Constellation Frigate ‘Unplanned Weight Growth’ Could Limit Service Life, Says GAO

May 29, 2024 8:21 PM - Updated: May 29, 2024 10:55 PM
Rendering of USS Constellation (FFG-62). Fincantieri Image

This post has been updated with additional information on the initial planned growth margin of the frigate program

Due to Navy design decisions, the service’s next-generation guided-missile frigate might not have the weight margin for required modernization to meet its expected service life, according to a government watchdog report released Wednesday.

The “unplanned weight growth” of ten percent or more from June 2020 to October of 2023 on the Constellation-class frigate may require the Navy to shed propulsion capability and in turn reduce the ship’s top speed to allow the warships to have the margin the service needs for future upgrades, according to the Government Accountability Office’s report on the program.

“The Navy’s decision to approve construction with incomplete elements of the ship design—including information gaps related to structural, piping, ventilation, and other systems—and the underestimation of adapting a foreign design to meet Navy requirements have driven this weight growth,” the report reads.
“Resolving this weight growth adds another dimension to the shipbuilder’s ongoing design activities, further diminishing the predictability of these already schedule-challenged efforts.”

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The report comes as the Constellation-class frigate program receives increased scrutiny in Congress after the Navy disclosed earlier this year that the lead ship may deliver three years late.

The program has faced design challenges as the Navy modifies a parent design to meet U.S. survivability standards, while Fincantieri Marinette Marine has struggled to hire workers at its Wisoncins yard and shift resources from the remaining Freedom-class Littoral Combat Ship and Saudi Arabia’s multi-mission surface combatant to the Constellation class.

After the revelation of the delays, House authorizers cut the one frigate the Navy asked for in its Fiscal Year 2025 budget submission from the House Armed Services Committee’s draft of the annual policy bill.

The Navy began performing a “separate review” of the weight growth issue in December of 2023, according to the GAO.

“The Navy disclosed to us in April 2024 that it is considering a reduction in the frigate’s speed requirement as one potential way, among others, to resolve the weight growth affecting the ship’s design,” the report reads.

In April of 2020, the Navy chose Fincantieri Marinette Marine to build the frigate at its yard in Wisconsin. Based on the FREMM parent design that’s in service with the Italian and French navies, the design is undergoing modifications to meet U.S. Navy survivability standards. The Navy hired design agent Gibbs & Cox to alter the FREMM drawings. Gibbs & Cox is not mentioned anywhere in the GAO report.

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Those modifications are leading to problems in the program’s schedule and risk, as the Navy gave Fincantieri the green light to start cutting steel when the design was not mature enough and the service continues to alter the design, according to the GAO report.

​“Navy decisions to substantially modify the frigate design from the parent design have caused the two to now resemble nothing more than distant cousins,” the GAO writes.

Those modifications have taken the commonality between the Constellation-class and the FREMM from 85 percent down to 15 percent, USNI News previously reported.

“The Navy implemented its unique specifications in 511 functional design documents—referred to as “contract data requirements list (CDRL) items”—to incorporate its weapon systems, more robust damage control systems, and a newly designed topside arrangement, among other things,” according to the GAO report.
“However, the Navy and shipbuilder continue to grapple with these CDRL items—drawings, diagrams, specifications, and configurations that inform the 3D model and detail design—in tandem with constructing the lead frigate.”

Navy officials have repeatedly cited workforce challenges at the yard in Marinette when discussing the frigate program’s delays, but the GAO report cites an “unstable” design as the reason for the delays.

A spokesperson for Fincantieri declined to comment when contacted by USNI News. In response to the GAO report, the Navy told the watchdog that it agreed with four out of the report’s five recommendations and “partially agreed” with a fifth.

“GAO is making five recommendations, including that the Navy restructure its design stability metric to measure progress based more on the quality than quantity of design documents; use the improved metric to assess the design stability before beginning construction of the second frigate; incorporate additional land-based testing into the frigate test plan; and identify opportunities to further incorporate leading practices for product development into the frigate acquisition strategy,” the report reads.
“The Navy agreed with four recommendations and partially agreed with the recommendation related to updating the test plan. GAO maintains that all five recommendations should be fully implemented.”

The Navy gave Fincantieri the go-ahead to begin building the lead ship in the class in August of 2022. At the time, a service official said the detail design of the ship was just over 80 percent complete. But in April, when the Navy disclosed that the lead ship in the class could deliver in 2029 instead of the planned delivery in 2026, service officials said the detail design was about 80 percent complete.

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Meanwhile, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro told the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month that Fincantieri underbid the frigate contract.

“Maybe if the Constellation, if that had not been underbid during the previous administration and hadn’t been delayed from the very beginning and they came in with a best value price for it, and the Navy had not accepted it back then, we’d be in a better place with regards to the frigate as well,” Del Toro told the panel.

Several months after the Navy issued the initial 2020 contract award for the lead ship, a Congressional Budget Office report found that the service underestimated the price tag of the lead ship by 40 percent and that it could cost $1.6 billion.

While the weight issue was not the primary finding of the report, not having enough margin space, weight, power and cooling surplus over the life of a warship makes the hull less useful in the long term, USNI News understands. According to a 2022 Congressional Research Service report, the Navy’s program included a 5 percent growth margin with others arguing for a 10 percent margin.

The service has had a history of decommissioning ships early due to combat system obsolescence issues, including the 1970s-era Kidd-class destroyers and the first five Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruisers.

Mallory Shelbourne and Sam LaGrone

Mallory Shelbourne and Sam LaGrone are USNI News staff writers.

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