It is a bitter sweet moment in the annals of US Naval history-the USS Kauffman FFG-59, has set sail on its last cruise, which will also be the last time any US Navy Frigate does so. Once she returns in six months, after almost 40 years of service, the Oliver Hazard Perry Class Frigates will be officially retired, signaling an end of an era for US Navy.
The Perry Class became the red headed stepchild of the Navy Brass a long time ago, with their abilities being overshadowed by glitzy AEGIS capable destroyers and cruisers. As a result, the ships have been starved of funding and major upgrades over the last couple of decades turning them into what some call the 'Ghetto Navy.'
The Perry Class lost their area air defense capability well over a decade ago, with the SM-1R missile needing upgrades along with the ship's combat systems to keep viable. Of course the money was not allocated for this upgrade so their rotary missile magazines were removed and their Mk13 single arm missile launcher turrets were welded over and a chain-gun was tacked on in their place.
In retrospect, this was an incredibly stupid idea as other nations have not only efficiently upgraded the Perry Class's sensors and combat information system but they have also upgraded the Mk13 launch system and magazine to accept powerful SM-2 'Standard' surface-to-air missiles. Not only that, but Turkey's G-Class has also added an eight cell Mk41 Vertical Launch System to their ex-Perry Class frigates, giving them a whopping 32 long-range SM-2s Standard missiles and 32 ultra-modern and deadly Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles (ESSM). Even a set of RGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missile tubes were added to this US tuned Turkish frigate to give them a long-range over-the-horizon anti-ship punch. In essence, an upgrade like the G-Class gives these ex-Oliver Hazard Perry Class Frigates the capabilities of a pocket destroyer, one that can safely escort a flotilla and provide area air defense even in an intermediate threat environment.
While the FFG's air defense capabilities were being needlessly neutered even though cheap upgrade options existed, other key systems aboard these stout ships continued to age as the class was starved of up upgrades. Thus sailors assigned to FFGs were known as much for their MacGyver-like problem solving and fix-it skills as for their ability to excel in combat, which was something those who served aboard these cramped and run-down ships were very prideful of. In their minds, being in the 'Ghetto Navy' may suck in some ways, but at least they were 'real sailors' not systems managers.
As the final frigate is retired, the tight-knit and tinkering crews the 'Ghetto Navy' will feel like they are in an alien world aboard some of the ships that intend to replace the Perry Class. In the place of these 'tin can' surface combatants will be the Navy's troubled Littoral Combat Ships and the way more expensive and complex Arleigh Burke Class guided missile destroyers.
The LCS in particular is about as anti-Ghetto Navy as it gets, where a minimally manned crew concept focuses the ship's compliment on simply operating the vessel, leaving major upkeep and fixes to specialized maintenance teams back in port. In addition, the FFGs were meant to take hits and keep on fighting, yet the lightly armored Littoral Combat Ships are built out of thin aluminum instead of the heavy steel armor found aboard the FFGs. Additionally, the majority of the Littoral Combat Ship's operations are computer controlled, which is a far cry from the analogue, almost WWII-like heavy construction and human interfaces of the Oliver Hazard Perry Class Frigates.
In all, 51 Oliver Hazard Perry Class Frigates were built in the last 40 years and many continue to serve with nations around the globe after being sold or donated by the US under the surplus Foreign Military Sales program. The Kauffman will be no different. Once she returns from her six month deployment to Southern Command's area of responsibility, where she will work to interdict drug smuggling as part of Operation Martillo, she will be decommissioned and prepared for sale.
Sadly, with the retirement of the Oliver Howard Perry Class Frigates, the very concept behind their initial inception, one that was ahead of its time technologically, will die with them. Originally, these ships were built as small but very stout surface combatants that could escort ships under their anti-aircraft and anti-submarine umbrella of protection. They could keep up with the Carrier Group or they could be detached on their own deployments to low and medium threat environments. The fact that they packed a pair of multi-mission helicopters made them all that much more deadly, a capability that even some modern destroyers lack today. Yet the missile and sensor technology of the time was lacking and by the time the Guided Missile Frigate concept could be incredibly effective, with the small but deadly Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile being an ideal fit, it was deemed too expensive to upgrade the ships. I mean hey, they are just lowly frigates right? The truth of the matter is that the Navy had its eyes set on what is now widely considered a failed concept, the toothless and vulnerable Littoral Combat Ship.
Yet today, many defense anyalysts and journalists, including myself, think that the exact mission set that the Oliver Hazard Perry Class was designed for is what the Navy desperately needs. A true multi-role Frigate, with good range and survivability, that can protect itself and the ships in its purview even against a capable foe, while also being able to conduct a whole slew of missions. The ability to escort other ships through a threat area, or even sustain a hit from the enemy, is something the Littoral Combat Ship was never built for, nor are even the upcoming enhanced versions of the original LCS design going to be capable of such feats. The fact of the matter is that a proper air defense capable frigate could offer the independence of operation that the Navy needs right now and it could take some of the area air defense burden, especially in low and medium threat environments, off the over-taxed and extremely expensive Guided Missile Destroyer fleet.
In the end, the retirement of the Oliver Hazard Perry Class, the Navy's last operational frigate, and the story of their proud careers even though the Navy never really invested in them to make them all they could be, is a story of a job well and done and a follow-on opportunity missed. This is especially true when you look at the ambiguous, lightly armed and fragile ships that are going to at least attempt to partially replace these fighting ships.
To put it as frankly as possible, it is sad that this article is not about how the last Perry Class is setting sail for its final cruise but a new, more effective, survivable and versatile ship will replace them. Or at the very least, a ship that can defend itself and the ships it escorts from aerial threats. In retrospect, even an upgraded Perry Class Frigate, similar to the Turkey's G-Class, would be a superior alternative to the Littoral Combat Ship in many respects and it would have cost a lot less money.
Regardless of her successors, here's to you FFGs and all those who served aboard them under some pretty grueling circumstances. You guys deserved better but you did wonders with what you had, turning sweat, knuckle skin, kerosene, oil and gunpowder into missions accomplished. Bravo.
By mid summertime, the US Navy will only be served by a single frigate, the 218 year old USS Constitution.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com