy’s estimated unit procurement cost for FFG-62s, particularly when compared to the known unit procurement costs of other recent U.S. surface combatants;
  • whether to build FFG-62s at a single shipyard at any one time (the Navy’s baseline plan), or at two shipyards;
  • whether the Navy has appropriately defined the required capabilities and growth margin for FFG-62s;
  • whether to take any further legislative action regarding U.S. content requirements for the FFG-62 program;
  • technical risk in the FFG-62 program; and
  • the potential industrial-base impacts of the FFG-62 program for shipyards and supplier firms in the context of other Navy and Coast Guard shipbuilding programs.

Download the document here.

GAO Report on Predictive Maintenance on Weapons System

The following is the December 2022 Government Accountability Office report, Military Readiness: Actions Needed to Further Implement Predictive Maintenance on Weapon Systems. From the report The Department of Defense (DOD) issued an interim predictive maintenance policy in 2002, but the military services made limited progress implementing it until recently. In 2007, DOD instructed the military […]

The following is the December 2022 Government Accountability Office report, Military Readiness: Actions Needed to Further Implement Predictive Maintenance on Weapon Systems.

From the report

The Department of Defense (DOD) issued an interim predictive maintenance
policy in 2002, but the military services made limited progress implementing it
until recently. In 2007, DOD instructed the military services to designate a single
focal point for predictive maintenance, provide funding, and begin implementing
predictive maintenance to achieve readiness at the best cost where it is
technically feasible and beneficial. While the military services have begun piloting

predictive maintenance programs on some weapon systems, they do not replace
parts or components regularly based on predictive maintenance forecasts. GAO
found that the military services have not consistently adopted and tracked
implementation of predictive maintenance. By developing plans to implement
predictive maintenance, including action plans and milestones for weapon
systems, the military services would be better positioned to determine where,
when, and how to effectively adopt predictive maintenance.

The military services have reported examples of how predictive maintenance has
improved maintenance outcomes. According to military service officials, unplanned maintenance—which adversely affects costs and operations—can be reduced through greater use of predictive maintenance. Army and Navy officials also provided examples of predictive maintenance possibly preventing accidents on aircraft such as the AH-64 Apache and the F/A-18 Super Hornet.

Military service officials acknowledge that, while they have examples of
improvements they attribute to predictive maintenance implementation, the
examples are from limited experience, and the military services generally lack
metrics to evaluate the results of predictive maintenance. By developing plans
with goals and metrics, and establishing procedures to monitor predictive
maintenance, the military services will be better able to determine whether
predictive maintenance achieves expected results and improves military
readiness.

The military services identified personnel, parts, and technology resource challenges to implementing predictive maintenance and have taken some actions
to address challenges. For example, temporary policy exemptions allow personnel hours saved using predictive maintenance to be used to address maintenance backlogs in other systems. The military services have also begun efforts to allow units to order parts ahead of need rather than waiting for the part to break. The military services also recognize that shifting to predictive maintenance is a cultural challenge that requires sustained leadership focus.

Download the document here.

Navy Releases Admiral’s Mast Results from Bonhomme Richard Fire

U.S. Pacific Fleet has released the results of an admiral’s masts held last year for the former leadership and crew members of amphibious warship Bonhomme Richard. Former Bonhomme Richard commander Capt. Gregory Thoroman, executive officer Capt. Michael Ray and the ship’s senior enlisted sailor, Command Master Chief Jose Hernandez, were all found guilty of violations […]

Port of San Diego Harbor Police Department boats combat a fire on board USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) at Naval Base San Diego on July 12, 2020. US Navy Photo

U.S. Pacific Fleet has released the results of an admiral’s masts held last year for the former leadership and crew members of amphibious warship Bonhomme Richard.

Former Bonhomme Richard commander Capt. Gregory Thoroman, executive officer Capt. Michael Ray and the ship’s senior enlisted sailor, Command Master Chief Jose Hernandez, were all found guilty of violations of Article 92 – failure to obey an order or regulation – for their roles in the 2020 fire that resulted in the loss of the ship. The other three sailors punished at mast include an unidentified damage control officer, Bonhomme Richard’s chief engineer and a senior enlisted damage control sailor.

USNI News obtained the heavily redacted list of punishments, issued in December by U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Samuel Paparo, on Wednesday. The punishments were originally reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune earlier this week.

The heaviest penalties fell on Thoroman and Ray, who were each fined $5,000 each and given written reprimands for their role in the fire.

