Home » Budget Industry » Stackley: More Capable Frigate Requires Full and Open Competition, But LCS Builders May Have Cost Advantage

Stackley: More Capable Frigate Requires Full and Open Competition, But LCS Builders May Have Cost Advantage

Littoral Combat Ship Tulsa (LCS-16) begins to roll onto the Crowley launch barge. US Navy Photo

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As the Navy reworks its frigate requirements in the hopes of fielding a more capable ship for a more dangerous world, the two current Littoral Combat Ship builders may still have a slight advantage due to their hot production lines, the acting secretary of the Navy said last night.

Sean Stackley made clear that the Navy was engaging in a full and open competition for the frigate, to include domestic and international designs – anything that is mature, either an existing design or a derivative of one, that meets the specifications the service will release.

Still, in stressing maturity in the frigate’s design and weapons systems, Stackley said a mature production line may be an advantage.

“We’re going to put out our requirements: in a typical fashion they will be in the form of specifications. The shipbuilders will have the opportunity to take their existing designs or look at other designs and come back with a proposal, and then it’s going to be a best-value-type competition. So cost and capability will be factors,” Stackley told reporters after speaking at the U.S. Naval Institute’s annual meeting.
“If you’re an existing LCS builder, do you have an advantage or a disadvantage? I would say that you are in a competitive position because you have a hot production line, and so when you have a hot production line you have mature costs. Now that challenge is integrating new capabilities. I think full and open is full and open; it will be best value.”

Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition Sean Stackley delivers remarks during the christening ceremony for the amphibious assault ship Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) America (LHA 6) on Oct. 20, 2012. U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Ingalls Shipbuilding.

Though the U.S. hasn’t built a traditional frigate since the 1970s and 1980s, other countries around the world have. Stackley said the competition would be open to these designs, so long as the designers paired with an American shipyard for construction, with a few caveats. He said the U.S. Navy was looking for a higher level of survivability than many international frigates have today, so the designers would have to adequately alter them to meet all requirements. Additionally, he said the U.S. Navy would require all technical data rights.

“These are going to be U.S. Navy ships. We are going to have to have the technical data that’s required to sustain and modernize these ships,” he said.

During the U.S. Naval Institute annual meeting, Stackley told USNI News during a question an answer session that this frigate effort – including both a new requirements generation process and competitive acquisition process – would differ from the original 2014 study in many ways. In 2014, when then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter directed the Navy to curtail the LCS program and move to a more lethal and survivable frigate, “we were looking at different, frankly, different budget constraints, and different requirements in terms of the force structure assessment of the day.”

In a hearing last week, Director of Surface Warfare Rear Adm. Ron Boxall mirrored those comments, telling the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee that “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.”

Stackley stressed that cost was still a major factor in this frigate acquisition effort. Still, Congress has loosened its purse strings in the past few years, signing agreements to ease Budget Control Act spending caps and using the BCA-exempt Overseas Contingency Operations funds to help pay for regular base budget needs. And the Trump administration has hinted at heftier Navy budgets to help grow the size of the fleet.

Sioux City (LCS-11) during the ship’s moveout at the Fincantieri Marinette Marine yard in Wisconsin. Lockheed Martin photo.

The acting secretary told USNI News that the idea to revisit the frigate requirements came out of last year’s force structure assessment effort to look at how many of what kinds of ships the Navy would need for the mid- and long-term.

“What motivated this, frankly, the [chief of naval operations]’s staff went through a force structure assessment and took a look at the future world, the world we will be operating in, and determined that while the frigate that came out of the 2014 study, its multimission capabilities are right, we need more. We need more in terms of the capabilities,” Stackley said.
“And the ‘more’ that we’re looking at is added air defense capability, added elements of electronic warfare capability, added survivability, and we’re looking at things like endurance. So yes we are looking at more – however, cost matters. And there will be a forced trade of capabilities based on cost. And time does matter too: we’re not going to throw this open to a clean sheet design. We don’t need a clean sheet design. We have a number of mature designs, U.S. and foreign, and so we don’t need to develop a new platform. What we need to do is identify the mature weapon systems we want to put on an existing mature platform, and the challenge then becomes are we ready to integrate, and then all the standard naval architecture weight and KG and all. But bottom line: mature platforms, mature weapon systems, we’re doing trades in terms of capabilities to go after what I described, added air defense capability, added electronic warfare, survivability. Cost matters. CNO’s going to determine what’s affordable, he’ll draw that line, we’ll make those trades. We’re going to leverage the maturity of the design so that we can get at what we need in terms of speed of fielding that capability.”

  • J_kies

    How about commonality with the USCG NS Cutter – its a good size; good speed, real ‘manly’ range and other aspects of a general purpose Frigate sized vessel.

