NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T he U.S. Navy’s decision last week on a new frigate design for domestic production undercuts the argument that the United States is withdrawing from the world. On Thursday evening, the Department of Defense (DoD) announced that it had awarded a contract to Marinette Marine Corporation of Wisconsin to build up to ten new guided-missile frigates for the Navy. Marinette Marine is a subsidiary of Fincantieri Marine Group, which is in turn a subsidiary of the Italian firm, Fincantieri. The winning design, which was required by the U.S. Navy to be mature and proven to minimize both risks and costs, was the FREMM (Fregata Europea Multi-Missione), a ship currently in use by four navies. Construction of the first ship of the new design at the Wisconsin yard is set to begin next year. That ship will enter the fleet in the mid 2020s.
The selection of the FREMM design suggests that the U.S. government intends to remain engaged in the world. First, by selecting a design of foreign origin, DoD has reversed a “not invented here” arrogance, which has been reflected in an eagerness to export high-tech and highly expensive weapons such as the F-35 stealth fighter to allies and partner nations while being reluctant to purchase major platforms from them. Selecting the FREMM should actually make it easier for other U.S. manufacturers to sell their systems abroad. Additionally, by selecting Fincantieri, one of the largest shipbuilders in the world (with shipyards in seven countries), as the builder, the Navy will have the opportunity to benefit from an innovative design. U.S. shipbuilders will get the opportunity to learn design and construction “best practices” from Europe’s leading shipyards. The rising tide of naval architectural knowledge will lift all industrial boats.
Second, by operating a design already in use in several other navies, the U.S. Navy will demonstrate its commitment to true interoperability. Over the past three decades, the surface forces of the American navy have become increasingly dominated by highly sophisticated and expensive cruisers and destroyers outfitted with the Aegis combat system, the pinnacle of technical complexity, which few other navies can match. During international exercises, smaller navies have been known to grumble privately that Americans tend to look down on them, both figuratively and literally, from their larger and more powerful ships. By purchasing frigates of the FREMM design but equipping them with the latest in U.S. sensors and missiles, the U.S. Navy will maintain its technical standards while operating ships that are similar to those used by its operational partners.
Third, because the new frigate is expected to cost $850 million or less, which is half the cost of the Navy’s next larger ship, the Arleigh Burke–class destroyer, it will be cheap enough to be purchased in larger numbers. This will be critical for growing the Navy from its present size of 299 ships to 355 ships. Current Navy plans call for 20 of the new ships to be built. But various force-structure studies suggest that number could climb higher than 50 ships. These increased numbers will allow the U.S. fleet to sail the world’s oceans more consistently, upholding the global norms of free trade and free navigation upon the high seas. At the same time, more ships will also enable the Navy to work more closely with other seafaring nations on a broad range of maritime-security issues, ranging from fisheries protection to counter-piracy patrols to territorial defense.
Last, because the new design is smaller than the U.S. Navy’s larger cruisers and destroyers, future frigates will be able to make calls into smaller ports that have gone unvisited in recent years, allowing U.S. sailors to interact directly with more citizens of other nations. The importance of Navy ships and their crews serving as goodwill ambassadors to foreign countries should not be understated. Increasing visits to a more diverse set of foreign ports and cities can only increase U.S. influence abroad. Such considerations are of growing importance in the face of rising Chinese activity across the globe. Port calls even in the era of COVID-19 remain vital no matter how many (or few) sailors actually depart the vessel. Showing the flag has never been more important than when the world is in fear.
All of this is not to diminish the fighting qualities of these new ships. They will enter service with a myriad of guns, missiles, and torpedoes, and will be ready to render lethal service should U.S. or allied security interests be threatened. Perhaps even more important, however, the selection of the European FREMM design sends a powerful message to friend and foe alike that the United States intends to be out and about on the world’s oceans, fully engaged in protecting its interests and those of its allies and partners.