May 7, 2020

The Navy Picked the Wrong Frigate

Military readiness is always paramount. That means choosing the right equipment.

Earlier this week, the United States Navy announced the winner of its FFG(X) competition. What started out with five designs contending (variants of the Freedom and Independence classes of littoral combat ships, one based on the Coast Guard’s Bertholf-class cutter, one based on Spain’s Bazan-class frigates, and one based on the Franco-Italian FREMM class) has ended with the Navy managing to pick the one design that really doesn’t fit.

Your Patriot Post team has long bemoaned the shortage of vessels that has plagued the United States Navy. Fixing this shortage of hulls requires adding new ships quickly — and that means choosing something that needs a minimum amount of time to develop and tweak before it reaches the fleet. With FREMM, a lot of things must go right the first time to meet an ambitious plan for the first vessels to enter the fleet by 2026. When has that ever happened with a Pentagon program?

The variants based on the littoral combat ship classes in service would actually address the most critical weakness: The current versions in or entering service lack combat power and were really more akin to high-end Coast Guard cutters. They and the Bertholf-class variant would have kept production lines for the United States military going — needing only to upgrade and add weapons to a basic design already in service.

It would have been just as easy to have integrated the Spanish Alvaro Bazan-class. It uses the SPY-1 radar and a list of American-designed weapons already, and is basically a scaled-down Burke-class destroyer. Comparing the two ships in the latest edition of The Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets of the World, the biggest differences are that the Spanish frigate uses some European electronic systems and the Spanish ship has an indigenous close-in-weapon system. Again, addressing those would be relatively simple.

What’s infuriating, though, is that the U.S. could have bought in on the Spanish vessel two decades ago and easily have bought enough of the Bazan-class ships to replace the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates on a one-for-one basis. That certainly would ease the hull shortage that has the U.S. sending a Coast Guard cutter on a mission that a real warship should be handling.

Given that the Coast Guard is also short of hulls, the Navy could have purchased the frigate versions of the littoral combat ship classes and passed the ones currently in service to the Coast Guard. This would boost the Coast Guard immensely. Furthermore, purchasing the Bertholf-based version of FFG(X) would have done a nice job of further boosting the fleet — a fleet that is desperately short on hulls.

FREMM, on the other hand, is going to need a lot of work just to get to U.S. Navy specs. None of the versions in service with the French, Italian, Egyptian, or Moroccan navies use any of the systems the United States Navy uses. That means integrating American systems onto those hulls. Most of the work was already done on that for the other four contenders — which means this ship will have a lot of questions.

The fact is, the Navy needed hulls in the water in the worst way. The problem is, the Navy chose to address that need in the worst possible way.

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