The U.S. Navy Wants to Build a Super Frigate

April 13, 2017 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: NavyFrigateLRASMChinaLCSLittoral Combat Ship

The U.S. Navy Wants to Build a Super Frigate

Coming in 2023? 

The Navy is exploring the possibility of adding Local Air Defenses, new weapons and enhanced protection technology to its requirements for a new Frigate slated to emerge in the early 2020s.

While the new Frigate was conceived of as a more survivable adaptation of the Littoral Combat Ship, new analysis is no longer restricted to the idea of loosely basing the "hull design" upon the LCS. Furthermore, new requirements analysis underway by a Navy Frigate Requirements Evaluation Team is examining the feasibility of making the ship even more lethal and survivable than what previous plans called for.

"As a result of the Navy's 2016 Force Structure Assessment, increased emphasis on Distributed Maritime Operations, and increasingly complex threats in the global maritime environment, the Navy continues to assess the capabilities required to ensure the Frigate outpaces future threats," Alan Baribeau, spokesman for Naval Sea Systems Command, told Scout Warrior. "The Navy is pursuing an update to the analysis performed by the 2014 Small Surface Combatant Task Force to reassess Frigate requirements and capabilities."

This new analysis, which will be briefed to Congress and Pentagon leadership later this Spring, may lead to a larger, more reinforced hull able to better withstand enemy attacks. Existing plans for the Frigate have called for "space armor" configurations, a method of segmenting and strengthening ship armor in specified segments to enable the ship to continue operations in the event that one area is damaged by enemy attack. 

While Navy officials did not specify details of new technologies now under consideration, they did say the new examination could lead to a different kind of hull design, as well as new offensive and defensive weapons. Stronger air defenses and enhanced survivability initiatives open the door to a wide range of offensive and defensive weaponry, such as emerging low-cost laser weapons able to incinerate incoming enemy attacks or launch offensive strikes.

News of this new Frigate analyses was first reported by Chris Cavas of Defense News.

This revised assessment of the Frigate transpires as the Navy is finalizing the weapons, sensors and technologies it plans to engineer into its new Frigate - a  more survivable and lethal Littoral Combat Ship variant designed to perform anti-submarine and surface warfare functions at the same time, service officials said.

The Navy already plans for the new Frigate be integrated with anti-submarine surface warfare technologies including sonar, an over-the-horizon missile and surface-to-surface weapons such as a 30mm gun and closer-in missiles such as the HELLFIRE.

Some of the over-the-horizon missiles now being considered by the Navy include the Naval Strike Missile by Kongsberg-Raytheon, a Harpoon or the Long-Range Anti-Ship missile (LRASM) made by Lockheed and the Pentagon's research arm, DARPA.

It is not yet known whether the Frigate will be engineered with Vertical Launch Systems (VLS) to fire larger, longer-range missiles such as a Tomahawk or Standard Missile 6, among others. However, that could be a possibility depending upon emerging Navy requirements for weapons on the ship, developers have said. It is certainly conceivable that these kinds of considerations could inform ongoing deliberations. The LCS hull is not engineered to accommodate VLS. However, should a different hull form be considered for the Frigate, the prospect of VLS or other kinds of ship-launched weapons could emerge. 

Alongside ongoing efforts to specify weapons for the emerging Navy Frigate, the service is also hoping to integrate additional weaponry on the LCS itself. As a result, weapons development for both the new Navy Frigate and existing LCS are distinct, yet also interwoven initiatives. 

Along these lines, Baribeau added that while the design for the Frigate matures, "the Navy remains firmly committed to execution of the current LCS program of record, in order to maintain the viability of both shipyards, maximize competition for future ship contracts, and deliver critically needed capability to the Fleet as quickly as possible."

Some of the weapons such as the Kongsberg-Raytheon Naval Strike Missile, however, may still be configured for both Frigate and LCS platforms.. 

Distributed Lethality

Engineering a more up-gunned, lethal and survivable Frigate than previously planned is unambiguously consistent with the Navy's often articulated "distributed lethality" strategy. This concept, underway for a year or two now, involves numerous initiatives to better arm its fleet with offensive and defensive weapons, maintain a technological advantage over adversaries such as the fast-growing Russian and Chinese navies, and strengthen its "blue water" combat abilities against potential near-peer rivals, among other things. 

