The U.S. Navy Does Not Need an Air-Defense Frigate

The U.S. Navy Does Not Need an Air-Defense Frigate
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Powerful interests opposed to the U.S. Navy’s current Frigate plan and continued production of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) are again compelling the Navy to undertake yet another study in hopes of somehow proving that a more powerful air-defense frigate; a 21st century version of the Navy’s now retired Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate is a better choice than the upgraded Frigate now being designed as the service’s future small surface combatant. Two recent naval force architecture studies from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) and the MITRE Corporation also demand that the Navy’s current Frigate program be shelved in favor of a heavy frigate better capable of conducting high-end naval combat than the LCS-based frigate. Unfortunately, these calls for an air-defense frigate are at odds with a number of important, current conditions. The present budgetary and U.S. political situations suggest that this high-end ship is unaffordable in the numbers that must be built to meet Navy Force Structure requirements. Larger frigates were the product of unique European strategic changes and financial limitations rather than being based on any change in threats. European frigates support the specific naval needs of each nation. As such they are not necessarily the most efficient or effective design for the U.S. Navy to imitate. Even the larger European air-defense frigates (that can displace 7,000-9,000 tons) lack the capability to stand “in the line of battle” as an integral part of the carrier and amphibious groups, yet advocates for these types of ships routinely assign it to these higher-end roles. The LCS and its highly-capable frigate variant remain the best, most affordable, and most straightforward way of increasing the number of Navy small surface combatants in the timeliest manner. FF/LCS is better equipped to serve in the emerging operational doctrine of Distributed Lethality and will help to sustain America’s small combatant shipbuilding base, which was catalyzed by the advent of the LCS program.

Financial and Political Situations Limit New Construction

The current political climate, including the recent Supreme Court nomination battle, has created a veritable “no man’s land” where both political parties are locked in unremitting partisan conflict. It is unlikely that either side will give ground in this highly-charged environment. While Republican members have asked to lift Budget Control Act (BCA) caps on defense spending, their Democratic counterparts have demanded an equal lifting of domestic spending limitations. The nation’s budget deficit cannot withstand such an avalanche of spending, and hence there is an uneasy truce on Capitol Hill in regards to current appropriations. Given these conditions, the Navy must make do with present funding. The service also faces serious readiness and maintenance challenges that must be addressed in the near-term to ensure continued operations of the existing force structure.

A high-end air-defense frigate similar to those employed by European navies is likely to demand significant, additional construction resources to be procured in the numbers needed to support Navy requirements in peace and war. Our allies with similar acquisition structures that make use of private industry vice firms partially owned by governments have found the construction of similar ships a daunting task. The British, the Australians, and the Canadians have all “discovered” that building dedicated air-defense “frigates” cost at least $1 billion U.S. a copy and approach $1.5 billion per vessel when the program is fully underway. Partially state-owned firms have been able to produce air-defense frigates at much less cost, but only in short construction runs totaling only eight or fewer ships, perhaps due to their costs being offset by their otherwise, robust civilian shipbuilding business.

Pulling the remaining Perry-class frigates out of retirement and refitting them for 21st Century naval operations, as suggested by some naval analysts, is not a viable or desirable choice. While these were fine ships in their day, the remaining FFG 7’s in U.S. possession would require significant refit of their basic hull, mechanical, and electrical (HM&E) systems, even before updating their medium-range air-defense capabilities and associated defense and strike capabilities. The Australians conducted a similar program that took nearly a decade to update four of their six Perry-class frigates. The other two frigates were cannibalized and scrapped to defray costs. The project bought only an estimated ten additional years of service life for the remaining four ships at the cost of $1 billion. Not a very good exchange on their investment.

Evolution of the “Super-Frigate”

During the Cold War, the standard European frigate (as exemplified by the Royal Navy Leander-class) was a fairly modest vessel optimized for anti-submarine warfare operations in the North Atlantic and other locations against the presumed threat from the Soviet Navy. These designs grew in size and capability over the course of the Cold War in response to increasing Soviet threats but did not exceed 4000 tons displacement. The U.S. Oliver Hazard Perry-class represents the pinnacle of this Cold War-era of frigate development. This class was designed to replace retiring World War II FRAM destroyers and meet the threat posed by Soviet cruise missile submarines represented by the Juliet, Charlie, November and Oscar class boats. The Perry’s boasted an impressive armament of 40, medium range surface-to-air missiles, an air component of two SH-60 anti-submarine helicopters and combat systems capabilities, and in particular numbers of fire control channels superior to some U.S. and many foreign destroyer classes in service in the late 1970’s. After the Cold War had ended, the Perry-class ships remained capable and cost effective in operations to be retained for service as forward presence units while larger, more effective, but much more costly ships such as the Spruance-class destroyers were retired.

The Europeans had their own post-Cold War challenges in strategy and force structure that produced different frigate classes than those built during the Cold War. The First Gulf War was a paradigm for post-Cold War operations which suggested that larger, longer ranged, and more capable surface combatants would be required to operate alongside their U.S. counterparts in support of operations along the extensive Eurasian littoral against rogue states and non-state actors. A smaller number of these more capable ships also met the demands of post-Cold War European parliaments that pursued reductions in force levels and defense budgets as part of an assumed peace dividend. Current European designs such as the Dutch De Zeven Provincien, the German Sachsen-class, and the Franco-Italian, multipurpose frigate (FREMM) ships represent the evolution of this design today. Unlike past frigates, these vessels are a quantum improvement over their Cold War predecessors. They occupy a special position in their respective navies’ force structure; however, that is more akin to the U.S. Arleigh Burke-class destroyers than to past frigate designs. 

