The fire that tore through U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard for more than four days starting July 12 devastated a $4 billion ship and injured more than 70 sailors and civilian firefighters. The resultant smoke that covered San Diego's harbor and downtown for days afterward seemed a visible symbol of the condition the U.S. Navy finds itself in around the globe.

It also brings to mind a history lesson. In many of the offices I occupied during my Navy career, I kept a painting of the USS Maine on the wall. It shows the battleship in early 1898, in Havana harbor — just before it blew up at anchor and sank, killing hundreds of sailors. The event was a cause celebre that put into motion the Spanish-American War.

Navy people who knew the story of the Maine well would come into my office and ask me why I kept a painting of a doomed ship on the wall. Why not the carrier Enterprise, my flagship in strike group command? Or the destroyer Barry, my first command at sea? The reason was twofold.
First, it reminded me that my “ship” could blow up under my feet at any moment, so I had to have a plan B. Second, before you rush to judgment — as the U.S. did in launching the Spanish-American War — make sure you have your facts right. Long after the Maine sank, it was learned that the cause was an internal explosion, not an attack. I’d say putting a picture of the Bonhomme Richard on the wall in a few admirals' offices right now would make some sense.
We do not yet know what started the fire in San Diego, which probably began in the deep part of the hull while the ship was in an extensive overhaul. Only 20 percent of the crew (the “duty section”) was aboard on a quiet Sunday morning. This is the worst possible time for a fire to break out — few onboard to fight it (although every sailor is a trained firefighter); the ship torn apart for the yard period, stuffed full of rags and cardboard shipping containers; and watertight integrity compromised by miles of cables and welding leads running through the ship.

It has been a terrible past few years for the service. A series of corruption scandals reached to the highest levels, incriminating dozens of senior officers and sending a handful to prison in the “Fat Leonard” case. Two $3 billion Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, the McCain and Fitzgerald, were involved in deadly collisions, resulting in 17 deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars in repair costs. And there was the mishandled prosecution of an accused war criminal, the former SEAL Eddie Gallagher, which led to the firing of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer.

Then there was the controversy over the nuclear aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, which suffered a severe COVID-19 infection in the crew, sidelining the warship for two months. One crew member died, the ship's commanding officer was relieved of duty and the acting secretary of the Navy quit under pressure.

What does the Navy need to do going forward and what can we learn from this series of calamities more broadly?

First and most obviously, the service must follow the facts in investigating the Bonhomme Richard disaster and apply ruthless accountability. The investigations into the 2017 destroyer collisions were brutally thorough. In essence, the Navy fired or derailed careers at every level in the chain of command, from the commanders on the deck plates of the two ships to the four-star admiral commanding the Pacific Fleet. It was painful, but the right thing to do.

Since then, investigations have been uneven in quality and accountability. The relatively new chief of naval operations (the highest ranking officer in the service), Adm. Mike Gilday, must take the lead. Gilday, who has already visited the ship in San Diego, was a valued part of my team at NATO a decade ago, and has the rare combination of great vision and no ego.

A second lesson is the need to step back and look at the multi-year run of events and examine the culture of the Navy. The new secretary, former Rear Adm. Kenneth Braithwaite, rightly pledged to do so at his confirmation hearings. Culture is a complicated and difficult component of any organization — it transcends written regulations, procedures, rules and tactics. It is at that heart of the “this I believe” ethos of sailors

Each of the recent disasters can be explained individually, but the whole seems greater than the sum of the parts. Looking back, one hopes, the fire in the Bonhomme Richard will be seen as a turning point for the Navy — probably the starkest since the “Tailhook” sexual-assault scandals of the 1990s.

Third, big doors swing on small hinges. The fire in the Bonhomme Richard was not small by any means and may end up costing the Navy more than $3 billion to replace the ship entirely, or at least many hundreds of millions to repair it.

But there are a number of bigger doors: the gap in carrier coverage in the western Pacific (the ship was in port for installing the capability to operate the new fifth-generation fighter, the F-35 Lightning); the growing disrespect America's opponents, especially China and Russia, will have for the Navy’s fighting capability; the flagging confidence of the U.S. public in the competence of the service; and the increasing unease our allies will feel about operating alongside us, from the South China Sea to the Arabian Gulf and beyond.

The Navy has some serious work ahead if it hopes to regain that confidence and trust. My advice: Remember the Maine!

James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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