This week the U.S. Navy published details on what it’s after for its next surface combatant, the FFG(X), or guided missile frigate. This move is designed to shift away from the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) originally envisioned to perform many different tasks and afford the Navy greater flexibility in operations. But the reality that’s emerged is that the LCS really can’t survive most combat scenarios, so here’s what the service needs now.
As the Navy and the rest of the military was busy fighting the Global War on Terror, the LCS was envisioned as a ship that could embark and deliver special operation forces close to shore on one mission, change a mission module, then begin hunting for mines or submarines next time out of port. Sort of a “jack of all trades, master of none” naval combatant.
Problem is, the mission modules have never worked as expected, and the LCS has had a multiple issues with its engines, including one incident where USS Milwaukee broke down at sea less than a month after being commissioned and had to be towed into port for repairs. The LCS was designed to operate with a smaller than normal crew, relying on automation to perform duties previously done by sailors. However, the plan has not worked out as envisioned. Now crews are overworked and the Navy has even raised one design’s assigned number of sailors.
Also, the ships have aluminum hulls and are lightly armed with virtually no striking power. One LCS recently tested the employment of the Harpoon anti-ship missile, but wider use among the LCS is yet to happen and may very well not occur. Instead, the ships are armed with Hellfire missiles that don’t have enough range or a large enough warhead to change the outcome of any engagement in favor of the LCS.
And of course, the LCS has been subject to cost overruns. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain even singled out the $12.4 billion spent for 26 littoral combat ships as the most egregious recent example of wasteful Pentagon spending, Business Insider reported.
So the Navy needs a replacement. This request for information for the new guided missile frigate isn’t a total departure from previous frigate concepts the Navy has put forth, but they are very specific about what kinds of missions the FFG(X) is expected to undertake—and what systems the Navy would like to see incorporated into the design.
Previously the Navy had intended to build its new frigate based on an improved, larger design based on the LCS. However the combined effect of the LCS falling incredibly short of expectations and a growing competitor in China forced the Navy’s hand in stepping away from the LCS design. A more integrated and survivable platform was needed.
To control costs, the Navy is not looking to fill the FFG(X) design with newer systems that are unproven and often border on experimental. These systems would greatly increase the financial investment and the risk of fielding a design that is not capable of performing its designated missions. By all accounts it seems as though the Navy is very much trying not to repeat the mistakes it made during the LCS development and construction.
Instead, the Navy is expecting the selected builder(s) to incorporate existing systems into the design, hopefully eliminating the problems it is trying to overcome in its current small surface combatant.
One of the biggest surprises is the acknowledgment that the Navy is open to adapting any existing ship design that can accommodate the specific FFG(X) requirements. This could be a major boom or bust for certain shipyards, as it was absolutely expected that the FFG(X) would be built at shipyards in Alabama and Wisconsin where the current fleet of LCSs are being constructed.
Most of the reasons given recently by the Navy and the Trump administration for continuing production of the failed LCS program was to keep the shipyards that build it working, thus keeping the skilled workforce in place so when the new frigate design was ready for production, it would be smooth sailing for the new warship.
Unlike the LCS, the Navy expects the FFG(X) to be a full partner in all naval missions, able to operate independently or as part of a carrier strike group. The Navy even suggested that a group of the new frigates could operate in an expeditionary strike group together as a “pack” on the hunt. This will be a welcome change for the Navy as they are unable to fully integrate the LCS designs into most fleet activities due to the weak sensor and weapons capabilities of they employ.
By being able to defend itself and operate outside of a strike group the FFG(X) will free up larger Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers and Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruisers to focus on their primary missions of fleet defense and deterrence. Less intensive missions, such as humanitarian assistance and security cooperation with partner nations, will no longer need to be solely filled by the destroyers and cruisers as the FFG(X) will be better suited for these assignments than the tactically limited LCS.
To be able to do this the FFG(X) will need to be more capable than the LCS, which won’t be hard to do.
The Navy has classified the FFG(X)’s warfare systems into two tiers, with Tier 1 having more importance than Tier 2. The main weapons systems of focus are an Aegis derivative system leveraging the common source library called the COMBATSS-21 Combat Management System, fixed phased radar arrays, SeaRAM anti-ship missile system, decoys, robust communications and electronic warfare, over-the-horizon canister launched weapons (Harpoon-like) and the capability to operate one MH-60R helicopter along with a single MQ-8C Fire Scout UAV.
According to the Navy’s request, UAV operations are of particular importance to the FFG(X) design. As the dependence on drones has grown throughout the military, it is of little surprise the Navy is looking to implement the use of more drones from its fleet. Flying from the FFG(X) these UAVs will provide long-range eyes and ears for the warship, able to see over the horizon, determining the enemy order of battle and sharing that information with the rest of the fleet.
Tier 2 systems for the FFG(X) include primarily anti-submarine warfare systems including a towed array sonar, a variable depth sonar and full integration of the AN/SQQ-89F ASW combat system, which is currently installed in different versions on-board DDGs and CGs. Tier 2 also describes the need for deck gun in the form of the Mk 110 57mm ad surface-to-surface missiles based around the Longbow Hellfire to deal with small boat swarm attack.
Also featured prominently in Tier 2 is the Cooperative Engagement Capability which allows a greater sharing of collected data from various sensors available to the fleet allowing for a more robust air defense network.
While listing the SeaRAM as a Tier 1 need, the SeaRAM should only be a weapon of last choice for the FFG(X) to defend itself and not its primary anti-air missile system. The Navy is recognizing this as it has asked industry proposals to figure out a way to incorporate a vertical launch system (VLS) on the ship. The VLS on the FFG(X) could potentially launch Evolved Sea Sparrow or SM-2 surface-to-air missiles, and offer even more flexibility to the ship. With a VLS designed to fire a SM-2 it could also carry Tomahawk missiles or perhaps in the future a ship-launched version of the AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile. A VLS system should be an absolute requirement as it will offer the greatest opportunity for maximizing a weapons load out.
The scope of the missions the FFG(X) is going to be asked to perform is quite extensive but not unrealistic. Designed to last 25 years, the frigate should have a crew of no larger than 200 (including all ship detachments), be able to steam 3,000 miles at 16 knots before running out of all burnable fuel, and being able to travel at 28 knots at 80 percent of maximum continuous rating for the engine, meaning it could run at 28 knots 100 percent of the time—as long as there is fuel with no extra stress placed on the engines.
The RFI states the FFG(X) should be able to undertake these specific missions: attack and kill surface contacts over the horizon, detect enemy submarines (surprisingly there is no mention of torpedo tubes although a VLS could address this with the capability to employ RUM-139 VL-ASROC, or vertical launched anti-submarine launched rocket), provide convoy escort duties through low and medium threat regions, and employ robust electronic warfare support in passive collection and active disruption.
The RFI is asking for a 20-ship class to add some muscle to its small surface combatant fleet. The Navy needs 50 of these ships, and unfortunately 30 of them will be from the two LCS designs. The contract is expected to be awarded in 2020 with an initial run of one ship ordered each in 2020 and 2021 with two purchased annually after that.
The design is an absolute step in the right direction. Mostly the military branches have a very difficult time admitting failure when it comes to weapons systems that don’t deliver on their promises. Instead, they usually circle the wagons and try to explain why the program should work with just a little more investment. At least here the Navy is admitting the LCS is a multibillion-dollar failure and another design is needed. It’s just a shame that it took years and that much money to recognize a mistake.
Hopefully, the FFG(X) will result in the small surface combatant the Navy needs, and not what Congress or the arms industry wants.