National Security & Defense

Handicapping the Navy’s Frigate Competition

Italian Navy FREMM-class frigate Carlo Bergamini (Fabius1975/Wikimedia)
The finalists are down to five proven designs, as the Navy focuses on reliability and cost.

The horses in a major new defense-acquisition program are approaching the starting gate, but it’s not too late to handicap the race and place bets on the eventual winner. The process is easier in this competition because, unlike recent previous major program buys, the Navy limited this competition to proven “mature” designs, to include submissions from foreign ship-builders so long as they partnered with an American shipyard. The net result is a competitive field made up of participants with established track records and approximate prices.

Last week the Navy announced the five finalists in its new guided-missile frigate competition.

Traditional American shipbuilders Huntington Ingalls Incorporated and General Dynamics made the cut, although General Dynamics made it into the competition by partnering with Spain’s Navantia and using its F-100 frigate design. Huntington Ingalls appears to have presented a design derived from its National Security Cutter, currently in production for the U.S. Coast Guard.

Lockheed Martin, known primarily as an advanced aircraft manufacturer, and the Alabama based Austal USA Shipyard also made the final cut with their improved versions of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) Freedom and Independence-class ships. Lockheed’s design, if selected, would be built by the Wisconsin based Fincantieri Marinette Marine, who presently builds Lockheed’s ships today.

The finalists, in keeping with the original request for proposals, represent proven, mature ship designs that will not carry much risk when it comes to cost growth or design evolution.

Fincantieri itself made the cut with its proven FREMM class frigate, which already has ten ships in the water. The finalists, in keeping with the original request for proposals, represent proven, mature ship designs that will not carry much risk when it comes to cost growth or design evolution.

Logic and history suggest that the two LCS programs should have the inside-track advantage. They are established, currently in production, and familiar to the Navy’s lead decision-makers. In a shipbuilding era characterized by twin desires for stability in design and lower costs, the two LCS-derived frigates should break from the gate with a solid advantage. Their designs include a 3-D air-search radar, active and passive sonars, and 16 vertical-launch-system (VLS) tubes. Impressive.

That there is a competition at all for the new frigate suggests, however, that the Navy is less than enamored with the two LCS variants, which have tarnished reputations for having short endurances and even shorter times between breakdowns. While the endurance factor can be mitigated through some design changes, it’s not so easy to negate underlying issues such as compressed engine-room space, limited power-generation capacity, and structural issues associated with the aluminum construction of Independence-class ship. LCS may be the preference of many of the officers within the Naval Sea Systems Command’s program offices, where the LCS program has been managed for the past 15 years, but it would not be correct to believe that Navy leaders, uniformed and civilian, are totally confident about continuing with the LCS “experiment.”

Many naval track watchers consider the General Dynamics’–sponsored, Spanish-designed, F-100 frigate to be the purest thoroughbred multi-mission frigate on the oceanic circuit. In fact, given its Aegis-based 3-D air-search radar, superb active and passive sonar systems, and 48 VLS weapons tubes, it can do everything that an American Arleigh Burke–class destroyer can do, only just a little less of it. It can do area air defense, anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, and it can certainly provide more than adequate convoy escort, but these abilities come at a cost.

The estimated cost of the F-100 frigate comes in at approximately $1.2 billion, far in excess of the maximum $800 million that the Navy has said it is willing to pay for each of its new frigates. This cost could be constrained, perhaps by installing only 32 or even 24 VLS tubes, or perhaps the Spanish government could supplement the initial bid to win the initial contracts in the expectation of earning back the investment in future block buys. But logic suggests that if the Navy was willing to pursue the thoroughbred General Dynamics–Navantia design at more than a billion dollars per ship, it will ultimately conclude that it might just as well build more Arleigh Burke–class destroyers, which is perhaps the goal of some navalists anyway.

Huntington Ingalls’ National Security Cutter was designed and bred for a different mission, namely providing long endurance law enforcement in low-threat environments. The design is certainly robust, with more narrowly spaced ribs and thicker hulls to allow these ships to patrol in northern, ice-populated waters. It has a combat radius of 6,000 nautical miles, well in excess of the Navy’s design requirements. Although originally planned to carry a minimum of armament, namely a single 57mm gun, the ship is adaptable to be quickly upgraded with additional roll-on offensive capabilities during a time of war. National Security Cutters, for instance, have space enough to install VLS tubes as well as deck-mounted missile batteries. Also, the design is cheaper than most of its competitors’ designs, with the basic frame coming in just shy of $700 million a ship (that estimate doesn’t include the Navy’s standard combat systems). It’s not unreasonable to believe that the National Security Cutter’s final cost will fall somewhere in the range of $800 to $900 million.

