By Stuart Slade, Forecast International
Speaking before the Surface Navy Association, U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus announced that the Navy would rename the modified Littoral Combat Ships it plans to build in coming years as “frigates,” given their enhanced capabilities. Said Mabus, “One of the requirements of the Small Surface Combatant Task Force was to have a ship with frigate-like capabilities. Well, if it’s like a frigate, why don’t we call it a frigate?”
The designation “frigate” has been out of favor with the U.S. Navy for more than 20 years, since the construction of the FFG-7 Perry class. After that program was completed, naval force level planners came to the conclusion that a major component of a ship’s cost over her operational life was represented by her crew. Since the frigates then being built offered only limited savings in manpower compared to destroyers but represented a major step down in combat capability, the construction of the smaller ships was discontinued. Even the use of the name frigate was discouraged, and “frigate” became known as the “F-word.” Mabus’s use of the term therefore represents a major shift in U.S. Navy procurement and operational policy.
This shift started with the evolution of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) as a small combatant intended for operations in littoral warfare and in situations where the power of a modern destroyer was overkill. This was merely a re-interpretation of the traditional frigate role but was made plausible by the use of modern technology to reduce the crew to a small fraction of that of previous ships. The LCS would have only a limited baseline armament, but this could be supplemented by mission packages that would optimize the ships for varying roles. Originally intended to displace 500-750 tons, the demands of reality eventually produced a 2,500-3,000-ton ship.
Originally there were six competitive designs for the LCS, but these were whittled down to two finalists. The original intention was to build two of each design (Flight 0) and then choose between them for the main production run of 50 ships that would be of an enlarged and more heavily armed variant (Flight 1). The first trials showed that the two selected designs were complementary rather than competitive, so it was decided to split procurement between them. By this time, costs and budgets were causing deep concern, so it was decided that all 54 ships would be procured to the same basic design as the prototypes.
The LCS was a very controversial ship, partly as a hold-over from early opposition to frigate class warships, partly due to the radical design of both variants, and partly due to doubts over the concept of a very fast, lightly armed ship. As financial problems with the defense budget accumulated and funding became constrained, this opposition to the LCS (read “frigate,” but nobody was allowed to say that) concept grew. Eventually, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) proposed that the class be cut from 54 to 52 and then to 24 ships. The canceled ships would be replaced by a new Small Surface Combatant (SSC), and a task force would be appointed to formulate a proposal for this design. After some negotiations, the production run was set at 32 ships, to be followed by 20 SSCs.
OSD had obviously expected the design of the SSC to be prolonged, and by the time the new design was available, the financial crunch would have either passed or become somebody else’s problem. Instead, the SSC Task Force came back in a few weeks saying that the existing LCS design would fill the new requirement with some minor enlargements and a concentration on fitted weaponry rather than mission packages. Oddly, this was exactly identical to the plans for the original LCS Flight 1. In his speech, Mabus said the frigate designation would apply primarily to the next 20 ships to be built, but that 32 earlier Littoral Combat Ships that have either been built or ordered would also be reclassified if and when they are retrofitted with additional weapons.
This decision was a significant defeat for the OSD and the opponents of the LCS program. In effect, this decision means that the remaining 20 ships in the planned total of 52 (after the 32 Flight 0 ships have been completed) will be a Flight 1 version of the same basic design. Since this was the plan anyway, OSD’s acquiescence in the Navy’s decision represents acceptance of the sound basis of the original procurement program. The scale of this defeat was driven home by the parallel decision to use both classes of the Littoral Combat Ship as the base designs for the new Flight 1 versions. The Navy rationale for not doing so was that the LCS-1 Freedom and LCS-2 Independence classes had different operational profiles and were complementary rather than competitive. Retaining both classes in production for the next generation of LCS is a stirring confirmation of the wisdom of that decision.
This decision has also reinstated the frigate as part of the U.S. Navy’s operational portfolio for the next few decades. Despite the initial teething problems, unavoidable with any new design, both LCS variants have turned into satisfactory classes of ship. As a result, the frigate is no longer an F-word in the U.S. Navy.