Navy Releases Details of New FFG(X) Guided-Missile Frigate Program in Request to Industry

July 10, 2017 12:39 PM - Updated: July 10, 2017 1:33 PM
USS Freedom (LCS-1) and USS Independence (LCS-2)

This post has been updated to include the link to the full Request for Information.

The Navy released the first formal details on what it wants in its guided-missile frigate in a new request for information to industry issued today. The new ship concept outlined in the RFI in many ways resembles the Navy’s previous frigate plans but also looks at upgrades like more powerful radars and vertical-launch missile tubes.

The RFI notes the Navy is still seeking industry input on a variety of capabilities – including, how to incorporate missile launchers for Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) Block 2 and Standard Missile (SM)-2, according to an early draft of the RFI obtained by USNI News.

However, the document outlines many key details on the frigate’s mission set, the weapons systems the Navy would like it to employ and the ship class’s procurement profile.

Much like the Littoral Combat Ship that currently fills the small surface combatant role, the FFG(X) mission will focus heavily on unmanned systems, using them to expand “sensor and weapon influence to provide increased information to the overall fleet tactical picture while challenging adversary ISR&T (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting) efforts.”

“This platform will employ unmanned systems to penetrate and dwell in contested environments, operating at greater risk to gain sensor and weapons advantages over the adversary,” according to the RFI.
“The FFG(X) will be capable of establishing a local sensor network using passive onboard sensors, embarked aircraft and elevated/tethered systems and unmanned vehicles to gather information and then act as a gateway to the fleet tactical grid using resilient communications systems and networks.”

In many ways, this FFG(X) design goes beyond what today’s LCS can do, particularly as it relates to surface warfare. The RFI states the frigate should be able to conduct independent operations in a contested environment or contribute to a larger strike group, depending on combatant commander needs.

“During Phase 1 (Deter Aggression) and Phase 2 (Seize the Initiative) operations, the FFG(X) will normally aggregate into strike groups and Large Surface Combatant-led surface action groups but also possess the ability to robustly defend itself during conduct of independent operations while connected and contributing to the fleet tactical grid,” the RFI reads.

As a result, it will have to be equipped with more sophisticated hard-kill and soft-kill technologies to protect itself during independent operations, or to protect logistics ships during escort missions in low- and medium-threat environments, which the RFI warns will include “complex electronic warfare and anti-ship missile threat environments.”

A major argument against the LCS – and the Navy’s first crack at the frigate requirements, which would have been an improved multi-mission version of the LCS – was that it did not have a Vertical Launching System to contribute to air defense missions. The Navy still has not worked out how to incorporate VLS into its frigate plans, and the RFI does not include VLS in its chart of required weapon systems but rather requests input from potential shipbuilders on how to incorporate the missile launchers. Though this issue doesn’t have an engineering solution yet, the new name of the ship class – guided-missile frigate (FFG(X)) compared to the previously named frigate (FF) – suggests a dedication to resolving this issue.

“To increase the FFG(X) self-defense, the Navy is particularly interested in understanding the trade space surrounding the addition of Launcher Capability to support Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile Block 2 and/or Standard Missile-2 Active missiles,” according to the RFI.
“Solutions should describe the launcher type, cell quantities the proposed design could accommodate, and if able to be cost-effectively integrated include considerations for strike length variants to maximize weapons flexibility. The Navy is also interested in the potential space, weight, and volume the launcher represents that can be included in the FFG(X) design as well as how many cells could be accommodated if design changes were pursued along with understanding the capability trades and cost impacts of those changes. Any innovative approach vendors may have in providing a Launch System or increasing capacity by making design trades across FFG(X) requirements will also be considered.”

Many of the required weapons systems are pulled from the previous FF requirements: the COMBATSS-21 Combat Management System, which pulls software from the same common source library as the Aegis Combat System on large surface combatants; the SeaRAM anti-ship missile defense system; a canister-launched over-the-horizon missile; the surface-to-surface Longbow Hellfire missile; the Mk53 Nulka decoy launching system; the Surface Electron Warfare Improvement Program (SEWIP) Block 2 program with SLQ-32(V)6; and a slew of undersea warfare tools such as the AN/SLQ-61 light weight tow, AN/SQS-62 variable depth sonar and AN/SQQ-89F undersea warfare/anti-submarine warfare combat system. It also requires use of the MK 110 57mm gun with the Advanced Low Cost Munition Ordnance (ALaMO) projectile being developed for the LCS and frigate.

Other required weapon systems would promote commonality with larger ships in the fleet, such as the Enterprise Air Surveillance Radar (EASR), a larger variant of which will go on future Ford-class aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships.

The RFI demonstrates an attempt to address the biggest concerns from LCS and FF detractors, chiefly in the inability to contribute in a meaningful way to air warfare. But the similarities between the requirements in this RFI and the previous FF plans are hard to ignore – and the RFI itself even makes the same argument that Navy officials have been making for years, that the small surface combatant shouldn’t have the same capabilities as a large surface combatant but rather should be able to take on lower-threat missions and allow cruisers and destroyers to handle more complex work around the globe.

The RFI states that one of the FFG(X)’s two main purposes is to “relieve large surface combatants from stressing routine duties during operations other than war.” It goes on to say later that “this ship will reduce demand on high-end cruisers and destroyers that currently conduct [anti-submarine warfare], [surface warfare], and theater security cooperation missions, allowing for an increase of more capable assets to maintain a stabilizing presence in regions where tensions with nations that have highly capable naval forces may exist.”

The RFI outlines a 20-ship class that procures one hull a year for two years and then two a year moving forward, though the Navy welcomes feedback on more affordable procurement profiles. The service would be looking to award a detail design and construction contract in Fiscal Year 2020, as leadership announced this spring – a one-year delay from its previous plans to allow another pass at the ship’s requirements and the inclusion of bidders beyond just Austal USA and Lockheed Martin that build today’s LCSs.

The RFI was posted online today, and responses from industry are due back on Aug. 24.

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

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