The U.S. Navy has selected the design for its new FFG(X) frigate and explained why it is retiring four LCS ships early. The new frigate will be based on the Italian FREMM frigate. The American FREMM will be a modified version of the basic FREMM design and will be built by an American firm under license. The FREMM design has been in service since 2007 and is currently used by four nations. FREMM was designed to be adapted to various user specifications. FREMM is a 5,000 to 7,000 ton ship that varies in length from 132 to 142 meters with a top speed varies from 45-56 kilometers an hour. Crew size is from 145 to 199. The basic FREMM is armed with a 76mm cannon plus anti-submarine torpedoes, anti-ship missiles, CISW for anti-missile defense and dealing with small boat swarm attacks.
Fincantieri, the Italian creator and manufacturer of FREMM, will receive a $795 million contract to modify FREMM to fit American needs and build the first FFG(X) in an American shipyard. If that goes according, to plan Fincantieri will build nine more in the same U.S. yard for $534 million each. The first U.S. FREMM supposed to be in service by 2026 and the second one three months later.
It has already been decided that the 7,000 ton U.S. FREMM frigate will be 155 meters (496 feet) long and have accommodations for 200. It will have an AEGIS type AESA radar that can detect enemy ships over the horizon and attack them with NSM (Naval Strike Missiles).
The NSM is another import, from Norway. Despite the many lightweight (under a ton) anti-ship missiles on the market, NSM still gets sales because it is effective, reliable, and affordable. It is also offered for use on ships, aircraft, and on trucks (as part of a mobile coastal defense system). The 409 kg (900 pound) NSM has a 125 kg (275 pound) warhead and a range of 185 kilometers. NSM uses GPS and inertial guidance systems, as well as a heat imaging system (and a database of likely targets) for picking out and hitting the intended ship. Norwegian manufacturer Kongsberg allows buyers to easily install their own radar and control systems.
The U.S. FREMM will also have one 57mm gun and a hangar and landing pad for two helicopters or one helicopter plus UAVs. There are four Mk 53 anti-submarine torpedo launchers and 32 VLS cells for anti-aircraft or other missiles. There will also be a RAM system for anti-missile defense. Top speed of this U.S. FRREMM is about 48 kilometers an hour. Fincantieri has some leeway in meeting these specs and the U.S. Navy decided that FREMM could be adapted to satisfy FFG(X) requirements, and then some.
One popular, with the crew, feature of FREMM is the use of 4-6 person berthing spaces, each with its own shower. Most American warships have the traditional berthing spaces for enlisted crew that are basically a barracks bay approach with dozens of sailors per space with each one sleeping in bunk beds that are stacked two or three high. These large berthing spaces are notoriously noisy all the time because crew members have different schedules and some berthing spaces are the only way to reach a different part of the ship. The FREMM design eliminates or considerably reduces most of these problems. Other navies have found that it is great for crew morale and well-being because the sailors get more sleep. The smaller berthing spaces also solves the problem of accommodating a different number of female sailors.
Meanwhile the navy has also explained its January decision to retire four of its troublesome LCS (Littoral Combat Ship) “frigates”. One of these ships is only six years old and the oldest one has been in service for twelve years. Congress had questions about this and the navy explained that these four ships were used for testing new features and were not equipped with all the gear the regular LCS ships had. It would cost $600 million to upgrade these four ships for regular service. By retiring these four ships the navy saves about $400 million a year in operating costs, as well as the upgrade costs.
The LCS is a failed design and one of the many attempts to fix that was to try and portray LCS as a frigate. In early 2015 the U.S. Navy decided to officially reclassify the LCS as frigates. This was not unexpected as in size and function the LCS ships were very comparable to frigates. This type of ship was created during World War II as “Destroyer Escorts” (or DE, versus DD for destroyer). These were basically destroyers that were slower (smaller engines), smaller (fewer weapons) and meant for escorting convoys and patrolling areas where major air attacks were not expected. The DEs proved more useful than expected and were retained after the war and eventually renamed as frigates (FF) type ships. The LCS was meant to be much more than a frigate and used a very innovative design to achieve that. This did not work out as planned. Eventually, the navy decided to develop a new, more conventional Guided Missile Frigate design for the new FFG(X) type ship. The final FFG(X) design has now been selected (from among four competitors) and the navy wants to produce these quickly, at a rate of four to six ships a year once the first one is in service.
The LCS began development in 2002 and by 2012 the U.S. Navy put it into mass production. Then in 2013 one of the three LCSs in service got its first tour in a combat zone; counter-piracy duty around the Straits of Malacca. There LCSs took turns serving six month tours of counter-piracy duty and were based in Singapore. At the time the plan was to have six LCS ships based in the Western Pacific, including three in Singapore. Another seven will be based in the Persian Gulf (Bahrain).
