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Opinion: Is There a Frigate in Your Future?

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Norwegian frigate HNoMS Fridtjof Nansen (F310). Royal Norwegian Navy Photo

Norwegian frigate HNoMS Fridtjof Nansen (F310). Royal Norwegian Navy Photo

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s recent direction to the Navy to develop proposals for a “capable and lethal small surface combatant, generally consistent with the capabilities of a frigate” could have a major affect on several Navy programs.

The U.S. Navy has only 12 frigates in commission—four of them manned mainly by reservists. This compares with almost 100 frigates in commission when the Cold War ended in December 1991. Further, the surviving frigates no longer have critical anti-aircraft/anti-ship missiles.

Frigate-type ships are extremely useful for a variety of operations in crises, low- and medium-threat, escort, blockade, and presence operations. Today the U.S. Navy must allocate higher-capability Aegis cruisers and destroyers to those roles. Based on historical ship classes, developing a new frigate design, gaining approval from various agencies and Congress, awarding contracts, and building the first ship probably would take 12 years—or longer––and cost upwards of $1.5 billion for the lead ship.

A solution may be found in Hagel’s memorandum of Feb. 24, which put a temporary hold on the Navy’s littoral combat ship (LCS) program at the 32 ships now built, under construction, or under contract. The memo stated:

Submit to me, in time to inform the PB 2016 budget deliberations [i.e., summer 2014], alternative proposals to procure a capable and lethal small surface combatant, generally consistent with the capabilities of a frigate. Options considered should include a completely new design, existing ship designs (including the LCS), and a modified LCS. Include target cost, mission requirements, sensors and weapons requirements and required delivery date.

In response to the Hagel memo, the Navy has established a Small Surface Combatant Task Force (SSCTF) to assess the issues and to provide detailed options to service leaders on future alternative ship designs. The three specific ship options for a capable and lethal “small surface combatant” that the SSCTF is addressing are:

  • A new ship design
  • Existing ship design (including the LCS)
  • A modified LCS design

For the time being the last option appears to offer the most promising course for the Navy to develop a small, lethal, and affordable surface combatant. With a full-load displacement of almost 3,000 tons the LCS is smaller than most foreign ships rated as frigates. (The current U.S. frigates of the Oliver Hazard Perry class displace approximately 4,000 tons full load.)

However, the LCS is a “platform” intended to embark mission modules; thus, the LCS is designed specifically to take aboard weapon and sensor “packages.” The USS Freedom (LCS-1) design can accommodate 180 metric tons for the baseline mission package.

Further, modern weapons and sensors are more compact and efficient than those previously installed in existing frigate-type ships. Thus, an existing LCS design could be fitted with today’s most advanced systems to provide equivalent capabilities found aboard modern, multi-mission frigates.

During his late-March 2014 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, acknowledged that the next ship after LCS could look quite different although perhaps using the same LCS hull. The CNO compared it with the evolution of the Navy’s F/A-18 Hornet fighter-attack aircraft that was followed by the F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, and the EA-18 Growler electronic warfare aircraft. While each of the suggested options could ultimately meet Secretary Hagel’s direction, a modified Freedom design—with existing hull, machinery, and electrical features held constant—most likely offers the most cost-effective, timely, and straightforward approach to redressing the Navy’s requirement for a frigate-type warship.

The sensors and weapons that are envisioned for a “frigate-like” upgrade to the LCS all are in operational service or advanced development. For example, the lightweight SPY-1F multifunction radar is now installed in the Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen-class frigates. Similarly, the LCS is well suited for installation of a Vertical-Launching System (VLS) that could accommodate a mix of surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles. Such VLS batteries are found in several foreign frigates, providing a potent defensive and offensive capability. Advanced anti-submarine sonar, additional radars, electronic warfare suites, and other systems for a multi-mission LCS are readily available. An upgraded LCS could retain the large hangar and flight deck area to embark a MH-60 helicopter and various unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).

In this context, most of the development and initial production costs for the upgraded LCS have already been paid. While both of the basic LCS designs—Freedom and Independence (LCS-2)—are suitable for upgrading, Lockheed Martin, team leader for the Freedom program, since 2008 has analyzed and developed ways to “beef up” the baseline LCS-1 variant. These efforts were undertaken in large part because of foreign interest in that ship and those nations’ desire for a more frigate like ship. While no foreign navy has initiated formal negotiations for either of the LCS designs, at least two countries have made serious inquiries to Lockheed Martin about procuring an upgraded LCS platform.