    • PolicyWonk


      The Legend-class NSC is proven, tough, seaworthy, has the room for growth, and a hot production line to boot. While smaller than many of our allies frigates, it has the right combination of features that would enable it to operate either with the fleet, or alone on “presence” missions.

      The USCG got it right with this one, and it has many of the virtues missing in both classes of LCS.

      • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

        Where is the room to grow?

        From their promo clips the only place they can put AShM cannisters is right at the very rear in lieu of the rear-RHIB slip…..
        There is no where amid ship to put them as would be the norm for frigates.

        It all seems quite cramped.

        The price is also an issue.
        The NSC procurement costs were pretty beefy for a coast guard vessel.

        • J_kies

          LCS is running somewhere around 750M$ If we take total program and divide by hulls. ‘Beefy’ is a pretty sporty concept.

          • @USS_Fallujah

            I’m no LCS fan, but that $750m number is way off, per USN budget request documents the FY17 “Gross Weapon System Unit Cost” (ie fully outfitted and armed) is $562.8m. That’s roughly 1/3 the cost of each FY17 DDG-51 ($1.697B)

          • J_kies

            Fair enough – you have newer numbers that spread the development over more hulls. Thanks for correcting my lazy application of older numbers.

          • @USS_Fallujah

            The $750 was the number for the two “First of Class” that always cost significantly more, production costs tend to go down over the run of the program. The R&D money isn’t included in either figure though, so there is no spreading the development cost. Including it tends to be very misleading to the cost per ship, as those are “sunk” costs (pardon the pun) and the dollars per hull will change significantly depending on how many LCS (or FFE/FFG derivatives) are built, but that “total” cost doesn’t very well inform the decision to buy more LCS or LCS based FFGs compared to one built from a NSC, DDG or foreign designed hull in future budget requests.

          • tpharwell

            Sir, With respect, figures lie, and liars figure. That is a highly technical term of art and can not be taken to mean what it says on face value. Who actually knows what is in that category, and what is not ? It might take a team of auditors. What we do know is that as stated, it was a figure prepared in support of a yearly (as in this year, and not the next) request for appropriation of funds with which to build a number of ships – they being baseline LCS. As is, where is, according to the specifications and designs of the current contract under which the parties are doing business. With no change orders.

            What we also know is that the full weapons system loads that are supposed to go aboard these ships, that is to say, their “modules”, are definitionally “add-ons” that will cost something to make. Further, we know that these “modules” are not even ready to be installed, still at this time, but rather are “in development”.

            What does that mean ? It means that it is impossible at this time to know what these ships will cost to any reasonable extent when and if the day ever comes that they finally receive their full weapons systems. But take it also to mean this: “Ching-Ching”. Developmental costs continue to pile up for these ships, despite the fact that uncompleted baseline hulls are in serialize production at a specified contract price. Those development costs are liabilities accruing to the DON under separate contracts other than the one governing payment for the ships in production. Contracts like the one under which Lockheed Martin was awarded $50M a couple of years ago to find ways to save money in building LCS.

            Such development contracts, either formal executory ones,, or rather, “pay as you go- a la carte” payments on current account for “R&D” or “change orders”, date back to the beginning of the LCS program, and are still going strong. In fact, they are due to soar in the coming years as the Navy tasks its suppliers to figure out a way to make an LCS in to a deep water ASW/air defense frigate with long distance convoy escort capabilities. They have not even let out the RFP for that yet. We are now just reading that they have put the day of reckoning off by three years.

            We can be reasonably sure, despite these vagaries of DON capital investment, that, if and when a fully fitted out LCS ever makes its debut, the systems it carries will add hundreds of millions of dollars to the price of each vessel, and that it will be FAR IN EXCESS of the speculative “Gross Weapons Systems Unit Cost” figure tossed out by the DON late last year for the purpose of securing funding to start building three more LCS in this year.

            It is impossible to make an LCS in to a frigate. Therefore the cost of attempting to do so is infinitesimally great. The figure of $750M as a unit cost for whatever they do manage to come up with someday, however, can be considered conservative. According to the rules by which I must live, all dollars are green. I suggest they apply to the DON, and that the cost to build a certain number of warships (yet to be decided upon) is inclusive of the cost of developmental design and testing, sunk, or unsunk, such as four “prototypes” that last year were written off and consigned to “reserve status”.


