The Drift

Sponsored by:

Navigation Brief

Editor's Note: This is the online version of an email newsletter first published April 30.

WASHINGTON – Good Evening, Drifters

What a day, eh?

As a lot of you doubtless know I spent my four years in the Navy in the surface fleet and for all its faults the skimmer Navy has my heart forever. So, getting a new surface combatant is a blast.

If you didn’t see the story yet, the Navy selected Fincantieri’s FREMM design for its FFG(X) program and I think a lot of people are happy about that. I certainly enjoyed my three-day jaunt on board the Italian frigate Alpino.

Read about the award here: The US Navy selects Fincantieri design for next-generation frigate

It’s a great ship. Although I think any of the competitors – yes, even that aluminum hull Austal bid – came with real advantages. I do have concerns about that Austal shipyard now, however, and what it will be able to build to stay in business. But that’s for another day.

I gotta tell you, it was an exciting day. The Navy did an exceptional job keeping their selection quiet but that the award would be today was the worst-kept secret in the Pentagon. So as I eagerly awaited the announcement like a child waiting on Christmas, I decided to give my good friend Dr. Jerry Hendrix a call and chat about frigates, the competition more broadly and what the outcome will mean for the Navy. Jerry retired as a captain a few years back and headed the Naval History and Heritage Command for a time. He’s spent a tour at the Center for a New American Security and is now an analyst at The Telemus Group.

Small surface combatants have been dear to his heart for some time, so I figured he’d be good to talk to while we both waited for the news.

Let’s Drift.


Frigates Through the Ages

The Drift: So quite apart from who wins the competition, what place do you see FFG(X) having in the fleet? What’s the role of small surface combatants?

Jerry Hendrix: Great question and precisely the conversation we should be having. This goes capacity. Frigates are a capacity platform. They’re the eyes of the fleet, almost by definition. They tend to be anti-surface and in the last century they’ve taken on an anti-submarine role. And they are escort platforms.

More importantly, for peacetime deterrence, they are your primarily platform for presence or engagement with partners. They tend to be small enough that they can go into smaller ports and shallower seas, thus increasing your potential for engagement. That’s why they tend to be important, they can get into places like the Black Sea or even, perhaps, the Sea of Azov, which is far too shallow for a DDG, and the Baltic, where we have growing interests.

You know, any plan that’s going to get us to 355 ships is going to need to have a significant number of these ships. At less than $1 billion per platform, this is a ship that’s highly capable but can be purchased in larger numbers.

TD: You are a historian by trade. The first six new construction ships the US Navy procured were frigates. How has what we think of as a frigate evolved over the centuries?

JH: Four of the first six frigates were so-called heavy frigates, with designs that were so exceptional that they actually changed the way the rest of the world built their frigates. The British started to lay down a new class of frigates that could mount 44 guns or more to be able to compete with the Americans after getting their nose bloodied in some of the early engagements in the War of 1812.

So, frigates have evolved, the original six were only 1,600 tons. Now we’re looking at frigates on a worldwide scale that range from 4,500 tons to nearly 8,000 tons. Some of the world’s ships that we call frigates are actually closer to destroyers. Most of our WWII destroyers were between 3,000-5,000 tons. Most of the world’s frigates were in excess of destroyer sizes of the last great maritime war.

So, the frigates these days are termed that based on their mission and its range. Frigates are designed for longer-endurance cruising ranges so they can be out and independent. And a lot of times in the frigate CONOPs you’ll have them pulling into port to refuel and resupply rather than being supplied underway.

TD: We’ve been looking at European frigates as a model for what we want in FFG(X). Whoever wins, now that we have a more Euro-style frigate, does that bring us closer to our allies or are N-96’s standards so closely tailored to fit US standards that it won’t make much of a difference?

JH: I think we’ll have a bit closer integration with our European allies as well as with our Asian allies who are also heavily invested in the frigate architecture. For our purposes we’ve kind of levied requirements on to FFG(X) – including at 3D air search radar – that will of course add to the cost of the platform, and usually that mission is associated with a cruiser or destroyer. But it will make it easier for the frigate to integrate into the distributed maritime operations construct.

So, ideally, it will allow us to interoperate with the Europeans and Asians, but at the same time this is built to interoperate with the American fleet as you would expect.

TD: The requirement is for a minimum of 32 VLS cells, that’s a lot fewer than a Burke for just a little under half the price. With the proliferation of missile threats, is that going to be enough?

JH: I think the quad-packed Evolved Sea-Sparrow Missile really helps there. You get exponential growth using ESSM as your primary air defense weapon, relieving other cells for vertical-launch torpedoes or Tomahawk or other things like that.

You can also strap on box launchers, like the Naval Strike Missile, for an anti-surface capability.

TD: Any closing thoughts?

JH: This initial buy is for 20 of these ships. In a 355-ship architecture, the real number is going to be somewhere between 50 to 70. That’s why we’re splitting this up with the first 10 going to the prime contractor and then opening up to a second builder after that. That’s going to be critical because it’s going to take a lead-follow architecture to build the number we require.

TD: Thanks for passing the time of day, Jerry.

JH: Not a problem.

The Hotwash

SHAMELESS PLUG: My fiancée Katie put together an incredible concert that starts at 8 p.m. tonight! She works for the National Air & Space Museum and it’s all artists playing songs about space, aptly named Space Songs. It’s headlined by Sting and hosted by Adam Savage of Myth Busters. You can check that out here!

Space Songs: Through the Distance

More Reading

Lol ok. China says it 'expelled' U.S. Navy vessel from South China Sea

Britain’s new carrier Queen Elizabeth sets sail, prepared to train amid pandemic

USNI take on FFG(X): Fincantieri Wins $795M Contract for Navy Frigate Program

The Neverending Story: VCNO Burke to Oversee Expanded Theodore Roosevelt Outbreak Investigation

US Navy will host RIMPAC exercise, but with these modifications