Light Ships Have No Place in the Line of Battle

While these European frigates are well-designed combatants that meet their respective navies’ needs, it remains unclear if they have a place in the high-end missile salvo combat currently envisioned by many naval theorists. By and large, they mount less than half the vertical launch missile cells (48 or less) of the US Navy’s DDG 51 class and do not offer more capability in terms of anti-submarine or anti-surface warfare than do the Flight IIA Burke’s (the initial flight lacks the helicopter hanger and associated facilities of the later flights).

The age of “fighting sail” suggests that such frigate ships do not have a future in high-end combat and are too expensive for conducting peacetime duties. The 64 gun ship of the line once represented the low-end capability of the battle line of sail in the 17th and 18th centuries just as the “heavy frigate” represents perhaps the least capable unit of U.S. battle group assignment for operating in high-threat environments. By the middle of the 18th century, Europeans had discovered that the 74 gun ship of the line was the better choice as the standard combatant of the age of the sail. It was of stronger construction, mounted a much heavier broadside weight with only ten additional weapons, and was only marginally more expensive to build and operate than the 64 gun vessel. Most 64 gunships were either “razeed” to heavy frigate ships of 44-50 guns or scrapped.

Today, the large frigate with air warfare capabilities, such as those suggested in the MITRE and CSBA force structure assessments, represents the 21st-century version of the 64 gun ship of the line problem. This type of ship is suitable for low to medium threats such as the original missions for the FFG 7 to be employed as a Cold War convoy escort, and as an all-purpose, globally deployable surface combatant as envisioned by European designers for their post-Cold War frigates. Unfortunately, the post-Cold War era of “violent peace” has been replaced by one of renewed great power competition, rising regional powers, and significant non-state actors. High-end missile salvo combat demands that participants either “go big and capable,” or go small and distributed. Larger ships like the DDG 51 that have large numbers of VLS tubes and/or those with large electrical plants like the DDG 1000 that will support directed energy and rail gun weapons can, in theory, “stand in the line of battle” and launch and defend against cruise and even ballistic missile salvos. The other option is to go with a larger number of smaller warships capable of networked, distributed operations, the idea behind the current FF/LCS force. Defeating a distributed naval force requires a different weapon salvo calculus. It is more difficult to locate ships spread over a wider area, especially smaller combatants. An opponent must divide their available offensive weapons across a larger number of potential targets which reduces their chances of successfully hitting any one objective.

LCS Remains the SSC and Distributed Lethality Choice

The FF/LCS combination remains the best choice for U.S. small surface combatants, given the present financial, political, and operational issues. The class has remained well beneath the 2011 Congressional cost cap, and represents good value; even for just the sea frame minus the mission modules. The class has shown that it can accommodate weapons unforeseen at the conception of the LCS program. USS Coronado has successfully deployed with four Harpoon missiles to Singapore and has proved its worth in local operations where it recently evaded several shadowing Chinese frigates by sailing through waters too shallow for her pursuers to follow. USS Detroit recently tested the Longbow Hellfire missile as an additional component of the LCS’ surface warfare module. Armed with: 16 Over the Horizon missiles, VLS and Evolved Sea Sparrow missiles, Longbow Hellfires, 57mm gun, twin 30mm or 20mm guns, and electronic warfare and decoy systems, the frigate designs being touted by the LCS shipyards are not paper tigers. No one has ever suggested that LCS was a perfect program and many mistakes were perhaps made in its early development. That said the class has worked through these and completed operational testing and Full Ship Shock Trials.

LCS is still the best choice for the Distributed Lethality operational concept. Three LCS (at $479 million per unit) can be purchased for the cost of one likely “blue water” frigate. One larger, conventional frigate that is lost in action may take with it 8-12 or more antiship cruise missiles (ASCM). Three distributed LCS with four or more ASCM’s each is a better choice in that if one is lost, the whole antiship capability does not sink along with it.

Some have suggested that smaller missile corvettes such as the export sale Ambassador III class would be a better choice than LCS for a distributed lethality combatant. The Ambassador is a much smaller ship than a conventional frigate or LCS, and may not be capable of employing its weapons under the same weather conditions as larger vessels. This missile corvette would be equally dependent on network support for targeting its weapons (as would LCS,) but lacks the communications capability and especially the helicopter facilities of the larger ships that allow for communication with other friendly assets when networks are down or compromised. The Ambassadors are not as capable of multiple missions as are the larger ships would need extensive logistics support even greater than that currently employed for LCS, and are more vulnerable to damage than the larger warships. Finally, and perhaps most significant, the Ambassadors, as small ships susceptible to the effects of weather and in need of greater logistics support, would not be able to move between theaters as fast as a conventional frigate or LCS. The U.S., as a global naval power, can ill-afford to possess ships that cannot move effectively between theaters of potential combat. The Ambassadors would be effectively imprisoned within their home operating areas and could neither transit to other theaters quickly, nor perhaps quickly retreat or reposition.

The best choice in shipbuilding is often one of compromise. LCS has the size, capability, and modular flexibility to take on most of the tasks of the missile corvette while being cheaper and nearly as capable in anti-surface and potentially anti-submarine warfare as the larger and much more expensive conventional frigate. The air-defense frigate that many demand is an outdated feature of the Cold War that is no longer fit to stand in the salvo line of battle. Those frigate variants employed by European navies are their version of the U.S. DDG force and are built under conditions that cannot be duplicated by U.S. shipbuilders. There is no space within the current budget deficit to run up Reagan-style defense budgets, and political deadlock on Capitol Hill largely prevents additional funding for a larger frigate. Under these conditions, the current FF/LCS combination remains the best choice for the U.S. small surface combatant force for the immediate future.

Steven Wills is a retired Navy surface warfare officer. Steven has completed and defended his Ph.D. dissertation in Military History at Ohio University (Athens, Ohio). He will graduate at the end of this month.

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