Nations invest enormous effort and money to develop warships packed with high-end capability.
But the vast majority are never used for their intended purpose. Instead, they’re used for more mundane yet important missions — presence, patrol, interdiction, surveillance, disaster response and expeditionary warfare — with flexibility a premium.
The US isn’t alone in historically demanding top performance from front-line warships. Britain, France, Germany and Italy all have fielded high-end ships designed for speed and combat power.
But constrained budgets in America and Europe are prompting leading nations to reconsider future needs and explore whether new ships should be tailored for what they do every day, rather than what they might have to do once over decades.
The solution: extreme flexibility at an affordable price for construction and operation.
Here the Danes have emerged as a clear leader by developing two classes of highly innovative ships designed to operate as how they will be used: carrying out coalition operations while equipped to swing from high-end to low-end missions.
The three Iver Huitfeldt frigates and two Absalon flexible support ships share a common, large, highly efficient hull to yield long-range, efficient but highly flexible ships that come equipped with considerable capabilities — from large cargo and troop volumes and ample helo decks for sea strike and anti-submarine warfare — in a package that’s cheap to buy and operate. The ships come with built-in guns, launch tubes for self-defense and strike weapons, and hull-mounted sonar gear, and they can accept mission modules in hours to expand or tailor capabilities. The three Huitfeldts cost less than $1 billion.
The ships also are coveted during coalition operations for their 9,000-mile range at 15 knots, excellent sea-keeping qualities and command-and-control gear, plus spacious accommodations for command staffs. That’s why the Esbern Snare, the second of two Absalon support ships, is commanding the international flotilla in the Eastern Mediterranean that will destroy Syria’s chemical weapons.
And it’s an approach that’s gained traction in both Berlin and Rome, with Germany’s new 7,000-ton F125 frigates and Italy’s class of eight new multipurpose ships. Each trades some higher-end capability to field more useful everyday capabilities.
It’s a lesson even the US Navy, the world’s best-funded and most-capable naval force, has been embracing. As the world’s policeman, America can afford a comparably vast force of more specialized ships, from ultra-high-end Arleigh Burke-class Aegis destroyers to smaller ships charged with maintaining presence and low-end maritime missions like Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates that will be replaced — sort of — by littoral combat ships, America’s attempt at an affordable warship.
But Washington has bucked the global trend toward larger frigates with multimission capabilities. Littoral combat ships displace about 4,000 tons and top 40 knots, but offer little organic capability aside from a 57mm gun. All other capabilities, from surface warfare to anti-submarine and mine hunting, depend on mission modules still being developed.
The Navy has 24 of the ships delivered or under contract of a planned 52-ship buy to field a relatively low-cost and flexible platform to fill out the ranks of a thinning fleet. But the program has faced criticism for yielding ships that are too expensive, too small, too short on capability, too lightly crewed and most important, too short on range as the US turns its attention to the vast Pacific.
It is right to experiment with a new class of ship that will challenge orthodoxies and develop new operational concepts. But history time and again has proven the value of frigates with organic multimission capabilities and long range. And that is the kind of ship the US Navy needs as it considers its future force in an era of declining resources — a heavy frigate with broad capabilities. And for cues, Washington should take a close look at what’s going on in Copenhagen, Berlin and Rome.