Thoroman was found guilty at mast of two specifications of violating Article 92 – violating Navy regulations to adequately train his crew and dereliction of duty in that he “negligently failed in his absolute responsibility for the safety, well-being and efficiency of the ship, as it was his duty to do.” He faced three other specifications under the charge, but they were redacted in the charge sheet reviewed by USNI News.

Executive officer Ray was found guilty of Article 92 in two specifications of dereliction of duty in that he “negligently failed to ensure that firefighting safety precautions aboard Bonhomme Richard in an availability were understood and strictly observed” and “negligently failed to keep the command advised of the status of the ship’s survivability readiness,” according to the charges. Ray faced two other specifications under the charge, but they were redacted in the charge sheet reviewed by USNI News.

CMC Hernandez received a written reprimand for Article 92 violations under two specifications for dereliction of duty by failing to enforce crew standards aboard Bonhomme Richard during his time as CMC and failing to advise Thoroman of the welfare of the crew. Hernandez faced at least one other specification under the charge, but they were redacted in the charge sheet reviewed by USNI News.

The Navy issued a written reprimand to an unidentified commander who served as the damage control assistant for violating three specifications under Article 92. The three specifications are violating a direct order from Thoroman by entering the ship during the fire on July 14, 2020, failing to oversee the “prevention and control of damage” prior to the fire and failing to properly train and supervise the ship’s in port emergency team. The officer faced two other specifications under the charge, but they were redacted in the charge sheet reviewed by USNI News.

The ship’s chief engineer was found guilty of violating Article 92 in two specifications for failing to provide backup power to the ship and failing to stow hazardous materials. The Navy issued him a written reprimand. The chief engineer faced seven other specifications under the charge, but they were redacted in the charge sheet reviewed by USNI News.

A ship’s damage controlman chief petty officer was found guilty of violating Article 92 in one specification for failing to repair two of the ship’s Aqueous Film Forming Foam stations aboard the ship. The chief petty officer faced four other specifications under the charge, but they were redacted in the charge sheet reviewed by USNI News.

Paparo served as the consolidated decision authority who oversaw accountability actions following a 2021 investigation led by former U.S. 3rd Fleet commander Vice Adm. Scott Conn, who identified 36 individuals who had a share in the responsibility for the fire.

“The disposition decisions included six Nonjudicial Punishments (NJP) with guilty findings, two NJPs with Matter of Interest Filings (MIF) and a Letter of Instruction (LOI), two NJP dismissals with a warning, one additional MIF, five other LOIs, three Non-Punitive Letters of Caution (NPLOC), two letters to former sailors documenting substandard performance, and six no-action determinations,” according to a July statement from the service.
“Paparo’s CDA accountability actions were primarily focused on USS Bonhomme Richard’s leadership and the fire response team.”

In addition to the CDA determination, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro censured former Naval Surface Forces commander retired Vice Adm. Rich Brown for failing to “oversee ships’ fire safety readiness in maintenance availabilities,” according to a copy of the July 15 letter obtained by USNI News.

U.K. Awards BAE Systems $5B for Type 26 Anti-Submarine Warfare Frigates

The United Kingdom Royal Navy is expanding its Type 26 anti-submarine warfare frigate fleet as part of a $5 billion contract with BAE Systems, U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced on Tuesday. The contract will add five of the frigates that BAE’s Scotland shipyards at Govan and Scotstoun will build. Sunak made the announcement during […]

HMS Glasgow under construction. BAE Systems Photo

The United Kingdom Royal Navy is expanding its Type 26 anti-submarine warfare frigate fleet as part of a $5 billion contract with BAE Systems, U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced on Tuesday.

The contract will add five of the frigates that BAE’s Scotland shipyards at Govan and Scotstoun will build. Sunak made the announcement during the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia.

“We are investing in our fleet to ensure our Royal Navy maintains its world-leading capability to protect and defend our nation at sea. This design has already been successfully exported to Australia and Canada, proving itself as a world-class maritime capability, securing thousands of U.K. jobs and strengthening alliances with our allies,” U.K. Secretary of State for Defense Ben Wallace said in a Tuesday statement.

BAE Type-26 Frigate. BAE rendering.

The 6,900-ton frigate will replace the 1980s-era 3,600-ton Type 23 Duke-class ASW frigates.

“Three Type 26 ships are already in build in Glasgow, with the first of class, HMS Glasgow, on track to enter the water later this year and be delivered to the Royal Navy in the mid-2020s. The construction of HMS Cardiff and HMS Belfast is also underway,” reads a statement from BAE.

