The Navy’s Future Frigates Are Shaping Up To Be More Lethal And Capable, As Well As Cheaper

The requirements have expanded, but the service is pushing for commonality with existing systems to push the price point down.

byJoseph Trevithick|
U.S. Navy photo


The U.S. Navy expects to complete a design review of five proposed frigate designs by the end of this spring. This will help the service finalize its requirements and pave the way for a full, open competition to hire one company to build 20 frigates, each of which will cost more than $800 million. These ships will be a significant component of a growing surface warfare renaissance within the service.

Navy officials offered the latest details on the state of the program at the Surface Navy Association’s (SNA) main annual conference on Jan. 15, 2019. The service first announced its was in the market to procure new guided missile frigates, presently referred to as FFG(X), in 2017. Subsequently, General Dynamics Bath Iron Works, Fincantieri Marine, Huntington Ingalls, Austal USA, and Lockheed Martin each received $15 million contracts in 2018 to craft proposed designs and to help the Navy figure out exactly what it wanted out of the ships.

Firmer requirements

“Our requirements are mature,” Dr. Regan Campbell, the FFG(X) program manager at Naval Sea Systems Command, said during remarks at the SNA conference on Jan. 17, 2019. “We’ve engaged with industry, gotten a lot of wonderful feedback and significant savings from that engagement. And we are on track to finish those conceptual design contracts, and through that process I think we are going to have a robust competition going into detailed design and construction.”

Campbell said that the Navy received more than 300 specific suggestions from the five contractors regarding the requirements for the frigates, as well as ways to save money. The service implemented around 200 of those pointers.

A slide from Dr. Regan Campbell's briefing at the SNA conference showing the ships that four of the five participants in the first phase of the FFG(X) program are using as the basis for their designs. Huntington Ingalls' Patrol Frigate concept is not shown., USN

There were no details on exactly what these changes to the Navy’s requirements included, but the service is now increasingly confident that the average unit cost for the ships will be closer to $800 million each. The initial threshold unit price was $950 million apiece.

“We started closer to the $950; we are trending to very close to the $800 now. We have taken some very significant costs out of the average follow units,” Campbell explained. “Lead ship? I won’t give you a number, but it is reflected in the president’s budget, which you will see shortly.”

This surety about the cost of the frigates almost certainly reflects the increasingly final nature of the Navy’s demands for the FFG(X) program. In January 2018, the service released a detailed breakdown of the systems and overall performance specifications that it wanted the new ships to have, which you can read about in more detail here. Campbell showed the chart below at SNA, which shows some significant updates.

An overview of the Navy's required capabilities for FFG(X), as well as some plans for systems it might integrate in the future. , USN

More weapons

Perhaps most notably, each FFG(X) will have 32 Mk 41 vertical launch system (VLS) cells. The original threshold requirement was only 16, though it seemed likely at the time that this would grow.

This arrangement forms the core of the ship’s air defense capabilities, with the Navy still saying that the primary weapon for these cells will be quad-packed Block II variants of the RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles (ESSM). This would give the frigates a full load of 128 of these missiles.

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These cells could also potentially accommodate other missiles in the future, including the increasingly capable and multipurpose Standard Missile 6 (SM-6). It is not clear whether the Navy has any requirement to install longer “strike length” Mk 41 cells on the FFG(X), which would also allow it to fire Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles. The ship’s primary air defense sensor is still set to be a three-face fixed array Enterprise Air Surveillance Radar (EASR), which you can read about more here. Variants of this radar will also go onto the future America-class amphibious assault ship USS Bougainville and some of the Ford-class aircraft carriers, beginning with the future USS John F. Kennedy.

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In addition, Campbell’s presentation did indicate that there was already a future requirement to integrate the RUM-139 Vertical Launched Anti-Submarine Rocket, or VLA, in order to give the ship an all-weather, stand-off anti-submarine weapon. The VLA can carry its payload of a lightweight homing torpedo to target areas up to more than 13 miles, at which point it releases that weapon in order to engage the hostile submarine.

