WASHINGTON — A Fincantieri shipyard in Wisconsin will begin constructing its first Constellation-class frigate Wednesday following a small ceremony, U.S. Navy officials announced.

The kickoff of ship construction at Marinette Marine Shipyard follows an April 2020 contract award for the ship program and a subsequent 28 months of design maturation work — turning the Italian company’s design for a European FREMM frigate into a U.S. Navy derivative.

“Construction will start this week a long way from scratch,” Tommy Ross, who is performing the duties of assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, told reporters this week.

Rear Adm. Casey Moton, the program executive officer for unmanned and small combatants, told reporters the detail design is 80% complete, which was the Navy’s goal for the start of construction.

Moton said the Navy took several steps to reduce risk in the frigate program, such as requiring that companies bidding on the program use an existing ship design as the basis for their proposals. The service also ran a 16-month design maturation process with five potential competitors.

“That design maturity was probably the single biggest factor to reduce the risk to production. So we held ourselves to meet a high standard, and at the end there were even a couple spots where we decided to continue maturing the design in order to meet that high standard. And it was the right thing to do, and I think it’s going to pay dividends in construction,” Moton said.

The design maturity, for example, means there’s a better understanding of which pumps to buy and the required widths for particular systems, Moton said. This means Fincantieri can order materials sooner, and that the company can have everything on hand to keep construction moving at pace.

The company is set to deliver this first ship, the future Constellation, to the Navy in 2026. The service has already exercised options for the second and third ships of the class.

The service has a stated requirement for 56 small combatants, though its most recent long-range shipbuilding plan never gets to that fleet size due to retirements of the bulk of littoral combat ships in the next five years, and a construction pace that would see a maximum of two or three frigates built per year.

Previous projections called for buying as many as four frigates a year to build up the size of the small combatant fleet, something Navy leadership has long said would be increasingly important for future operations.

Building three or four each year would require bringing in a second yard to build Fincantieri’s design — much like General Dynamics Bath Iron Works designed and built the first Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, and HII’s Ingalls Shipbuilding was brought on as a second builder.

In fact, Ingalls and Bath Iron Works are already eyeing the frigate program and whether it fits into their future workload, as is Austal USA.

But despite a December 2020 plan to buy three frigates in fiscal 2023 and four per year in fiscal 2025, necessitating a near-term selection of a second yard, the Navy has since backed off from its commitment to bring in a second shipyard.

Ross told reporters this week that the first step is to get Marinette Marine’s production line fully running. “As we go forward, we want to then look at how do we make sure that we have the ability to meet our requirements. Right now I think we’re in a good place to meet the requirements that we have in the coming years with the shipyard that is beginning work — Fincantieri. But that’s going to be something that we want to take a close look at.”

Moton clarified that the current requirement is 20 ships, though the Navy calls for 56 small combatants in its long-range shipbuilding plan and in the chief of naval operations’ recent “Navigation Plan 2022″ document.

While the 20-ship requirement is firm, the pace at which the Navy builds them is not.

“There are multiple factors at play. The requirement right now is for a 20-ship frigate class. The pace that we will build that frigate class is a function of the measured approach we took initially [to manage risk in the first couple ships of the class]; it’s a function of an approach that is balanced against top-line constraints; it’s an approach that’s balanced against the entire industrial base and how quickly we might need to go to a second builder,” Moton said.

He added that there are no definitive decision points, and that each year the Navy would reconsider the state of its budget and of the industrial base’s needs and capabilities as it determines how many frigates it will plan to buy in upcoming years.

Just in case the Navy does add a second construction yard, the contract with Fincantieri includes an option for the service to buy a technical data package to give to another builder. Moton said the service wouldn’t procure that package any earlier than necessary since Fincantieri will certainly tweak the design as it learns lessons building the first few ships. Waiting until the time of need would ensure the technical data package is as updated as possible.

Moton spoke of this learning process in terms of years and multiple ships, suggesting the rest of the shipbuilding industry won’t find out anytime soon whether it will be able to join this small combatant program.

Even as Fincantieri begins building the lead ship this week, work is already ongoing on the combat system that will give the ship a powerful punch. Frigate program manager Capt. Kevin Smith said work happening at The Forge, a Navy software factory outside College Park, Maryland, would ensure the frigates can keep up with evolving threats without breaking the bank.

The frigate will start with Lockheed Martin’s Aegis Baseline 10 combat system, similar to what will go on the Flight III Arleigh Burke destroyers, which are under construction. Through work at The Forge, Lockheed and other vendors can offer, test and integrate new capabilities that address new threats and could lead to better contract options for the Navy to acquire these capabilities.

The effort relies on the Navy’s work to virtualize Aegis — to take the combat system software and fully detach it from the hardware such that the full combat suite could be run from a suitcase-sized computer server at an ashore testing site, from an unmanned vessel or from a Navy ship at sea.

Rather than have a tedious process of updating a ship’s combat system software by physically going onboard and working with the server racks, as has been the case, Smith said future updates to the frigate’s and other ships’ combat systems would be similar to software updates pushed to smartphones.

Though the advances made at The Forge won’t change how the first frigate is built — it will still have the server racks installed fairly early in the process, while the spaces are still accessible — Ross hopes it will make it easier to update the combat system before the ship heads out on its first deployment.

“Where we want to get to is that what we’re installing during shipbuilding is the server racks, and whatever Aegis baseline or whatever is available at the time — if it’s Baseline 10, fine — but by the time you get out of construction, Baseline 10.1 or 10.2 or 10.3 may be available, and that’s then a matter of pushing out that virtual update versus having to reinstall the software,” he said.

“So we’re not there yet, and we may not be there in the first ship, the first build of the frigate, but by the 20th we better be there because that’s the direction we’ve got to go.”

Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.

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