The Type 26 baseline design features advanced anti-submarine warfare capabilities, a 24-cell Mk 41 vertical launch system for Tomahawk cruise missiles and long-range strike weapons, a 48-cell silo for Sea Ceptor air defense missiles and a 5-inch gun. The flight deck can accommodate CH-47 Chinooks.

Canada and Australia are both procuring versions of the Type 26 for their own navies.

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.”

NAVSEA: Navy ‘Struggling’ to Get Attack Subs Out of Repairs on Time as Demand Increases

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Less than a third of the Navy’s attack submarines have made it out of maintenance on time in the last decade as demand for the boats remain high, the head of Naval Sea Systems Command said on Wednesday. “We’re really struggling to get submarines out on time. Over the last ten […]

USS Jefferson City (SSN-759) departs Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Dec. 8, 2021, as it heads to Naval Station Guam for a homeport shift. US Navy Photo

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Less than a third of the Navy’s attack submarines have made it out of maintenance on time in the last decade as demand for the boats remain high, the head of Naval Sea Systems Command said on Wednesday.

“We’re really struggling to get submarines out on time. Over the last ten years, 20 to 30 percent [came] out on time,” said Vice Adm. Bill Galinis at the American Society of Naval Engineers’ annual Fleet Maintenance and Modernization Symposium.

The Navy currently fields a fleet of 50 attack submarines split between the Los Angeles (SSN-688), Seawolf (SSN-21) and Virginia (SSN-774) classes, with more Virginias under construction. While the U.S. attack boat force is key to the Pentagon’s plans to counter China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, the service has had trouble keeping up with the maintenance demands.

As of Thursday, 18 submarines were in some type of maintenance, PEO Submarines Rear Adm. Jonathan Rucker said at the ASNE conference.

“That’s too high a number,” Rucker said Wednesday.

The earliest Virginia-class boats are among the hardest submarines to repair on time.

“We’ve seen a significant growth in the amount of man days required in submarine availabilities, particularly in the Virginia class,” Galinis said.
“We’re doing a deep dive to figure out why that is. It’s really a continuous process.”

While private yards like HII’s Newport News Shipbuilding and General Dynamics’ Electric Boat have taken on submarine maintenance work, the bulk of the attack submarine work happens at the Navy’s four public yards. Attack boats are third in line after nuclear ballistic missile submarines and aircraft carriers when it comes to repair priority and can bear the brunt of the shortfalls at the shipyards.

The yards have improved the on-time track records for boomers and carriers, but the record attrition at the public yards and a gap of a 1,000 workers have trickled down into sub repairs while demand for attack submarines has grown.

According to the Government Accountable Office, “Virginia class submarines have returned to operations almost nine months later than expected, on average; Los Angeles class submarines have taken four and a half months longer than scheduled, on average, to return to the fleet. As a result, some submarines have missed deployments or had their deployments at sea shortened.”

CBO Graphic

The class was designed following the end of the Cold War as a less expensive attack submarine compared to the high-performing Sea Wolf-class boats. The Virginias were designed to operate closer to shore and with components that met rigorous NAVSEA standards for submarine safety, but were not as durable as some of the older components on the Los Angeles-class boats.

“When we came off the Sea Wolf-class we had an extremely capable but relevantly more expensive submarine,” Rucker said.
“Where we were in the beginning of the Virginia class, we had a charge early on to build a design and build a submarine for an affordable cost to make sure we got the numbers we needed.”

Sustainment of the submarine class wasn’t a major requirement for the program and the Navy pushed maintenance aside for other cost saving considerations.

“Unfortunately, some of those challenges are here today,” Rucker said.

USS Virginia (SSN-774), commissioned in 2004, is wrapping up a mid-life availability and lessons from that repair and other early boats in the class are informing a class-wide maintenance plan to assist with scheduling and securing materials.

That Navy will implement that plan starting in Fiscal Year 2023 and may not see improvements until FY 2024.

“If you throw a rudder over on the Titanic, it takes a while for the ship to turn,” Rucker told USNI News.
“It’s going to take a little bit of time, just because there’s a lag and getting the resources or changing behavior or ensuring that we plan better for what we’re going to do.”

In the long term, the lessons from the Virginia-class sustainment issue have informed how the Navy planned for repairing and maintaining the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines and the next-generation attack submarine SSN(X), Rucker said. Maximizing the time the submarine can deploy is key to the new design.

“The initial capabilities document actually has in it requirements for operational availability and sustainment,” Rucker said.
“It’s one of our four main requirements for SSN(X) … Speed, [signatures], payload and operational availability.”

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.