There is also now an objective requirement for ship-mounted torpedo tubes to further increase the FFG(X)’s anti-submarine capabilities. The Navy already wants the FFG(X) to have two types of towed sonar, along with a fixed sonar array, to spot underwater threats. This makes good sense given increasing concerns about expanding scope and capabilities of Russian and Chinese submarine fleets.

Another significant new detail about the frigate’s requirements is that the Navy wants, if possible, two eight-round launchers for the ship’s over-the-horizon anti-ship missile. The threshold requirement is for the ships to have a pair of four-round launchers.

It seems almost certain that the weapon in this case with the Naval Strike Missile, which you can read about more here. American defense contractor Raytheon and Norwegian firm Kongsberg have already begun supplying these missiles to the Navy to arm certain Littoral Combat Ships (LCS).

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The rest of the Navy’s desired armament package for the ships remains the same. In addition to their various missiles and anti-submarine weapons, the frigates will have a 57mm main gun capable of firing the Advanced Low-Cost Munitions Ordnance (ALaMO) guided shell, the SeaRAM close-in defense system, and various automatic cannon and machine guns.

The Navy has also now said that it wants the FFG(X) to have adequate space and power generation capacity to accommodate a 150 kilowatt solid-state laser directed energy weapon in the future. The original requirements simply called for space and power “reservation for future Directed Energy.”

A 150-kilowatt system would be a significant addition to the frigates and a major upgrade over the Navy’s existing directed energy plans more broadly. Starting in 2020, the service hopes to begin integrating the 60-kilowatt Surface Navy Laser Weapon System (SNLWS) onto much larger Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. At present, the service has a prototype 30-kilowatt system in place on the USS Portland, a San Antonio-class landing platform dock.

Whatever the power of the laser system, its primary job remains close-in protection against small unmanned aircraft, as well as small manned and unmanned surface vessels. In this latter role, it could be a helpful addition for countering swarms of small boats. Depending on the range and power of the 150-kilowatt system, it may also be able to provide an added layer of defense against incoming anti-ship missiles, as well.

An artist's conception of an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer using a laser weapon to shoot down an incoming threat., Lockheed Martin

Added sensors and electronic warfare systems

Beyond the main radar, the Navy still has plans for the frigates to have a robust suite of sensors and electronic warfare capabilities, as well, combined with stand-off systems on the MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter and MQ-8C Fire Scout drone that each ship will carry. For instance, each FFG(X) will have the SLQ-32(V)6 Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program (SEWIP) Block II.

The SLQ-32(V)6 can jam enemy radars, as well as geolocate, identify, and classify those emitters. These latter functions give the system a significant electronic intelligence capability that gives the frigate better situational awareness of the potential threats around and allows the ship to help contribute information for analysts to use in building a larger electronic order of battle of an enemy’s force posture across a wide area.

In the presentation at the SNA conference, Dr. Campbell also indicated that the plan is now to build the frigates with the specific intent of installing a lightweight version of the future Block III system, also known as the SLQ-32C(V)7 or SEWIP Block III Lite. The standard Block III system features new active electronically scanned array (AESA) emitters of its own, which offer significantly improved capabilities improves over the earlier versions of the system.

It may be possible for this system to even fire bursts of high powered microwave energy and physically destroy the radar seekers or other electronics on incoming threats such as anti-ship missiles. You can read about more about the SLQ-32 series and the improvements coming with the Block III version here.

Components of the full-size SLQ-32(V)7 SEWIP Block III installed on a test fixture., Northrop Grumman

Cooperative Engagement Capability

Each one of the FFG(X)s will have an array of communications systems and data links to readily exchange information with other naval assets, aircraft up above, and forces ashore. As with all of the Navy’s assets, the frigates are set to be linked together using the Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) network, which is part of the service's over-arching Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) concept.

This again provides additional situational awareness, as well as the ability to rapidly exchanging targeting information so that the frigates could potentially engage hostile forces outside of the range of their own organic sensors. These ships could provide the same sort of target data to other ships or aircraft overhead, too.

