National Security & Defense

Frigates: The Right Tool for the Job

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook transits the Mediterranean Sea, January 18, 2019. (Mass Communication Specialist Second Class Ford Williams/US Navy)
With the Navy lacking a well-balanced fleet, the U.S. must rely on destroyers to do the job of frigates.

In announcing a major initiative to combat drug trafficking in the Pacific and Caribbean and to defend the United States against the threat posed by the Maduro regime and associated drug cartels, the U.S. government is making the right move. But the assets chosen, in particular the assignment of three destroyers, seem to be the wrong tools for the job. It’s as if the nation had decided to use a farm tractor to mow the front yard.

At an April 2 White House briefing announcing the initiative, President Trump was joined by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, national-security adviser Robert O’Brien, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, and Chief of Naval Operations Michael Gilday, who came together despite social-distancing guidelines to present a united front against Maduro and other South American and Central American drug traffickers. The drug cartels are seeking to take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic, counting on the United States to be too distracted by the crisis to stop an increased flow of illegal drugs into the country. Nicolás Maduro, the illegitimate leader of an illegitimate government, was specifically called out as being part of a narco-terrorist conspiracy that is responsible, according to the White House’s statement, for smuggling some 250 tons of cocaine into the United States, with at least half of that arriving by sea. In response, the Navy will be assigning three destroyers, a littoral combat ship, and a detachment of P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft to the U.S. Southern Command to assist with this mission.

Counter-drug operations are clearly a critical mission for the United States, given the tragedy of addictions and deaths associated with illicit-drug use and their impact on American families and the economy. The argument can even be made that the use of U.S. military assets to carry out that mission is appropriate: Stability is of strategic importance, as is maintaining laws and norms in the Western hemisphere. Furthermore, increasing levels of Chinese activity and investment in the Western hemisphere make it ever-more important for the U.S. military to have a highly visible presence in the region. We cannot be strong abroad if we are weakened at home; there must be no doubt that the Western hemisphere is our home, and that we are in charge.

Nevertheless, the use of destroyers for this particular purpose raises concerns. At $1.8 billion each, Arleigh Burke–class destroyers are among the world’s most expensive and technologically advanced weapons systems. Many of these ships are engaged in ballistic-missile defense and other high-end missions around the world. Although there is great demand for the vessels to support complex engagements, they are engaged all too often in low-end missions such as Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea or naval-presence patrols in any of the numerous maritime regions of the globe where U.S. regional combatant commanders have identified important U.S. national interests and have asked for ships to support them. These missions have the appearance of overkill, as a highly technically specialized warship is used for purposes that rank low in terms of technical requirements, such as providing naval presence in places like the Gulf of Guinea or taking part in counter-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Oman.

So why are high-end ships being used so consistently to do low-end missions, of which counter-drug operations in the Caribbean and Pacific are yet another example? The answer is that the Navy doesn’t have the low-end ships to match with those missions.

“Low-end” refers traditionally to frigates and corvettes that are smaller than destroyers or cruisers, have smaller crews, lower sensor-system and weapons complexity, and lower costs so that navies can purchase them in larger numbers to perform day-to-day presence, escort, surveillance, and interdiction missions. British admiral Horatio Nelson referred to frigates as the “eyes” of the fleet, and historically corvettes were designed to be small enough to operate in an enemy’s close-to-shore littoral regions. By this standard the U.S. Navy’s littoral-combat ships would normally be considered corvettes. Although the Navy has purchased 30 of them, these ships have not been as effective as the Navy had hoped, with nearly all of them presenting difficulties with their combat systems. To fulfill the counter-drug mission described by the president and his team, what the Navy and the Southern Command really need is frigates, and fortunately, they should be coming soon.

The Navy had the option, as some have previously suggested, to recall some of its Oliver Hazard Perry–class frigates now in the “Ghost” reserve fleet at the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, but it has consistently bypassed that option as being too expensive. In coming months — hopefully sooner rather than later — the Navy is set to announce its selection of a new frigate design and will then issue a contract for the first ship’s construction this fall. In its last 30-year shipbuilding plan, the Navy expressed its interest in buying 20 of these new ships. Analysis suggests that it will need around 55 of them for a well-balanced 355-ship fleet. These ships, with a combat suite of medium complexity, requiring smaller crews, and each costing less than $1 billion, should be purchased in sufficiently large numbers to free the Navy’s larger, more complex, and much more expensive combatants to focus on the readiness of their combat systems to win wars. Should the Navy also choose to purchase large and medium unmanned platforms equipped with either weapons or sensors to operate with its new frigates in a distributed network, then those frigates would only be more effective in their traditional role as the “eyes” of the fleet.

To meet persistent requests and requirements, the Navy keeps about 110 ships deployed at any given moment — out of a total of only 296 ships. Normally a ship should spend about six months in maintenance and then six months in training before deploying for six months; it then returns home to spend another six months in a ready-surge status before beginning the cycle again. The Navy’s current 110-to-296 ratio means that compromises have been made throughout the cycle — truncated training or maintenance, or extended deployments, or ships unready for crisis surges. As the Navy charts its course to 355 ships, new frigates will offer a solution to the problem. For now, however, it must assign the high-end, and highly expensive, destroyers to perform counter-drug patrols off the shores of Central and South America, as well as to put additional pressures on Maduro.

It is undoubtedly the right course of action for the president and his team to counter the damaging effect of narcotics on American life, and to isolate the corrupt regime in Venezuela. But it is also undoubtedly the case that they were forced to pick the wrong tools for the task. The U.S. should ensure that the Navy will soon be able to provide the commander-in-chief with a better option to defend the nation’s day-to-day interests at sea.


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