          • @USS_Fallujah

            The FY17 budget request gives a decent Oranges to Oranges comparison when looking at LCS shipbuilding dollars vs those for DDGs, SSNs, etc. There is likely a lot more fudging of numbers on the LCS program than say Virginia or Burke class costs, but at least it’s a useful starting point.
            As for if a LCS hull can be used as the basis for a “real” frigate, well much is going to depend on how NavSea defines a Frigate, a OHP it will not be, no doubt. The question is, when they add on a upgraded radar suite, at 16 or so VLS, a tail and an 8 pack of NSM deck canister, are we looking at a $900m+ price tag, because (IMO) anything north of $800m and you can no longer afford to build them in sufficient numbers to alleviate the hull shortfall for presence missions, requiring more DDGs to do FFG work and using up the force, and despite the improved capability I’m dubious they can produce a ship able to fulfill the traditional role of a Frigate in a conflict with a near peer adversary.

          • tpharwell

            No argument that it is a meaningful figure that can be used for comparisons. But you have to know a lot about what it means before you can run off an make those comparisons. It is a measure of spending in the current year, with respect to the one spending category only, to which it is assigned. That means it offers us a snapshot from a certain angle, but progress in spending towards completion of an LCS program is a movie.

            There are lots of outtakes. For instance, the contract price for the LCS under construction is reported to be $360M. How do you reconcile that with the “whole boat” figure of $560M which you refer to as coming from the 2017 NDAA ? Is that $200M for the weapons systems and other fittings that have yet to be determined, and must come after delivery ? Then how exactly, was that figure derived ?

            In that case, to repeat, I say it is speculative. Also, I repeat that one must take in to account development costs in order to get a full picture of what these ships will end up costing. You have failed to address that point. I deem it admitted.

            I believe as apparently you do as well, that a new frigate must be an inexpensive ship, and therefore ruthlessly simple. I am willing therefore to assume for purposes of argument that you are right about the cost threshold you observe. I don’t believe an LCS can make it, and prove satisfactory. I am willing to bet that the HI product can. I will bet that if you offered Ingalls $800M per copy for an order of 40 of their patrol frigates, that they would accept the offer. The current CG vessel is coming in at a little under $500M, and merely needs to be up-gunned and painted grey (or not !).

            I also am of the opinion that there must be a transition to a simpler and less costly design. I submit that in order to do that, there would be little choice but to go to a one-screw/one shaft, one main propulsion engine design, like the Perrys had. Make it IEP, like the Zumwalt, but essentially, half-size.

            This would get the cost down. But this suggestion so far has not been greeted with approval. In fact, say some, oh no, never. They are those who would have their cake and eat it, if you ask me.

            I note your doubts about the LCS. I am not dubious. I know it can not fulfill the role of a frigate, and as a old washed up lawyer, am not a big fan of definitional word games.

          • @USS_Fallujah

            It’s not from the NDAA, but the FY17 budget request.
            LCS is pages 165 through 174. What is included is spelled out in (painful) detail.

          • tpharwell

            It’s from an Administration’s budget submission to Congress ? Even worse.

            So far as cost guides go, there is only one thing worse than a line item in a Congressional appropriation bill, and that is the equivalent line item in a Congressional budget resolution. Except that is, this: the equivalent line item in a president’s proposed budget resolution – and in this case there is only one thing worse than the current one, and that is the one proposed last year by the Obama Administration – and that just happens to be what you have referred me to.

            Have you ever heard any of the following terms: “cost-overrun”; “budget deficit”; “budget shortfall”; “sequestration”; “budget DOA on Capitol Hill” ?
            No coherent understanding of the unit cost to build either version of the LCS can be gained from studying this document, regardless of one’s training, experience and education. Consider, for purposes of illumination, a comparison of the LCS section with the carrier section.

            The LCS section provides a bottom line of $1.125B for the program in 2017 with two ships under construction. Yes, divide that by “2”, and you do get $562.8M. But so what ? What does that mean ? Does it mean that such an appropriation would fully pay for two ships that will not be completed until their weapons systems are delivered, in about 2022, if we are lucky ?? Note that the parallel line item for the “Carrier Replacement Program is a mere $1.219,426B, with only one under construction, and negligible advanced purchases for a second. Is anyone arguing that the future USS Ford is only going to cost a billion or so, merely because that is this year’s failed budget request for it by the Obama Administration ? Nonsense. Should the LCS bottom line be considered more reliable because these ships take less time to build ? ? It still takes three years to build two, it seems.

            Still feel that these are solid reliable cost indicators ?? Consider the LCS multi-year comparison found in Exhibit P-56c on page 148. It provides the following pertinent line item history:

            Year 2011: $1.147B for two ships. (2); 2012: $1.86B – (4) 2013: $1.82B – (4); 2014: $1.82B -(4); 2015: $1.51B – (3); 2016: $1.445B – (4); 2017: $1.125B – (2).

            Do three ships cost more to build than four ?? No. So what are these figures indicative of ? Cost ? No. Read “Budget Reconciliation Control Act of 2010”. Read : “sequestration”. Read Obama Administration budget request written by DOD because Ray Mabus refused to provide such a proposed budget. Read level, or declining funding requests.