Arming the Littoral Combat Ship, and its more survivable and lethal variant, the Frigate, is designed to better equip the LCS for shallow and open water combat against a wider range of potential adversaries, such as enemy surface ships, drones, helicopters, small boats and maneuvering attack craft, at beyond-the-horizon ranges.

The LCS is already equipped with 30mm and 57mm guns to destroy closer-in enemy targets such as swarms of small boats and the Navy is also engineering a maritime variant of the HELLFIRE Missile aboard the ship to destroy approaching enemy targets from "within the horizon."

While the Navy is, perhaps more than ever, still committed to freedom of navigation and working to ensure safe passage in strategic areas in international waterways, the new strategy is aimed at ensuring the entire fleet is engineered with the sensors, computer technology, radar, communications gear and weapons systems to over-match any potential near-peer competitor such as Russia or China. The strategy seeks to ensure the U.S, Navy retains its technological advantage amidst a fast-changing global technological landscape. 

Part of the rationale to move back toward open or “blue water” combat capability against near peer competitors emphasized during the Cold War. While the strategic and tactical capability never disappeared, it was emphasized less during the last 10-plus years of ground wars wherein the Navy focused on counter-terrorism, counter-piracy and things like Visit Board Search and Seizure. These missions are, of course, still important, however the Navy seeks to substantially increases its offensive “lethality” in order to deter or be effective against emerging high-tech adversaries.

Having longer-range or over-the-horizon ship and air-launched weapons is also quite relevant to the “distributed” portion of the strategy which calls for the fleet to have an ability to disperse as needed.  Having an ability to spread out and conduct dis-aggregated operations makes Navy forces less vulnerable to enemy firepower while. At the same time, have long-range precision-strike capability will enable the Navy to hold potential enemies at risk or attack if needed while retaining safer stand-off distance from incoming enemy fire. 

Navy Frigate - 2023: 

The Frigate is slated for delivery to the Navy by 2023; the platform is an outgrowth of the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship effort which originally planned to build 52 shallow-water multi-mission ships equipped with interchangeable groups of technologies called “mission packages” for mine countermeasures, anti-submarine technologies and surface warfare systems.  

However, lawmakers, analysts and some members of the Navy argued years ago that the LCS was not “survivable” enough. Although the LCS speed of 40-knots is by itself regarded as a survivability-enhancing attribute, critics argued the ship would be far too vulnerable to enemy attack. 

The concern, ultimately echoed by then Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, was that the ship did not have enough weapons, armor fortifications and what’s called “blue water” combat capability to challenge near-peer adversaries.

“LCS as designed is a focused mission ship. It can do one specific mission at a time and the combat capability to do that mission is provided by the mission packages,” he added.  “We are going to take a modified LCS and take that as the baseline and then add changes or modifications to improve its lethality and survivability.”

The new ship will also have seven 11-meter Rigid Inflatable Boats for short combat or expeditionary missions such as visiting, searching and boarding other ships.

At the same time the anti-submarine technologies planned for the ship include a multi-function towed array sonar, variable depth sonar to detect submarines and sensors combined with a submarine hunting MH-60R helicopter.

While the LCS, which is currently in service with the Navy, is credited for its speed, maneuverability and shallow draft which enables it to access shallow water ports larger ships are unable to reach. The LCS ships in service this far have performed quite well, Navy officials explained.

The original initiative to engineer a more survivable and lethal LCS variant emerged out of a multi-month effort directed by Secretary Hagel and the formation of an entity called the Small Surface Combatant Task Force.

There was a chorus of concern from Pentagon leaders, members of Congress, analysts and some Navy officials about whether the existing LCS will be "survivable" enough to withstand and prevail in large-scale surface combat. Could the ship continue to function if struck by enemy fire? Does it have the needed long-range offensive strike capability?

While very few question the utility or overall benefit of having the LCS in the Navy fleet, the idea of a stronger, more weaponized and fortified Frigate variant seems to address these concern in the minds of many. This new analysis appears to be taking this effort even further.