Fincantieri Begins Construction of First Constellation-class Frigate

THE PENTAGON – Fincantieri Marinette Marine will officially start building the first Constellation-class frigate at its yard in Marinette, Wis., today. The start of fabrication comes nearly two and a half years after the Navy issued Fincantieri the detail design and construction award for the first frigate in April 2020. After finishing the critical design […]

Rendering of USS Constellation (FFG-62). Fincantieri Marinette Image

THE PENTAGON – Fincantieri Marinette Marine will officially start building the first Constellation-class frigate at its yard in Marinette, Wis., today.

The start of fabrication comes nearly two and a half years after the Navy issued Fincantieri the detail design and construction award for the first frigate in April 2020.

After finishing the critical design review in May and the production readiness review in July, the Navy green-lit the shipbuilder to start production, Rear Adm. Casey Moton, the program executive officer for unmanned and small combatants, told reporters in a roundtable this week.

Asked why it took the shipyard two and a half years to begin building the lead ship, Moton said both the service and Fincantieri wanted to complete the design as much as possible before beginning construction.

“It was maturing the design. It is a pretty healthy process that’s got to go on … that’s a fairly lengthy process of going through the functional design where you’re looking system by system. And then it’s a little bit of a spiral, right. If you change some things that they have impact on another [thing],” Moton said.

“It just takes a while to move through that process. In order to complete the design, the shipbuilder has to get all of their major vendors on contract because we’re literally at the level where it’s not just, okay here’s a pump, but we need to know which pump because we got to have the right circuit breakers to feed that pump. It is at quite [a] detailed level. That takes time. And mutually we and the shipbuilder agreed that design maturity was probably the single biggest factor we could do to reduce the risk of production,” he added.

While Fincantieri is the lead for the functional design, Gibbs & Cox is in charge of designing the ship’s 3D model, Moton said.

“Since the contract for Constellation-class detail design and construction was awarded in April 2020, Fincantieri and its team have been completing the detail design of ship systems – placing material suppliers under contract and developing the three dimensional model that is used for supporting production,” he said.

Fincantieri has also embarked on a capital improvement effort at the Marinette shipyard so it’s ready to build the frigates.

A Fincantieri Marinette Marine model of the proposed USS Constellation (FFG-62). USNI News Photo

The detail design is just over 80 percent finished, which was the Navy’s goal prior to fabrication, Moton said.

“That’s a percentage beyond just the number. That percentage reflects two things – one is that we wanted to ensure the functional design was largely complete and that’s important because that’s what sets the systems and the equipment selection and all those types of things,” he told reporters. “The other part of it is making sure that the 3D model was complete enough to know that there’s still work that will happen a kind of the modular level, almost compartment level – but making sure that those ship-wide things were mature and stable.”

The lead ship in the class is slated to deliver to the Navy in 2026. The service’s requirement is 20 frigates and it has the option to bring in a second yard to build the small combatants. But Congress in Fiscal Year 2022 legislation mandated a pause on the second yard effort, arguing the Navy must mature the design before bringing in a second shipbuilder.

The Navy previously planned to buy two frigates per year starting in FY 2023, but slowed down that effort in the most recent budget submission. A service official during the FY 2023 budget rollout said the frigate’s procurement projection, which alternates between buying one ship per year and then two, reflects what one shipyard could build in the next five years.

Moton said the cadence at which the service buys the ships will depend on funding and industrial base capacity.

“The pace that we will build that frigate class is a function of that measured approach that we took initially. It’s a function of an approach that is balanced against topline constraints. It’s an approach that’s balanced against the entire industrial base and how quickly we might need to go to a second builder,” Moton said.

Navy officials would not give details on when they’d need to make a decision about a second yard, but said it would take Fincantieri about a year to put together the technical data package the service would have to give to the second builder.

“They are essentially producing a set of documents – electronic documents – that we could then hand to another shipbuilder to take a look at it. So we’ll keep an eye on that, we’ll see how it’s informed by the portfolio. We’ll know here as the next couple of years progress. As I said, there is a lot of advantage in terms of holding on getting that package because as the shipbuilder moves through production, there will be fixes and changes and things that need to happen,” Moton said.
“It’s kind of to our advantage to sort of wait as long as we can to get those good fixes, but also support when it looks like we’re going to need to put our an [request for proposal] if and when we do that for a second builder.”

Both HII’s Ingalls Shipbuilding and Austal USA are positioning themselves to bid for second line of the Constellation-class frigates, USNI News recently reported.

The Navy and Fincantieri adapted the Italian FREMM multi-mission frigate parent design so the Constellation-class frigates can field U.S. systems like Aegis Baseline 10 and C4I systems, Moton said.