The United States Navy has released its requirements for a new guided missile frigate, a low-end ship designed for less dangerous missions than the rest of the fleet. The new FFG(X) warships will be packed with sensors and weapons (including lasers!), a near 180-degree turn from the current ships the Navy is buying.
Frigates are some of the smallest surface warships around. Smaller than destroyers and cruisers, frigates are meant to operate in under the protection of those higher end ships as part of a task force. Alternately they can operate on their own when a smaller, less capable ship will do, chasing lightly armed pirates, running down enemy submarines, or just generally showing the flag abroad. Frigates provide an affordable alternative to bigger, more expensive ships, for when you don’t need a bigger, more expensive.
The U.S. Navy has a spotty record with frigates. The Oliver Hazard Perry-class of guided missile frigates were fantastic ships for what they did—fast, affordable, and with decent armament. The Navy ordered more than four dozen Perry frigates, with the first entering service in the late 1970s. None remain in service today, with all 51 scrapped, transferred to foreign navies, or sunk during live-fire exercises and turned into fish condos.
The Perrys were supposed to be replaced by the so-called Littoral Combat Ship, a warship optimized to sail in coastal or shallow sea environments. That has not worked out. The ships and their “mission modules”—portable equipment sets meant to rapidly shuffle capabilities such as anti-submarine warfare and minehunting between different ships—have suffered cost overruns, technical problems where sometimes the ships literally disintegrate, and delays, with some modules in development for nearly fifteen years. In 2015 the Department of Defense cut the LCS program from 52 to ships to 40, and the Navy requested the last of the ships in the 2019 defense budget.
After LCS the Navy is shifting to a new ship, FFG(X). FFG(X) is meant to be, in many ways, the exact opposite of LCS. The new frigate is supposed to be larger, more heavily armed, and with a permanent set of equipment not reliant on “mission modules.” The Navy figures the new frigates will cost just $800 million each, versus $523 million for an LCS and $1.8 billion for a new Arleigh Burke-class destroyer.
Now, according to USNI News, we know what the Navy thinks it can get for $800 million, and it’s a lot.
First, sensors. The Navy wants the frigate to use the Enterprise Air Surveillance Radar, the same radar going into the new aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, to allow the ship to watch the skies. The ship will also have a AN/SQS-62 Variable Depth Sonar for hunting submarines and steering clear of mines.
Second, weapons. FFG(X) is planned to have 32 Mark 41 vertical launch missile silos. Each armored silo will carry one SM-2 Block IIIC medium-to-long range surface-to-air missile, or four Evolved Sea Sparrow short-range air defense missiles. The Mark 41 will also fit the Navy’s Tomahawk land attack cruise missile, the new Long Range Anti-Ship Missile, and a “planned vertically launched anti-submarine warfare weapon.”
The Mark 41 will allow the frigates to mix and match their missile loadouts, tailoring them to the mission at large. Striking Syrian chemical weapons depots? Load up on Tomahawks and Evolved Sea Sparrows. Stalking submarines? Bring on the new anti-submarine weapon and keep ’em coming. Operating as part of a carrier battle group against an entity like the Chinese Navy? Fill those silos with SM-2 missiles and LRASMs. The interchangeable nature of the Mark 41 allows for unprecedented versatility.
That’s not all–FFG(X) will also carry between 8 and 16 anti-ship missiles, probably the Raytheon Naval Strike Missile, in separate firing canisters. It will mount a 57-millimeter deck gun and the Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM)—a 21 shot short range missile launcher that can target both air and surface threats. The ship will also have a small number of .50 caliber heavy machine guns because they’re good for threatening impoverished pirates off the Somali coast.
The ship will also be equipped with helicopters and small boats for short excursions, scouting missions, and prosecuting enemy submarines over the horizon. It will carry two 21-foot rigid hull inflatable boats for boarding other vessels or shore landings. It will also feature a hangar and flight deck and embark both an MH-60R Seahawk helicopter and an MQ-8C Firescout helicopter drone simultaneously.
In the modern U.S. Navy however, connectivity is everything. The new frigate will have Cooperative Engagement Capability a new tech that would allow another warship—such as an Aegis cruiser madly shooting down enemy missiles—to launch the frigate’s missiles in defense of the fleet. It could also allow platforms like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to provide targeting data on enemy ships, aircraft, and missiles to the frigate, allowing it to engage adversaries it can’t even detect.
Finally, the ship will have the room and power to eventually mount a 150 kilowatt laser. Unlike current laser weapons in the 30 kilowatt range, a 150 kilowatt laser should be able to engage small boats, aircraft, drones, and incoming missiles. While the laser is not yet ready, the Navy is making room for it now.
At roughly half the size by displacement of an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer and less than half the cost, FFG(X) will be both useful and necessary. Burke-class destroyers were primarily built to fight other navies. Using them for low end missions, such as chasing pirates armed with AK-47s, is a weird and expensive flex. Although less capable than the Burkes, they will free destroyers up for potentially more dangerous missions, such as confronting the Russian and Chinese navies. They’re also more affordable: for the price of three Burkes, the Navy could afford almost seven new frigates. Three destroyers can be at only three places at once, but seven frigates can be in seven different places at once—an important consideration for a navy with global reach.
Four shipbuilders, Austal USA, Fincantieri Marine, General Dynamics Bath Iron Works, and Ingalls Shipbuilding, are competing to build the FFG(X), each promoting a different design. The Navy will build at least 20 FFG(X) ships, though if the program delivers on its promises the Navy could easily exceed that number.
The service is under pressure to deliver on its promise of a 355-ship fleet, and a large number of cheap frigates is the easiest way to get there.