In the latter case, this could potentially allow fighter jets to fire long-range air-to-air missiles at an enemy even while flying in a “radar silent” mode to conceal their own position, for example. This will also help alleviate issues of limited "magazine depth" on certain aircraft, especially stealthy platforms such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which cannot carry additional stores externally without sacrificing their stealth capabilities.

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CEC will be essential for linking manned ships with unmanned surface vessels in the future, too. The Navy has a long-standing roadmap to develop a wide array of small, medium, and large unmanned ships and other craft in the coming years.

Small- and medium-sized craft are already increasingly mature and capable of serving as persistent sensor nodes and distributed light attack platforms. The Navy now also has plans for larger unmanned vessels, generally described as being longer than 164 feet, that may provide even more capability.

One of the potential missions outlined for these unmanned ships is to serve as floating arsenals loaded with stand-off missiles to increase the overall firepower of a surface task force. Linked together with ships such as the FFG(X), as well as other friendly assets, via the CEC, these unmanned arsenal ships might not even need to carry their own sensors, providing additional space for more weapons.

The Navy's Sea Hunter, also known as the Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vessel, is one of the service's most capable unmanned craft to date. The Navy is looking to acquire more vessels of this general size, but is also now aiming to incorporate larger unmanned ships into its fleets in the future., USN

System commonality

But for all of these new developments, the Navy remains adamant that it does not want the frigates to contain any systems that are unique to this particular ship. All of the weapons, sensors, and other equipment will be common, at least in part, with systems on other Navy ships, or that the service is developing for multiple types of ships in the future.

“Any system we put on this ship, because it has a common radar and weapons systems that we already own and know – every time we have something that we already use and know how it works, we don’t have to pay an additional integration cost,” U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Ron Boxall, director of the Navy’s top surface warfare office under the Chief of Naval Operations, told Defense News in an interview earlier in January 2019. “And as we upgrade these systems more and more by software, they become seamless between other systems that also use that [combat system]. One of the things we looked at was making sure we got that commonality right up front.”

Commonality will help with maintenance and sustainment, since the Navy will have to add fewer unique components to the logistics chain and train personnel how to repair them. The hope is that this will also streamline training, since it is easier to reassign operators who know how to use a particular system from one ship to another with the same weapon, sensor, or other particular piece of common equipment.

The Navy’s goal is to develop an increasingly common combat systems architecture to make it even easier to reassign sailors from one type of ship to another in the future, as necessary. All of this will help the service save money and potentially help speed up the training of new personnel, which it desperately needs.

The contenders

As for the five individual frigate designs under development already, from what is publicly known, there has been no dramatic shifts in the general hullforms. Austal USA was the only firm to show off a model at SNA of its present proposed design, which is derived from its Independence-class LCS.

To meet the Navy’s requirements, their new frigate is nearly 40 feet longer and a foot wider. The bulk of this additional space is toward the stern of the ship and is there primarily to provide room for the 32-cell Mk 41 VLS array. The two four-round over-the-horizon missile launchers are also on the fantail.

More importantly, Austal had to dispense with the waterjet propulsion system on the Independence-class in favor of traditional drive shafts and propellers. This has been a standing Navy requirement from the beginning and the service also required that certain engine and drive chain components be sufficiently spaced apart to reduce the chances that a single hit from an opponent could leave an FFG(X) dead in the water.

These requirements have also impacted Lockheed Martin’s offering, which is derived from their Freedom-class LCS design. As a result, the company’s frigate design is also longer overall than the Freedoms.

A model of Lockheed Martin's Freedom-class-derived FFG(X) proposal that the company unveiled in 2018. Lockheed Martin has not yet released imagery or presented a model of a revised design that meets the Navy's evolved requirements, including the need for a 32-cell VLS array., Joseph Trevithick

 “It does require the ship to be longer, given those separation requirements and how you plan to stagger your port and starboard configuration of the combining gear/reduction gear, running into a single shaft into a screw on either side,” Joe DePietro, Lockheed Martin’s Vice President of Small Combatants and Ship Systems, told Defense News

in October 2018. “You have to have a certain amount of separation and they have to be fully independent.”