However, the Huntington Ingalls entry has one notable drawback: its basic design. Its blunt, square deckhouse and blunt hull are not ideal in an anti-access, area-denial environment where low “radar cross-sections” are desired so the ship can evade radar detection by enemy vessels as it penetrates defended zones. Nor is the Huntingtin Ingalls design ideal within an anti-submarine warfare arena, where its square hull contours produce higher ambient noise levels, making it more difficult to detect submarines. In addition, the Coast Guard did not impose a requirement that all internal systems be shock-mounted, a standard characteristic of Navy battleforce ships. As such, the ship’s internal layout will need some redesign. In the end, Huntington Ingalls’s National Security Cutter is a work horse, and perhaps not ideal for the open-ocean, blue-water track.

Fincantieri offers the last horse in the frigate race. The FREMM (Fregata Europea Multi-Missione) frigate combines a sleek multi-mission, stealthy hull form with the endurance (6,500 nautical miles) of a long-distance performer. Ten FREMMs are already in service, six for Italy and four for France, so the ship’s construction and operating costs and maintenance reliability are well established. Fincantieri builds two variants of the design: One is superbly focused on anti-submarine warfare, and the other has a more general purpose and is able to perform all missions reasonably well. It is, as of yet, not clear which variant, or perhaps an amalgam of both, Fincantieri will offer to the Navy. One question raised by naval analysts with regard to both the FREMM and Navantia’s F-100 design is whether the two European ships can meet Naval Sea Systems Command’s stringent survivability standards. But the fact that these two designs made it through the first elimination race suggests that FREMM and the F-100 met the Navy’s survivability standards. What is clear, based upon its established track record, is that Fincantieri’s FREMM will be able to offer a reliable and highly advanced ship, equipped to perform local air defense, anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare missions as well as convoy escort, for around $800 million per ship.

Based upon its spacious design, combat capabilities, and cost, FREMM emerges as a clear front-runner. It has a Goldilocks-like appeal: neither too expensive nor too under-equipped.

Based upon its spacious design, combat capabilities, and cost, FREMM emerges as a clear front-runner. It has a Goldilocks-like appeal: neither too expensive nor too under-equipped. In fact, it’s a robust hull with room for mission growth.

There is another old racing aphorism that the Navy should consider, however. Track handicappers often use the phrase “different horses for different courses.” Different race distances favor different horses and even different breeds; weather conditions shape the outcome of a race as well. A good “mudder” horse is favored on a raining day or a sloppy track. The nation and its Navy actually face a range of challenges on the world’s oceans.

The new National Security and National Defense strategies both publicly acknowledge that the United States is once again in a great-power competition with Russia and China. Most of the conversations with regard to the future security environment associated with that competition have focused on operating within the range of anti-access, area-denial systems in the western Pacific and in the Baltic and Black Seas. Ships such as the FREMM, which are stealthier because they have low radar cross-sections, are best suited for these environments.

But there is another competitive “track” to consider, as both Russia and China have begun to invest in gaining control of the Arctic Sea, its resources, and the strategic bastions it provides to nuclear-ballistic-missile submarines. To remain competitive, the U.S. Navy will need to acquire a capability, which it doesn’t yet have, to operate routinely in the ice-laden north. It might be to the Navy’s advantage to purchase two frigate variants for its battle-force stable: 26 of the open-ocean, blue-water variety to operate in anti-access, area-denial environments, and eight of the ice-resistant model to rotate patrols through the high north. These, in addition to the current planned purchase of 30 Littoral Combat Ships would result in an enlarged defense shipbuilding industrial base and a small surface combatant population of 66 ships, which is more in line with historical fleet architectures than the 52 LCS’s and frigates currently envisioned.

The Navy has established the entries for the frigate race. Now it needs to judge these five mature frigate designs against the wide range of needs associated with emerging threats, both in blue-water anti-access, area-denial zones, and in the increasingly critical arctic region. Its decisions will have significant strategic implications, given the rising level of competition and the declining size of the American fleet. The decision to proceed only with established mature designs was a wise one, especially when viewed against the backdrop of the problems associated with the LCS, the Zumwalt land-attack destroyer, and the cancelled cruiser-replacement program. Stability and reliability are a must. Fortunately, the Navy has some great horses to select from.


Jerry Hendrix — Jerry Hendrix is a retired U.S. Navy captain, an award-winning naval historian, and a vice president with the Telemus Group, a national-security consultancy.

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