The US Navy’s request for information from industry for a new guided-missile frigate underscores a further evolution of its thinking away from the original, much-criticised Littoral Combat Ship programme.

USS Independence

By Nick Childs, Senior Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security

Shipbuilders in the United States and beyond are digesting the latest indication from the US Navy of its requirement for a new guided-missile frigate, now dubbed FFG(X). On 10 July, the navy issued a request for information from industry that underscored a further evolution of its thinking away from the original, much-criticised Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) programme towards a more capable, small(-ish) surface combatant. But it also implicitly acknowledged that the navy is likely to have to accept some significant compromises in order for the design to remain affordable.

Criticism of the LCS has centred on its survivability and weapons capabilities, as well as costs and shortcomings around its modular missions packages. To underscore the size of the course correction that the navy has undertaken on what it still calls a ‘small surface combatant’, it now says that the FFG(X) will need to be able to integrate into carrier strike and surface action groups, contribute to anti-submarine warfare, and carry out over-the-horizon (OTH) anti-ship strikes, but also ’robustly defend itself’ when operating independently and be able to conduct such operations in a contested environment. At the same time, the FFG(X) will still need to be able to provide a cost-effective way of relieving its larger brethren of destroyers and cruisers in the day-to-day tasks of presence and patrolling.

The risk in all this for this for the US Navy is that, in attempting to address the perceived shortcomings of the LCS and to respond to the new, more contested and complex operating environment in which it now expects to find itself, thanks not least to China and Russia, it may be raising new questions about where the FFG(X) will really sit in its future fleet. The fact that the strategy underpinning the navy’s future, and the calculations on the likely future size and shape of the fleet, are themselves very much in play does not help.

While the navy’s leadership is clearly signalling its intention not to do so, it could end up blurring the distinction between its small and large combatants, in terms of capability and cost. And there must be questions over whether the US Navy will really be able to square its new capability ambitions with its affordability goals. Much will depend on how shipbuilders respond to its request for information, particularly on just what the bill for its new concept might look like.

The navy’s shopping list of warfare systems for the FFG(X) now includes an Aegis-derived combat system, the Enterprise Air Surveillance Radar, the aforementioned OTH weapon capability, and the ability to host and control unmanned systems. It would also like to know what price it would have to pay – in money and other trade-offs – for incorporating a vertical launch system (VLS) for air defence and even stand-off strike weapons.

The FFG(X) suddenly begins to look more like some of the more sophisticated frigate designs being built or proposed for some of Washington’s closest allies. During the long-running LCS controversy, a number of foreign frigate designs, especially European and not least the Danish Absalon and Iver Huitfeldt classes, have been touted by LCS critics as potentially viable alternative platforms. A number of non-US shipbuilders must now be contemplating whether to respond to the US Navy’s calls, balancing the new shift in the navy’s requirements versus what must be considered a more challenging US political mood (albeit that, whatever design is chosen, the ships will be surely built in the US).

The navy says it is looking at a goal of 20 FFG(X)s, with a design and production award in 2020. That essentially dictates the adaptation of existing designs. Further updates of the Lockheed Martin and Austal USA LCS designs will be in the running, as could an upgrade of the US Coast Guard Legend-class National Security Cutter design. If there is a realistic chance of a foreign design being considered, the Danish frigates, BAe’s Type-26 Global Combat Ship, Navantia’s F100 and the Franco-Italian FREMM design in its various guises would all seem to have potential.

No existing design would seem exactly to fit the bill. The potential US designs might be most challenged in accommodating the possible VLS requirements. On the other hand, many of the European designs, at approaching 7,000 tonnes full-load displacement, are notably large (especially compared to the LCSs, at under 3,500 tonnes).

In some ways, the FFG(X) outline confirms that the US Navy is on a different trajectory towards higher-end capabilities for its platforms just as some of closest allies, such as the French and British, are curtailing their high-end frigate orders in favour of less sophisticated, more affordable designs to maintain fleet numbers. Whether these, the French FTI and the British Type-31e concepts, might be FFG(X) contenders is uncertain. Having said that, other allies – notably Australia, Canada and Germany – are also seeking to regenerate their surface combatant fleets. Depending on the choices made in these various design competitions, a significant new family of similar vessels could emerge among these closely allied navies in the years ahead.

This analysis originally featured on the Military Balance+, the new IISS online database that enables users in government, the armed forces and the private sector, as well as academia and the media, to make faster and better-informed decisions. The Military Balance+ allows users to customise, view, compare and download data instantly, anywhere, anytime.

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