            These numbers have nothing to do with the costs incurred by the DON in building these ships.

      • DaSaint

        Didn’t the Legend class hull crack soon after delivery? And that was a steel hull.

        • PolicyWonk

          The NSC’s have proven tough and reliable, after a few relatively minor teething problems.

        • Fred Gould

          Was the cracking due to weld failures or plate failure. Welds can be cured with training and strict inspections. If plate failure, then investigate the mill that produced the steel plate for improper manufacture. The LA subs had the problems years ago and appears to have been caused by not removing enough impurities from the product, greed.

  • J_kies

    I think a stripped down Burke is a perfectly viable frigate; after all the Fletcher provided the CG seaframe. The inexpensive stuff is steel and empty space, the speedboat aspects of the LCS are pretty silly as they certainly can’t outrun the missiles and inbound shells. The speedboat is also pretty terrible for acoustics limiting things like ASW.

    • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

      There are worse ideas out there.

      The Flight 3 are going to be 1,500 tonnes heavier than the Flight 1….. they will be practically cruisers in all but name.

      The old Burke is obviously tried & true.

      – Strip out the rear VLS and have bigger/better aviation space
      – Put on the basic ‘baby aegis’ radar & drop that massive mast.

      • muzzleloader

        Some say that the Burke is a Cruiser now.

      • @USS_Fallujah

        Concur 100%, I believe the original AoA put the price of a FFG configuration of the DDG-51 hull at “under $1B”, or about 1/2 to 2/3 the cost of a Flight III Burke (determining the cost of a flight III is hard right now as they are executing those via Engineering Change Proposals). Would a cut-down DDG design provide a better exchange ration on cost than the current 1/3 cost of the LCS (god only knows what the new FFE/FFG upgrade of LCS hull cost would really be)?

  • J_kies

    Yep – I f-ed that one you are correct.

  • dog lover

    Whatever hull design they go with a heavily armed ship with the most advanced technology is the only way our naval crews will be able to survive. The crew is a very high priority.

    • DaSaint

      Every ship in the Navy can’t be heavily armed with the most advanced technology. We’ve got half the surface vessels in the Navy barely armed, and they’re crewed too.

  • BlueSky47

    Ok, let’s keep building the same little crappy ship over and over again hoping that it’ll magically turn into a warship someday, sounds like Einstein’s definition of crazy to me.

  • Eyes open

    Let’s go back and get the definition of a frigate. According to Wikipedia, the frigate is the latest iteration of the DE whose sole purpose was to supply ASW capabilities. So if the Burkes have this capability, why do we need the LCS at all? And yes, I remember that this was designed for the littorals.

    • Fred Gould

      Money. Ships are expensive to build, operate and maintain.

  • Ed L

    I agree that the huntington ingalls nsc with the proposed HII design—called the FF4923, which is based on the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Security Cutter, would be a long-endurance patrol frigate that could potentially offer greater combat capabilities as well as range and endurance for a lower price. Company officials told me that they are building nine NSC vessels for the Coast Guard and a Navy variant would be a relatively quick conversion.

  • Adrian Ah

    They could probably overcome most of the issues by replacing the current engine with one which has a top speed of only 30 knots.The engine would be smaller, more reliable and they could hold more fuel. Thus the reliability and range issues would stop. As for weapons, well, consider that nobody ever had any problems with current minesweepers having only machine guns. And helos hunting subs – the LCS can do that.

    Still if you had to travel fast, what about copying the engine from the Norwegian Skjold-class corvette? It can do 60 knots.(I admit it’s much lighter though- 250-300 tons.)

  • @USS_Fallujah

    The DDG-51 hull is also a mature design with a hot production line. I’d bet in a fair competition you’d get more “bang for your buck” from a cut-down DDG hull than from building up on a LCS or NSC hull (I also think the costs of the foreign design FFGs will be prohibitive, as their cost are misleading because of the manner in which the shipyards are funded). That said I think the “Fix” is still in and we’ll eventually see a LCS based hull (or hulls) get the nod. This is particularly ironic given the statement that “the U.S. Navy was looking for a higher level of survivability than many international frigates have today” when you’re working up from a LCS hull with near zero survivability and practically zero AAW capability.

  • @USS_Fallujah

    The real failure here, no matter what the new FFG design end up being, is that the USN will end up buying 30 some LCS that should have been built with 8 Harpoon ASCM in canisters, a VDS “tail”, torpedo tubes and a baked in air defense radar and capacity for 16ish VLS tubes for ESSM (and ASROC) to provide a decent AAW, ASuW and ASW capability.