The US Navy’s Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) has announced the award of development contracts to five contenders for the FFG(X) program—a 20-ship class of “next-generation” guided-missile frigates intended to fill the gap in capabilities left by the retirement of the 1980s-era FFG-7 Oliver Hazard Perry class and not quite filled by the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program. Two of the contenders are modified, more heavily armed versions of the LCS designs, while the other three are based on ship designs being produced for other navies—or in one case, for the US Coast Guard.
Since each of the designs is based on an existing “parent” ship design and should use existing technologies (rather than radical new designs), the Navy is hoping to keep the cost of each frigate at $800 to $950 million—about double the cost of an LCS ship but half the cost of an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer.
The Navy started a quest for a new frigate when former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel ordered a restructuring of the LCS program back in 2014. The Navy cut the planned 52-ship construction program for the LCS—the Independence– and Freedom-class ships built by the teams of General Dynamics/Austal USA and Lockheed Martin/Fincantieri Marine, respectively—to 32 ships. The Navy planned to make up the difference with 20 more capable frigates. But by 2016, with budgets slashed by “sequestration,” the Navy was adjusting its expectations and simply hoped to get modified designs of the LCS ships in hand by this year and then get a rush order on 14 up-gunned and up-crewed frigates.
That plan changed again after the Trump administration arrived, and the Navy began planning a 2018 budget request potentially free of sequestration constraints. Last summer, as the Navy’s top officer discussed the idea of bringing Perry-class ships out of retirement to fill the gap, the Navy began a formal solicitation process for FFG(X) in 2017.
In the Request for Information (RFI) issued by the Navy in July 2017, NAVSEA officials said that these would be multi-mission ships with dedicated anti-aircraft, anti-submarine, and anti-ship capabilities, as well as scouting, intelligence collection, and humanitarian relief capabilities:
The purpose of this type of ship is to (1) fully support Combatant and Fleet Commanders during conflict by supplementing the fleet’s undersea and surface warfare capabilities, allow for independent operations in a contested environment, extend the fleet tactical grid, and host and control unmanned systems; and (2) relieve large surface combatants from stressing routine duties during operations other than war. This platform will employ unmanned systems to penetrate and dwell in contested environments, operating at greater risk to gain sensor and weapons advantages over the adversary. The FFG(X) will be capable of establishing a local sensor network using passive onboard sensors, embarked aircraft and elevated/tethered systems and unmanned vehicles to gather information and then act as a gateway to the fleet tactical grid using resilient communications systems and networks.
General Dynamics/Austal and Lockheed Martin/Fincantieri have already shown preliminary LCS-based frigate designs at the Surface Navy Association’s 2018 National Symposium last month. Both incorporate vertical launch system (VLS) tubes for anti-aircraft missiles and deck-mounted anti-ship missile racks. But General Dynamics and Fincantieri have also pitched separate contenders based on ships already built for the navies of US allies.
Fincantieri has pitched a version of its “Fregata europea multi-missione” (FREMM) ship design, already in service with the French and Italian navies; General Dynamics’ Bath Iron Works, partnered with the Spanish shipbuilder Navantia, has proposed a design based on the Aegis-equipped F100-class frigates the company built for Spain as part of the Advanced Frigate Consortium starting more than a decade ago.
The fifth frigate contender is Huntington Ingalls Industries. HII previously had proposed a frigate based on the Legend-class National Security Cutter—a long-endurance, multi-mission ship that the company is building for the US Coast Guard. A modified Legend-class design was an early dark horse contender for the frigate competition during the Obama administration simply because the ship had already been approved for construction. But that was before the Navy specified an anti-aircraft role for the frigate and specified vertical launch tubes for Standard Missiles.
Each of the shipbuilders picked by NAVSEA was awarded $15 million to complete conceptual design of the frigates. The Navy will evaluate each of the designs over the next 16 months. Based on the evaluation, the Navy will pick which contenders will be issued a final request for proposals for the frigate build late next year and award a contract to a single winner in 2020.
Listing image by Lockheed Martin