Accordingly, Lockheed Martin has undertaken detailed cost and technical analyses including tow-tank testing of a multi-mission Freedom-class LCS to be completed this year. Technical and engineering tradeoffs to determine the optimum mix of additional weapons, sensors, and other systems as well as a preliminary design have already been completed. Lockheed Martin indicates that a rough order-of-magnitude cost estimate is about $800 million for the “lead” multimission LCS-1 “frigate-type” warship.

Eric Labs from the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the LAMPS III version of the Oliver Hazard Perry-class (FFG-7) with no upgrades or modification would cost approximately $710 million in Fiscal Year 2014 dollars. The cost of a lead/improved FFG-7 is difficult to ascertain without definitive characteristics and systems and without knowing the size of the frigate buy, but a rough order-of-magnitude estimate is $1.3 billion for the lead ship (including certain design and research and development costs) with follow-on ships to cost approximately $900 million.

Potential systems envisioned to transform the Freedom from a baseline tailored/single-mission LCS into a multi-mission surface combatant include:

  • 32-cell Mk 41 Vertical Launching System
  • AN/SPY-1F (V) radar
  • Baseline 9 version of Aegis combat system
  • Evolved Sea Sparrow anti-air missile
  • Standard SM-2 surface-to-air missile
  • 76-mm OTA Melara rapid-fire gun (replacing the current
    Mark 110 57mm gun)
  • MH-60R Seahawk helicopter and Fire Scout (or other) UAVs
  • Longbow Hellfire anti-ship missile
  • Passive and active electronic warfare systems
  • Towed sonar array

If an upgraded multi-mission LCS design along these lines were to emerge from the Navy’s analysis as the leading contender for the future small surface combatant mission, then Hagel may want to inject some of those added/changed capabilities back into the current LCS program. These changes/upgrades could include additional ships to be procured beyond the 24 now in service, building, or under contract. A spiral-development risk-reducing effort could thus be implemented to ensure those LCS ships bought between the current 24-ship program and the start of a new effort are upgraded and constrained within a reasonable budget.

Thus, Hagel’s proposed “frigate-type” warship could provide the U.S. Navy with a much-needed combat platform, bring foreign navies into the program—which would drive down overall ship and system costs—and provide useful upgrades to the basic LCS effort.

  • Zack Howitt

    I’m very disappointed in USNI after reading this article. I’m not disappointed with the content of the article, but how the author is presented.

    His bio reads “Adm. Natter is the former commander of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet/U.S. Fleet Forces Command. He retired in 2003.” However, ADM Natter now runs a consulting and advocacy firm called R. J. NATTER & ASSOCIATES, LLC. Some googling around reveals that Lockheed Martin is one of his major clients. (He’s also on the board of BAE Systems, which has substantial contracts with the LCS)

    Not saying his points aren’t valid and shouldn’t be heard, but it’s ethically unsound for these things not to be disclosed.

    • Jon

      Dig deep enough, I wonder if we’d discover that he was neck deep into the LCS program prior to retirement?

  • http://nickysworld.wordpress.com/ Nicky

    What about a frigate based on the designs and lessons from the Fridtjof Nansen-class frigate, Iver Huitfeldt-class frigate, Álvaro de Bazán-class frigate, Sachsen-class frigate and the FREMM multipurpose frigate. I would think the a US Navy frigate would have to have room to carry a 2 squad of Marines as well

  • http://www.usmc.mil @notrizzo

    Still missing from this discussion is a firm (or even vague) mission requirements plan. Is this an open ocean escort? Is it just a bigger LCS with the same missions, but with better AAW capability? Assuming you upgrade the LCS base with all the system listed, how are you going to use the damn thing, and how is that different than what the current batch of LCS are going to do?

    • Jon

      Now, now, that’s old school think…these days, it’s build the ships, make 600+ mods to them while being built, THEN figure out the mission and the mission requirements.

    • PB

      If it’s a escort or patrol frigate then the range of the modified LCS could be a problem. Is the acousic signature optimized for sub hunting ?

  • BDPears

    Why do we not consider licensing, if not outright buying, one of the very successful frigates already produced by other nations? There’s just no reason it has to be invented here to be appropriate for our needs.