There were numerous problems with the equipment on the LCS, crew size and organization of the ships. All these problems, both the new ones and many old ones, caused the navy to decide in early 2014 to cut the number to be built from 52 to 32. Mostly this was about shrinking budgets, but there’s also the fact that the LCS has been, for many admirals and politicians, much more troublesome than expected. This was not surprising because the LCS was a radical new warship design and these always have a lot of problems at first. LCS was basically a replacement for the older frigates as well as doing several tasks frigates did not handle. The LCS has gone through the usual debugging process for a new design and that has attracted a lot of unwelcome media attention. But it was clear the end was near when the navy decided to study the possibility of developing a new frigate design, which would incorporate some of the lessons learned with the LCS. Because of the money shortage that is also stalled.
Despite all the problems, many in the navy still believe that the LCS is worth the effort, and worth keeping if only there were ways to get the design to work reliably. Costing less than a quarter of what a 9,000 ton destroyer goes for and with only a third of the crew, there were many tasks where the LCS could do a job that would otherwise require a destroyer or frigate. The navy could have originally built a new class of frigates, but the LCS design seemed a lot more flexible, making it possible for different “mission packages” to be quickly installed so that LCS could do what the navy needed (like assembling a lot of mine-clearing ships or anti-submarine vessels) in an emergency. This did not work out as well as expected.
The LCS has many novel features that required a lot of tweaking to get working properly. One much resisted latest tweak was to crew size, with ten personnel being added. That made a big difference because all LCSs have accommodations for only 75 personnel. Normally, a ship of this size would have a crew of about 200. The basic LCS crew was 40, with the other 35 berths occupied by operators of special equipment or special personnel (SEALs or technical specialists). In practice, the original crew was usually 55. That was 40 for running the ship and about 15 for the mission package. From now on the number of personnel running the ship increases to 50.
The navy surprised everyone in 2010 by choosing both LCS hull designs and requesting that the fifty or so LCS ships be split between the two very different looking ships. Both ships look quite different because one is a traditional monohull while the other is a broader multihull trimaran. Both type ships share many common elements. One of the most important of these is the highly automated design and a smaller crew. The two different LCS designs are from Lockheed-Martin (monohull) and General Dynamics (trimaran). The first LCS, the monohull USS Freedom, completed its sea trials and acceptance inspections in 2009. The ship did very well, with far fewer (about 90 percent fewer) problems (or "material deficiencies") than is usual with the first warship in a class. USS Independence (LCS-2) was laid down by General Dynamics in late 2005 and commissioned in January 2010.
Both LCS designs were supposed to be for ships displacing 2,500 tons, with a full load draft of under 3.3 meters (ten feet), permitting access to very shallow "green" and even "brown" coastal and riverine waters where most naval operations have taken place in the past generation. The top speed was expected to be over 80 kilometers with a range of 2,700 kilometers. Basic endurance is 21 days and final displacement was closer to 3,000 tons. For long deployments, the LCS has to resupply at sea or return to port for more fuel, food and other items.
The navy originally sought to have between 50 and 60 LCSs by 2014-18, at a cost of $460 million (after the first five) each. The USS Freedom ended up costing nearly $600 million, about twice what the first ship in the class was supposed to have cost. The navy was able to get the cost down to about $500 million each once mass production began. Because of the continued problems with the mission package modules, escalating costs for the modules and a lot of other minor problems, the navy lost faith in the design. The navy will only have about 30 LCS ships in service and most will probably be retired after about a decade of service and replaced by the new frigate design. Meanwhile the navy is still unsure about exactly what it can use LCS ships for.
The navy decision to retire four LCS ships indicates that the others would be retired as the FFG(X) came into service. Doing that will be a major test for the navy. The LCS is not the only recent failed new ship concept. The new Ford class nuclear aircraft carrier is crippled by bad design decisions and manufacturing problems. Before that there were the DDG-1000 class stealth destroyers that proved too expensive to mass-produce. Only three were built and their main weapon does not work. Similar problems inflicted the Seawolf SSN (nuclear attack sub). All these failed projects indicate that the navy has not yet fixed its fundamental inability to design and build new ships. The navy plays down how serious this problem is but that only made it look worse because of the Chinese success at building new ship classes much more quickly and on budget. The U.S. Navy used to be able to do this and the loss of that capability continues to be the most serious threat the navy faces and the one too many navy leaders are willing to take on. The FFG(X) is an opportunity for the navy to demonstrate that they can do it right. Unfortunately, it’s an opportunity, not a sure thing.