Big Navy announced the finalists for the FFG(X) program a few days ago. Let’s have a look.
In the interest of spicing things up a bit, I’ve assigned some moneyline odds to each competitor.
FFG(X): buying 2012’s frigate in 2020
The Navy ended up a little behind the eight ball after its insistence on buying the all-but-useless Littoral Combat Ship, which we’ve trashed on several occasions1. Rather than build a frigate as the Perry class was running out of lifespan, they built a weird fast corvette with no striking power and found themselves paying $700 million a pop for effectively useless ships.
FFG(X) is a stopgap measure to take care of the actual business of naval combat while the LCS contractors get their collective acts together, in which the Navy will spend $20 billion to buy twenty actual, effective combat ships.
LCS variants: Less Crappy Ships
The two contractors for the LCS have each assembled a bid using their LCS as a base for a real fighting ship. Both have unrefueled ranges of less than 4,500 nautical miles.
Austal Frigate: -300
Austal’s entry is based off of their trimaran Independence-class, a design I like aesthetically and for a few practical reasons (that giant flight deck among them). The Austal Frigate cuts a few feet off of the flight deck to add a stern platform to hold twin- or quad-pack Harpoon launchers (or other SSM launchers), as well as a towed sonar. Earlier Austal Frigate proposals put the VLS in the superstructure, on either side of the main mast, but someone must have realized what a terrible idea that was in practice; in the final proposal, one VLS 8-pack is forward of the superstructure, and one is at the aft end of the flight deck.
I was going to gripe about how 16 VLS cells seemed a little light, but it appears that’s the fit most of these frigates have, sadly. At least the ESSM can be quad-packed; 32 ESSM and 8 fancy Standard Missiles is an acceptable combat load, I guess.
Freedom Frigate: -400
The Freedom Frigate is the LockMart-brand LCS frigate, with very little to differentiate it from the Austal Frigate beyond its more conventional design. Same armament: 16 Mk. 41 VLS cells and a gun. Similar aviation capacity, although it has a smaller hangar. (Both only ship one MH-60 in normal circumstances, though.) I think the basic Freedom-class has less to recommend it than the basic Independence-class, which is why I give them a lesser chance here.
Various European navies have interesting frigate choices. Two of them made it to the final round.
As much as I like the FREMM, I don’t think it’s a very likely choice for the US Navy. The VLS system is wrong, and I have no idea how easy it is to plug a Mk. 41 system into the Sylver A43 hole in the FREMMs.
Too, it also depends on the FREMM version. The French FREMM is well-kitted for anti-air and anti-surface-unit warfare, with 32 VLS cells in all, Exocet launchers, and even support for land-attack missiles in the larger 16 VLS cells. It only has one helicopter, and only the anti-submarine versions carry a towed sonar.
The Italian FREMM has a faster cruise speed, a faster top speed, two helicopters, an improved radar, two guns, and (in the anti-submarine fit) anti-submarine missiles, but it has fewer cruise missiles and is only fit with 16 Sylver A43 VLS cells.
Both have long range, north of 6,000 nautical miles. Both are expensive, between 600 and 700 million euro per unit.
Keeping in mind the various incompatibilities which would have to be addressed, and the fact that the ship is built by ‘Fincantieri Marine Group’ no matter how much they claim they’re from Wisconsin, I think the FREMM is one of the less likely options.
The F100/Álvaro de Bazán class of Spanish frigates came as a bit of a surprise to me; I hadn’t heard much about them, but clearly I should have been paying closer attention.
The F100 is an Aegis frigate. Yes, you heard me right; besides the related Fridtjof Nansen class, they’re the only frigate-size ships to carry the Aegis setup. Fittingly, the Spaniards did not skimp on missiles. The F100 carries a full 48 cells of Mk. 41 VLS, for a standard combat load of 64 ESSMs and 32 SM-2s.
Its anti-ship capability is a bit more suspect, at only eight Harpoons, but those are in deck launchers and easily retrofit should the Navy come up with an actual decent sea attack missile.
It carries decent anti-submarine weapons and a torpedo decoy, along with a single helicopter, but does presently lack a towed array, a missing feature which could come back to haunt General Dynamics. I don’t know if it would be an easy retrofit, but it’s certainly something the Navy would want addressed.
Beyond that, though, the F100 strikes me as the blindingly obvious choice from the final competitors. There’s zero reason to complain about its anti-air fit, and its anti-ship fit is no worse than most of the other competitors. (Eight Harpoons seems to be enough for the Navy.) A helicopter is more important for modern anti-submarine warfare than a towed array, and one presumes that the F100 could probably ship one if it comes to that, given that a variable depth sonar and a towed array are on the requirements list and General Dynamics still entered the F100. It has 4,500 nautical miles of range, and doesn’t cost any more than the other options on the list.
Why do I not make it the favorite among the options, then? Because the Navy has already plowed a ton of money into the LCS, so they aren’t canceling it, and if they buy a non-LCS-based frigate, then they have to pay both to buy the new frigate and eventually turn the LCS into one. I expect political concerns to hamper the European designs, despite the fact that both the F100 and the FREMM are objectively better in every useful dimension than either LCS or LCS frigate conversion.
The Coast Guard rides again
But wait! There’s a dark horse contender.
Legend-class/National Security Cutter: -2500
While the Legend-class cutters are the right size, have superb range (it’s reduced to 8,000 nautical miles for the bid), and, as Coast Guard cutters, have tons of internal room for weapons and whatnot, selecting a cutter as a base for a frigate design would require the Navy not only to admit the Coast Guard exists, but also to admit that the Coast Guard built a better ship than they did. Not going to happen.
Program canceled or delayed beyond the point of usefulness: +250
I’m not a pessimist by nature, but this really does seem like the most likely outcome to me.
- It’s one of our favorite punching bags. If we’re missing a segment for the podcast, I’ve been known to say, “Have we beaten up on the LCS lately?” ↩