  • Peter

    At $893 million (constant 2009 USD), the Japanese “Akizuki” destroyers
    with their 5-inch gun and 32-cell VLS seem like a nice fit for a U.S.
    Navy frigate. It’s like a mini Arleigh Burke destroyer. Since the US and Japan are close allies, why not buy the “Akizuki” plans off the Japanese?

    I don’t hold much faith in Lockheed Martin building a frigate, even a stretched version of the LCS, even if the design seems valid and capable. Take a look at their recent military “Big Ticket” programs…the LCS and the JSF…and all the problems associated with them. Lockheed Martin is not a shipbuilder; they build airplanes. Of course I could be proven wrong in the future, but there are other well tried and true shipyards in the USA.

    The OHP was credited with giving small shipyards a chance to build a ship, and thus providing small shipyards with business. I doubt that will repeat in the future as more small shipyards are disappearing or being bought over.

    A National Security Cutter as a frigate may sound reasonable; however, I think even the NSC design is outclassed by some foreign frigate designs today in terms of capability, shape, size, and armament for the price.

    I find it more truthful today that many foreign nations’ designs are getting so much better than what could be produced and designed domestically.

    Furthermore, the new frigate should have a hardened hull for Arctic Operations, which of course will drive the cost up.

    • http://www.usmc.mil @notrizzo

      Craig Hooper at Next Navy has a post suggesting almost this very thing, a scaled down DDG-51…

  • Jon

    180 metric tons free load capacity isn’t squat when compared to the modifications that would be required to turn an LCS into an actual warship. 32 cell VLS (empty)…100 standard tons alone, not counting structural mods required for the bays.

    And at the end, still left with a cobbled together so-called warship costing over $1 billion with installed combat systems, that has a sub-Lv1 survivability rating.

    Cheaper to build a far more capable improved OHP, a purpose built warship, with a unit cost of $900 million, that has enough excess capacity to grow.

  • ELP

    Noone has proven that the LCS can do sustained missions of any worth for all the resources poured into it. Definition of a failed program.

  • Ctrot

    What’s in it for RJ Natter & Associates or BAE? Because that is the only reason I can think of for anyone to seriously suggest that we throw more money down the LCS hole: financial self interest.

    • El_Sid

      If he was really pushing BAE’s interests he’d be extolling the virtues of the GCS/Type 26 design; the fact that he isn’t is notable but is probably realistic given US aversion to NIH. BAE make a few relevant bits – the Mk41 tubes and 5″ guns, but they won’t make huge amounts of money off this.

  • Michael Flower

    - Future Frigate?

    I think the LCS-2, INDEPENDENCE class would make a better substitution hull design than the LCS-1, FREEDOM class would. The frigates role in this case is to be a stable, minimal sea rolling submarine hunter. The INDEPENDENCE class meets this role perfectly, its the hull configuration make it a very stable sub hunter. Plus add it’s extremely tight turning radius, speed and endurance would make it more than a match
    for any potential enemy. And if you want to think outside the box, add a angle flight deck and park a brace of Lockheed-Martin F/AV-35B Lightning’s too it and your really
    have a sea-going threat with teeth at sea. Given the nature of sub hunting, being a 24/7 operation. I would rather have a ship that not dancing around on all the axis at the same time, then one that does, like the FREEDOM class.

    • Gagarin

      Speed? Sorry, even at 50 knots you ain’t outrunning a missile or torpedo.

  • Ctrot

    The US wants France to back out of the deal to sell 2 helicopter carriers to Russia, as incentive for them to do so we should agree to buy the financial equivalent of those 2 ships in LaFayette class frigates, plus the rights to build additional hulls in US yards.

    • johnbull

      Twelve years from now until completion of first hull? We need capable low cost, survivable escorts now. It’s too late to ask the question, but how did we let this happen? Surely nobody seriously thought the LCS with it’s very short range among other issues could replace the Perrys.

      • Ctrot

        I don’t believe it would take 12 years for France to deliver the first LaFayette frigate to the USN, what makes you think it would?

        • johnbull

          I was referring to the article’s statement that it would take twelve years for the US to finalize a design, get all the different approvals, congressional $$ passed, contracts issued, etc. Certainly buying one of the numerous capable designs that European countries are using would be faster.johnbull

          • Ctrot

            Ah. Well maybe it would take that long and maybe it would not, you have to take into consideration that figure is coming from the author who is obviously (it seems to me) pushing for an LCS derived frigate design.