Other competitors are also putting forward well-established, purpose-built frigate designs, as well. Italy’s Fincantieri Marine has put forward a derivative of its Fregata Europea Multi-Missione (FREMM) design, which it designed in cooperation with France’s Naval Group. Ships based on this design are now in service in Italy, France, Morocco, and Egypt.

A model of an anti-submarine warfare focused FREMM frigate design. Fincantieri Marine has based their FFG(X) proposal on this hullform., Joseph Trevithick

General Dynamics Bath Iron Works, in cooperation with Spain’s Navantia, is pitching a version of the latter firm’s F100 frigate. Beyond Spain, Norway operates derivatives of this ship design and Australia is purchasing its own variant.

The last company involved in the FFG(X) program at present is Huntington Ingalls, which has proposed a ship based on its Patrol Frigate concept that itself derived from the Coast Guard's Legend-class National Security Cutter.

An artist's conception of Huntington Ingalls Patrol Frigate., Huntington Ingalls

Already a heated competition

It’s hard to say which of these companies may be the top favorite to win the final FFG(X) deal. Austal USA and Lockheed Martin are clearly hoping to make attractive offers by leveraging existing experience and industrial capacity from their respective LCS designs, but as noted the other contenders are also proposing ships derived from in production designs.

That LCS pedigree may not ultimately be a selling point given their record of underperformance and having difficulty adapting to more complex mission sets. An initial attempt to up-gun the two LCS classes and add more capability, known as the Small Surface Combatant, resulted in designs that still lacked any real air defense capability and would be dangerously vulnerable in even moderate risk environments. 

Austal USA and Lockheed Martin also built their LCS designs to meet requirements the Navy had laid out for ships conducting littoral operations closer to shore and it's unclear how adaptable they may truly be to the broader FFG(X) operating concept. The need to make significant changes, including revising the entire propulsion system, also raises the question of how similar the final designs will actually be with their predecessors. 

On top of that, on Jan. 24, 2019, U.S. federal agents, including members of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) and Defense Criminal Investigative Service (DCIS), descended on Austal USA’s shipyard in Mobile, Alabama. Authorities would not explain the reason for the raid. The company’s Australian parent is reportedly under investigation by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission for how it handled losses related to the Independence-class.

Independence-class Littoral Combat Ships under construction at Austal's shipyard in Alabama., Austal USA

“Austal USA is working with the U.S. Navy on an open investigation,” the company said in a subsequent statement to USNI News. “We are unable to provide additional details due to the nature of the investigation. We are continuing business as usual, executing our existing and recently awarded contracts.”

Navantia’s F100 design may also be facing increased scrutiny after the Royal Norwegian Navy’s Fridtjof Nansen-class frigate Helge Ingstad

all but sank after colliding with a tanker in November 2018. The Fridtjof Nansens are based on the F100 and share many of their basic design features.

The Norweigan frigate Helge Ingstad sits almost completely underwater after suffering a major collision. , Forsvaret

On Nov. 29, 2018, Norwegian authorities released their first official report on the accident, which raised questions about whether potential design flaws in the ship contributed to the severity of the damage. Navantia has since said the analysis of potential faults was hasty and has disputed the findings. The Norwegian report was certainly based on limited information as the Norwegians have yet to refloat the ship and get it into dry dock for a full inspection.

Whether these developments, or any future issues, play a role in the final frigate competition remain to be seen. The Navy hopes to release its final request for proposals by the end of September 2019. The goal is for the contract award to come within a year of that.

The present acquisition timeline for the FFG(X) program., USN

The Navy would then buy one ship in both the 2020 and 2021 Fiscal Years. The service would proceed to buy the remaining 18 ships at a rate of two a year every year through the 2030 Fiscal Year.

Billions of dollars on the line for what may be one of the more significant Navy shipbuilding programs in the coming years, combined with the potential to win more contracts in the future to sustain and upgrade these vessels. There is also the possibility that the Navy might decide to purchase additional examples or derivatives in the future and a major U.S. military order could attract lucrative foreign sales, as well.

All told, FFG(X) promises to be a heated competition, no matter what happens.

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