WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy is taking a hard look at upgrading its future frigates to protect other ships from anti-air threats in addition to defending against undersea and surface enemies. The move would be a significant enhancement in the effort to develop a frigate from existing littoral combat ship designs.
A study group called the Requirement Evaluation Team, or RET, has been formed to examine how to add a local air defense capability to the frigates to protect Combat Logistics Force ships — the supply and support ships that bring fuel, ammunition, spare parts and food to warships at sea. The frigate design as currently envisioned is armed with anti-missile and anti-aircraft missiles, but only to protect itself.
The goal, according to a draft document, is — at a minimum — to double the load out of Block 2 Evolved Seasparrow Missiles from eight to 16, or incorporate a Mark 41 vertical launch system with at least eight Standard Missile-2s. The SM-2 is one of the primary anti-air weapons carried by the fleet’s Aegis destroyers and cruises.
SM-2 would require a more capable command and control system, and the RET is considering the addition of a variant of the new Enterprise Air Surveillance Radar under development by Raytheon for Ford-class aircraft carriers and big-deck amphibious ships. The ship would also have the Cooperative Engagement Capability, a high-quality networking system that ties together sensors and weapons carried on multiple ships, aircraft or shore installations into an integrated fire control system.
Taken together, the enhanced anti-air capabilities would change the Navy designation for the ships from FF, meaning frigate, to FFG — guided missile frigates able to provide area air defense.
"We see an opportunity to increase our AAW [anti-air warfare] capability — which falls under the category of lethality — within a reasonable trade space for our future frigate," Sean Stackley, acting secretary of the Navy, told Defense News on April 5.
"We think we have a good, solid baseline in the requirements document" developed for the frigate, he said, "but we are looking at that lethality aspect, which is the AAW component. We’re looking at further increases to survivability, and we’re looking at endurance, pushing the envelope. And as always we’re going to balance that against technical risk and cost. We’re going to do this in a competitive environment."
Both builders of the littoral combat ship — Lockheed Martin and Austal USA — have developed frigate variants of their LCS designs in anticipation of the Navy issuing a formal request for proposals, which had been expected in the fall. The switch from an FF to an FFG design would likely involve significant redesign of each company’s frigate proposal, which could push back the RFP.
"I don’t want to get pinned down on a date" to issue the RFP, Stackley said. "Obviously we want to get through the requirements first. But we want to get it out this fiscal year," which ends Sept. 30.
The FFG, according to the draft document, would also have enhanced survivability characteristics "to a level commensurate with the FFG 7 class" — referring to the Oliver Hazard Perry guided-missile frigates developed in the 1970s that joined the fleet throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The last of those ships was decommissioned in 2015.
A number of naval strategists, particularly a group of Republican navalists associated with the 2012 presidential campaign of Mitt Romney, have urged the construction of a new class of frigates based on the FFG 7 design.
Enhanced survivability features of the FFG, Navy officials said, include improved shock hardening, plus propulsion separation — presumably meaning separating propulsion machinery spaces, which are next to each other in current designs. Separating the compartments improves survivability — a single hit is unlikely to disable both compartment if another compartment is between them — but also adds length and, hence, cost.
Other survivability improvements could include deckhouse armor, armor for vital spaces and full propulsion-shock protection features.
The proposed way ahead for the FFG, according to the draft Navy document, would be to "update existing analyses to investigate the feasibility of adding these additional capabilities into the current LCS designs, as well as explore whether other existing hull forms and design concepts might provide a better balance of capabilities at competitive cost points."
The RET, which in addition to several Navy offices and commands includes the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Pentagon’s Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, is on a fast track to provide FFG recommendations, with a target date of the end of May. As a result of the work, the date to acquire the first frigate would be pushed back from 2019 to 2020 to "allow adequate time to mature the design and thoroughly evaluate design alternatives," according to the draft document.
The Navy, according to the draft plan, would aim for a "competitive contract award no later than fiscal 2020," after a "full and open competition … using modifications to existing ship designs, including designs beyond the two current LCS variants."
With the delay to 2020, another two LCSs would be procured in 2019, according to the draft document.
Stackley sought to put the effort into perspective.
"We’re looking at several things in the context of the Force Structure Assessment," he said April 5. "What has changed over time is the threat has changed. … So we’re taking a hard look at certain capabilities and characteristics to determine whether we need to increase aspects of lethality, survivability and endurance for the frigate."
The anti-air warfare capability, Stackley said, falls under increased lethality over the previous baseline frigate requirements for a multimission ship with anti-submarine warfare and anti-surface warfare capability.
He harkened to the report of the Small Surface Combatant Task Force, a 2014 effort that studied multiple concepts to produce a frigate rather than continue LCS production.
"At the point in time, we were going through the Small Surface Combatant Task Force study, looking at all the existing frigate designs and what the trade-offs would be associated with going beyond self-defense AAW capability, the deltas were pretty significant in terms of impact on hull, impact on costs," Stackley said. "We’re revisiting that with a better base of knowledge because we’ve gone through a cycle of frigate design."
And the Navy continues to look to its LCS shipbuilders for ways to enhance the frigate. Lockheed and Austal have each conducted numerous studies to upgrade their LCS and frigate designs with more lethality and survivability.
"Industry sees that we’re serious about a frigate," Stackley said, "so they have been getting more seriously involved, looking at what they can bring to the table in terms of capabilities."