  • Greg Lof

    While upgrading the current LCS designs is presently considered the best options, I don’t see the addition of a AEGIS type missile system as an improvement. As other have stated, this missile system will use all the weight margin in the current designs, and is extremely costly. And there is another option for increasing the LCS’s protection, improving the existing SSDS currently used, by doubling the number of missiles launchers and improving the fire control system. Another improves would be to upgrade the LCS’s electronic warfare suite, as suggest buy Pacific Fleet.
    There is another problem that adding more SAMs will not correct, the lack of an long range offensive missile system. Hellfire may work against small craft, but does little to ward off other ships. The Navy needs to select and purchase a new heavy Anti-ship missile ASAP. Such missile would be needed on what ever solution is selected for LCS’s problems.
    Finally there is the problems of cruising speed and range. The 15 Knots 3500 MN range of the current design also needs to be upgrade. These can only be solved by the addition of more fuel, and larger cruising diesels, This in turn will require enlarging both versions of the LCS. Lockheed/Martin already claim they can lengthen their design, so I expect they stated the work to do so. I don’t know what design works been done to improve the Independence class, but I expect the enlarging the outriggers will have something to do with it’s upgrade.
    Which brings me to my suggestion, Why not take advantage to the FY15 production slow down to build though two LCS’s as prototypes for the Next Flight LCSs. This will not only correct the short comings of the current designs, but also reduce the need for layouts at the LSC builders.
    And whatever the ultimate solution for the navy’s medium ship needs are, improving the SSDS systems for all naval vessel, and acquiring new anti-ship missiles are a necessity, and should be started at once.

    • Interested

      The NSC Cutter / Patrol Frigate will out range LCS due to it’s power plant.
      Also I wonder about accoustic signature of a high speed LCS for ASW patrolling. If ASW is a primary requirement then design a sub hunter.

      • Secundius

        @ Interested.

        The problem with the NSC is, it’s range of 12,000nm is achieved while cruising at only 8-knots.

  • KM

    Buy the Norwegian platform, and upgrade with our equipment.

    • El_Sid

      A standard Nansen would probably cost close to US$1bn. They were $700m/ship when ordered in 2000, were built in subsidised Spanish yards – and have had various problems with quality control and availability. The vibe seems to be that even a Nansen-style fit with SPY-1F is probably unaffordable by the USN right now.

    • HaakonKL

      Considering that it’s built to shoot Norwegian ammo, you can probably get the designs cheap, considering the Gilette ideal:
      Give them the razor, sell them the blades.

      And the US already buys the ammo so it’s not like congress gets to bitch about it either. (Lockheed Martin has a license to build it even, under the JSM name.)

      • Secundius

        @ HaakonKL.

        I think the Spanish designed F110 Medium Multirole Frigate of ~5,000-tons. Would be a great replacement choice, also being AEGIS-equiped.

        • HaakonKL

          Either would likely do well, but remember that both frigates are built for their own nation’s needs.

          That’s why the Nansen class, the Spanish F110 MMF and the LCS are all very different.

          • Secundius

            @HaakonKL.

            I’m aware of everything you jest mentioned. I put the F110 Frigate design out there, because the hull lines are based on American Naval Ship Constructions. The Spanish Navy’s R.11 SPS Principe de Asturias, Light Aircraft Carrier. Is actually and American, known as the SCS-75 design. Countries like, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Spain are heavily influenced by American design criteria. Even the Israeli SA’AR 5-class Corvette, was designed and built in the United States. Food for thought, when your thinking for possible Naval Ship replacements.

  • KM

    He must not have ever served on one, or he would know that the LCS is garbage, not only in stability but manning as well.

  • Tom

    Considering the hull’s shallow draft and the vessel’s limited range (the GAO report has already assessed it as unsuitable for Pacific theatre operations), adopting an LCS-based vessel would deliver a ship of limited utility. It would be little more than an overweight corvette as opposed to a true ocean-going frigate.

  • Michael Flower

    - We Need A New Frigate Design!

