Past Problems Can't Stop the U.S. Navy From Building a New Frigate
The United States Navy should not take council from its fears when it comes to the design of its new frigate. While it is true that technical challenges and cost overruns associated with the Ford-class supercarrier, Zumwalt-class destroyer, and the Freedom- and Independence-class Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) (which admittedly are not having cost issues) have been significant and almost crippling, the Navy should not allow itself to be so consumed by these failures that it takes a “safest path” approach to its new guided missile frigate design.
Earlier this week the Naval Sea Systems Command issued a talking points memo that promoted the achievements of both LCS classes, complete with highly complementary quotes from senior Navy admirals—including Fleet Forces Commander Phillip Davidson, who is perhaps the Navy’s strongest candidate to be the next Pacific Commander. Near the end of the talking points, the memo suddenly rapidly shifts its focus to the Navy’s new guided missile frigate program. The structure of the memo suggested a natural link between the LCS ships—which the memo promoted as “ninja warriors”—and the new frigates, and carried more than just a hint that perhaps the new frigate should, in fact, be a derivative of one of the current LCS designs.
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This is not altogether incongruous with the Request for Information (RFI) the Navy issued this past July, when it asked the industry to help it identify design tradeoffs. Two important points stated in the RFI were that the Navy desired to begin production of the new frigates as soon as possible, purchasing the first ship in fiscal year 2020 after the last LCS was bought in 2019 and, because of this time compression, no new “clean sheet” designs—which would have lengthy development periods—were desired. Instead the Navy wished to consider “mature” designs that were already in production. Additionally, the Navy made it clear that it was willing to consider designs from foreign shipbuilders so long as the design could be built in an American shipyard. It could be surmised from this language that both LCS designs and the Coast Guard’s Bertholf-class National Security Cutter, all of which are in production within the United States, would be considered. In addition, foreign designs such as Fincantierri’s FREMM frigate, Navantia’s Bazan-class frigate or BAE’s Type 26 frigate could also be considered, as each has a U.S. shipyard or partner shipyard where their ships could be built. There may be other designs under consideration as well.
This field of prospective builders represents a tremendous opportunity for the U.S. Navy to select a proven design that is already in the water serving in other navies with a well understood maintenance and operational record. In addition, there is a strong potential for benefit through interactions with foreign builders: none of the world’s largest shipbuilders are U.S. based. In fact, most are located in Asia, with only Italy’s Fincantieri, which builds everything from large cargo vessels to submarines, representing the West in the top tier. The United States would benefit from exposure to better design features, building processes and management practices. This is why the Navy’s apparent attempt to link the FFG(X) to the LCS program is so troubling.