Naval Analysts Weigh in on New Frigate Concept
By RICHARD R. BURGESS, Managing Editor
WASHINGTON — Naval analysts have expressed concern to Congress over aspects of the Navy’s new guided-missile frigate FFG(X) concept and how it would fit in the service’s plans to grow its battle force to 355 ships.
Testifying July 25 before the Senate Armed Services seapower subcommittee were Dr. Eric J. Labs, senior analyst for Naval Forces and Weapons, Congressional Budget Office; Ronald O’Rourke, specialist in Naval Affairs, Congressional Research Service; Dr. Jerry Hendrix, senior fellow and director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for A New American Security; and Bryan Clark, senior fellow, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
The analysts were asked about the Navy’s request for information (RFI), released July 10, for the FFG(X) by the subcommittee chairman, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.
“I don’t think it does move us in the right direction”, Clark said. “It opens up the aperture too much in terms of what that future frigate could be. It makes it seem like it could be anything, a ship that’s only able to do surface warfare and ISR [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance] missions in support of distributed lethality. It could anything from that, which is a relatively less capable ship all the way up to a frigate that can do air defense or another ship and do anti-submarine warfare.
“The Navy, instead of opening a wide aperture and seeing what comes in, needs to make some choices about what they need this ship to do. It needs to be a more capable ship that’s able to do multiple missions: anti-submarine warfare, air defense and surface warfare. All three of them about the same time. So, it needs to be a multimission ship and not something that’s single-mission or dual-mission, like the RFI implies.”
“I found the RFI generally to be good, however there are a couple of troubling points within it,” Hendrix said. “Probably the one that leapt out at me the most was the requirement within it for a 3,000-nautical-mile range at 16 knots. Given the reserve fuel requirements — we never run ships all the way down to zero [fuel]; we always want to keep fuel for ballast and emergencies — that would actually limit that ship to have to at least take one refueling for even a trans-Atlantic convoy escort.
“It would seem to me that any type of ship that’s built — and its written into the document — needs to be able to do anti-surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare [and] convoy escort, that it ought to be able to do convoy escort without having to peel off and hit the tanker on the way over,” he said. “So, it struck me that something in the 4,500- to 6,000-mile range ought to be a walking-in-the-door minimum, the higher the better in order to get the most independent steaming out of it.
“I’m a little concerned about the emphasis on the air-defense factor,” Hendrix said. “I believe that the ship should provide self-air defense, but we have been buying excess capacity of air defense in the [Arleigh] Burke class for a number of years. We have a real deficit in anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare [ASW], and any time that you require a ship to be good at all things, you’re going to drive up the cost factor in this. There’s a certain sweet spot on cost that, if you exceed that by adding air-defense capability, certainly we start edging over a billion dollars per copy. At that point, shouldn’t we buy some more Burkes? We need something that we can buy in high enough numbers that we can drive up that portion of the fleet.”
Hendrix said that Navy needs more than the 52 small surface combatants (including littoral combat ships, or LCSs) in its current plans. He said the number should be in the 70 to 75 range “to be able to fill out the requirements from the combatant commanders throughout the world.”
“I would like this to be a robust ASW, anti-surface design with a 6,000-mile range,” he said. “That’s a good starting point.”
“This is going to be our third attempt in the last 15 years to try and get right the issue of small surface combatant procurement,” O’Rourke said. “When we started the LCS program in the 2000-2003 time frame, the Navy didn’t do all the homework, in my view, that it needed to, to provide a firm analytical foundation for the program. And the weakness in that analytical foundation, in my view, that I’ve argued for many years now is a principal reason for many of the difficulties that the LCS program experienced in subsequent years.
“The Navy had a chance to firm up that analytical foundation when the program was restructured in 2014, but this time — not so much the Navy’s fault, but rather OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] — they missed a second opportunity to create a firm analytical foundation for what they were doing,” O’Rourke said. “So, this is the Navy’s third bite at the apple, to put a proper, robust analytical foundation to explain to itself and others what kind of ship it wants to buy.
“And it needs to be able to answer three questions, and not just with opinions or subjective judgments, but with strong robust numbers,” he said. “First, what are your capability gaps that you’re trying to address? Second, what is the best general approach for filling those gaps — should it be a small ship, a big ship, a plane, something else, some combination? And, third, when you pick that best approach, then what are some of the key attributes than the ship should have?
“If they don’t put a firm analytical foundation under this effort, there will be a risk of this effort also experiencing difficulties in execution in the years ahead,” he said.
“It would be good if there were more specificity in the RFI, without getting in a recommendation of what that specificity should be,” Labs said. “The more specificity you have, the more you can zero in and get that ship designed and the faster you can get a cost estimate based on what the specifications were going to be.
“You want to be careful about not trying to do things too much on the cheap,” Labs said. “At the same time, I you can design a ship that has a great deal of capability and you can get maybe two frigates for the price of one Burke-class [ship], you’re starting to get somewhere in terms of building a larger fleet in a timely manner.”
Hendrix said that for the price of one destroyer the Navy could procure a couple of frigates or a couple of offshore patrol vessels “or missile boats by, perhaps, converting a joint high-speed vessel and uploading it with missiles, given that cost range that you could pack six smaller combatants into the cost of one Burke.”
He also said that a “clean-sheet design” is too late and that the Navy should look at the Coast Guard’s national security cutter or the FREMM frigate used by France and Italy.