    Whether 40-knots or 50-knot is not the point. The OLIVER HAZARD PERRY class Guided-Missile Frigate topped out at 29-knots. So did the KNOX class Guided-Missile Frigate that came before it. Even a Russian made Nuclear Attack Submarine of the AKULA class, with a Nuclear-tipped torpedo can’t outrun the shock-wave of its own torpedo, missile or anything else. If they build a new frigate, it should look like the INDEPENDENCE class LCS design. With tri-hull configuration for stability, either all gas-turbine propulsion or electric propulsion like the ZUMWALT class Destroyer. Use all current, updated and/or future technologies and make it of a Through-Deck design to carry additional helicopters. Like the SB-1 RELIANT or S-97 RAIDER designs as well V-22 OSPREY and F/AV-35B LIGHTNING II aircrafts. And should be at the very least keep pace or outrun a AKULA class SSN over a projected distance of at least 2,500nm.

  • Secundius

    >About the NSC Cutter/Patrol Frigate design, your joking right?

    Yes, 62.5-day endurance and 12,000nm cruising range. But at only 8-knots, the only thing your going to keep pace with is the oceans sea current.

  • Clarkward

    I don’t see any discussion in the article about the requirement to improve the LCS’ survivability beyond ‘stay afloat long enough for the crew to abandon ship’… Kind of a glaring omission for a freaking Admiral, I’d say. Unless he had left the Navy to work for a defense contractor who’d stand to make a lot of money from his plan.

  • Secundius

    All I’ve read and herd in the upper-superstructure is suppose the be of molded Kevlar and Carbon-Fiber construction. As far as the hull it self the FREEDOM class is supposed to be Steel hulled and the INDEPENDENCE class Aluminum hulled.

  • Secundius

    Hey consider this the FLETCHER class Destroyer of WWII had 1/2-inch steel plate armor and the FLOWER class Destroyer Escort, even less!

    • PB

      Source: USNI News
      Huntingtn Ingalls Patrol Frigate

      The ship concept includes torpedo tubes and hull mounted and towed array sonars for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) operations. The ship would have a combined diesel and gas turbine propulsion system, a top speed of 28 knots, an 8,000 nautical mile range and a 60-day endurance.

  • Alan Gideon

    If the intent is to provide a usable asset to the Fleet, the real questions that should be asked first are – What are the requirements? and, Why? Then, keep asking “Why?” until you find a real reason to build the ship. All failed programs start with a loosey-goosey wish list that can mean anything to anyone with an axe to grind. If the intent is to simply funnel money to certain Congressional backyards, then say so. Don’t just wrap the flag around a program/hull/weapon and try to convince me it’s a good way to spend money we don’t have.

  • Secundius

    Some one posted a comment a bout the Captain who lost two helicopter pilots while save her ship and crew to a rogue wave. Saying the Captain’s responsible for all Seen and Unseen circumstances. Well guess what that’s also true when building and replacing old ships, If you don’t know what the circumstances is, how can plan, design and develope a replacement ship for an unknown possible threat.

  • Secundius

    PHOBIA’s!

    The US. Congress, seems to to have acute phobias’s when it came to acquiring Naval Ship’s from other countries, even friendly countries. It has too to do something being about Made in America stamped on the ship. Even if its our own design, and built in another country, sets of their phobia’s. But, buying their designs and building them here, that’s another story. Take for example, the SCS-75 design, that we designed and sold to Spain. A Light Aircraft Carrier, an excellent designed ship. The problem is it’s built in Spain, Well we can’t by the ship from Spain, even though It’s our design, would set off “Congressional Naval Ships of Foreign Manufacture Syndrome”. See what I mean. Now we could buy back the design, and build the ship here. And the phobia simply go away. The Biggest problem is not the phobia/syndrome, it is “Congressional Funding Syndrome” kicks-in. And the phobia/syndrome is more dangerous and elusive, than the former phobia/syndrome. And apparently there’s no
    cure for either phobia/syndromes. At Catch-22 situation, here.

  • http://culinaireexpress.com brwing

    I think most of our ships are under gunned, with little redundancy in fire control and weapon systems. I want more close in weapons all around the ship and independent fire control and power in case of hits.
    I am not impressed with designs being contemplated.
    We should be buying foreign designs which are successful and reconfiguring with more independent fire control and more weapon stations.
    Further – we should count on overwhelming targeting by the Chinese to be countered by quick, numerous, and fast reloading weapons systems for survivability.
    and armour needs to be better.