The Navy has slowed its frigate procurement timeline, looking at awarding a detail design and construction contract in Fiscal Year 2020 to allow more time to understand what it needs the ship to do and how it might affordably meet those requirements.
Director of Surface Warfare Rear Adm. Ron Boxall told the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee in a hearing today that the Navy is working under time constraints but not cost constraints at the moment, as the current “Frigate Requirement Evaluation Team” works through what is now the second look at future frigate requirements.
A 2014 Small Surface Combatant Task Force deemed that the Littoral Combat Ship was not lethal or survivable enough and that upgrades should be made to the basic LCS designs to create what would become the “frigate.” But Boxall said several things are different this time around.
First, though he said he did not sit on the 2014 SSC TF and therefore didn’t want to criticize its work, he told lawmakers “the Small Surface Combatant Task Force, the environment when they created that task force was, I’ll call it reactive in nature. We were responding to criticisms and to get to a more capable, survivable ship as quickly as possible. And there was also fiscal guidance that was given to them at the time.”
This time, the Frigate Requirement Evaluation Team has not been given any cost guidance. Boxall told USNI News at the hearing that there wasn’t even a date yet for when the Navy would have a cost cap – rather, the surface warfare community is looking at what it needs, and will then engage industry to see what they can provide, and only then will they look at cost.
Second, the mission set as somewhat changed since 2014. Whereas the LCS and the frigate had been envisioned for primarily independent operations near the shore, the Navy now believes the LCS and frigate could be used by fleet commanders to support the carrier strike group out at sea. To support that, while still remaining a low-end surface combatant – compared to the high-end guided-missile destroyers and cruisers that cost upwards of $1.5 billion apiece – Boxall said the Navy is assessing what self-protection systems, offensive weapons, strike group connectivity and more the frigate would need to be the right ship at the right price tag. He described the right role as something between the LCS’s current self-protection air defense capabilities and the destroyer’s wide area air defense, for example. And he said the Navy was looking at some kind of upgrade to the LCS’s rotating radar, but whether the solution would be a fixed or rotating solid state radar is a focus of discussions now.
Seapower subcommittee chairman Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) told USNI News after the hearing that the frigate would likely have to have a more sophisticated radar, more firepower and the ability to connect to the Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) construct that destroyers have. For example, Wittman said, the frigate wouldn’t need to have the Aegis Combat System, but it would have to have Link-16 or some other way for a destroyer’s Aegis Combat System to send it targeting data. The frigate may not have the eyes to see longer-range targets itself, but it should be able to support a destroyer or other naval platform that can see the target and direct the frigate’s missiles to prosecute a target.
Third, Boxall said in 2014 the Navy discounted foreign frigate designs due to none of them exactly meeting its requirements, and the need to quickly begin work on a frigate that would quell LCS detractors. Today, Boxall said there still doesn’t appear to be any other small surface combatant design, foreign or domestic, that exactly meets its needs, but the Navy is willing to hear more about these designs and understand how expensive it would be to modify them for frigate requirements.
“We have less data on the foreign designs than we do on most of the other designs in the U.S., but having said that, what we learned from the Small Surface Combatant Task Force was that we made some assumptions then that weren’t exactly right,” he said.
“We don’t know if they can or can’t [meet the new frigate requirements] with a foreign design, or U.S. builder with a foreign partner, and so we believe it’s in the interest of the Navy to look at the requirements and to be able to include anyone [in a] full and open competition to get us the best capability at the best price. Having said that, there are challenges with any option” the Navy is aware of and will have to look at the cost to adapt these designs for a U.S. frigate.
Boxall declined to provide more specifics on the steps the Navy would take between now and the detail design and construction contract award in 2020, saying that additional details may be revealed in the FY 2018 budget request, expected to be released later this month. They also had little to say about the fate of LCS acquisition between now and 2020 – the two shipyards need the Navy to buy three ships a year to maintain efficient shipbuilding, but Boxall and Rear Adm. John Neagley, the program executive officer for LCS, would not commit to how many ships the Navy actually hoped to buy in FY 2018 and 2019.
Neagley said at the hearing that the shipyard’s production capacity would play a role in the Navy’s selection of a frigate shipbuilder. The two yards currently building the LCS – Austal USA and Marinette Marine, who previously would have competed against one another in a closed competition for the frigate contract – have made significant investments in their yards for the LCS and frigate program, Neagley said, and “we want to leverage as much of that as possible.”
Though much is still unknown about the frigate, both the Navy officers and the lawmakers noted that time is an important factor. Boxall said the frigate is meant to take some strain off the destroyer force, which will be shrinking in the coming years. The longer it takes to field a frigate, he said, the more strain will remain on the destroyers and the LCSs as they begin deploying around the world.