With it becoming increasingly clear that the littoral combat ships are not the successors to the Oliver Hazard Perry class that the Navy hoped they would be, a mad scramble is on to find a suitable frigate design.
America’s New Frigate
The Navy has put out the requirements for a new class of warships, designated as FFG(X) or guided missile frigate (experimental), to be able to fulfill the following roles:
- Kill surface ships over the horizon
- Detect enemy submarines
- Defend convoy ships
- Employ active and passive electronic warfare systems
- Defend against swarming small boat attacks
Ship building companies across the globe are in the process of submitting proposals for a new warship to fill a this role. The current designs are varied, some radical and others more conservative. Coming in on the conservative side of the spectrum is a proposal by Ingalls shipbuilding for a revised version of its National Security Cutter as a naval patrol frigate. While not as radical as the littoral combat ships or the purpose built warships being offered by competitors, the NSC based patrol frigate offers exactly what the United States Navy needs.
The Navy Patrol Frigate
The Huntington Ingalls proposal takes a standard NCS and modifies it in several ways.
- Replaces the 57mm gun with a more powerful 76mm Super Rapid dual-purpose gun.
- Adds a twelve cell vertical launch system for 24 ESSM anti-air missiles.
- Adds eight harpoon anti-ship missile launchers.
- Adds triple launchers for anti-submarine torpedoes.
- Adds a towed sonar array plus a stronger bow mounted sonar.
- Incorporates a more powerful radar and other electronics.
- Retains the phalanx CIWs and smaller weaponry of the existing NCS.
Its immediately apparent that such a ship can already fulfill every one of the FFG(X) requirements. Like the previous (and highly successful) Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates, the patrol frigate concept looks to be an effective multi-purpose platform, able to handle anti-ship, anti-air, and anti-submarine roles. In addition, the patrol frigate also offers several incredibly advantageous benefits not found on other proposals.
Advantages of the Naval Patrol Frigate
First and foremost, the production lines and tooling are already in place, allowing for rapid production. While the initial National Security Cutters were relatively expensive at 680million apiece, continued production and refinement of design has lowered the price considerably. Using an already established design will significantly lower development costs and continued construction of new ships will continue to drive production costs even lower.
In addition, the patrol frigate will have greater parts compatibility compared to other proposals, especially foreign ones. Sharing parts with the Coast Guard cutter and other Navy warships offers fantastic benefits. Some of these benefits include: easier repairs due to familiarity, lower cost for replacement parts, and simplified logistics. All together, this also means lower costs.
A final benefit of the naval patrol frigate is that it is domestically produced. Ship yards employ a lot of people and use a lot of resources. Continued ship production means more jobs and more money for the United States.
A major problem with the current LCS ships are their lack of offensive weaponry. The weaponry of an Independence class littoral combat ship is as follows:
- 1x 57mm Mk 110 gun
- 4x .50cal Machine Guns
- 1x SeaRAM CIWS
Even with the anti-surface warfare package fitted, the ships gain only two 30mm chain guns and twenty-four hellfire missiles. On the other hand, the patrol frigate will carry the following:
- 1x 76mm OTO Melara 76mm gun
- 12x vertical launch cells (each capable of holding two ESSM anti-air missiles)
- 8x Harpoon anti-ship missiles
- 2x triple torpedo tubes
- 6x .50cal Machine Guns
- 1x SeaRAM CIWS
So on a similar sized warship, the patrol frigate concept is vastly more well armed compared to the LCS. It has a larger main gun, a more comprehensive missile armament, and has the capability to engage submarines.
Criticisms of the Patrol Frigate
Even with so many benefits, their is also a fair amount of criticism. Proponents of the Littoral Combat Ships often touted their high speeds of almost 40 knots. With a speed of over 28 knots, the patrol frigate seems like a tortoise in comparison. However, the need for high speeds in a combat environment is still being debated. Even for the FFG(X) program, the navy only requires a ship fast enough to keep pace with aircraft carriers.
While the patrol frigate concept might seem slow, it is still just as fast as the Oliver Hazard Perry class before it. Even the slower Perry class could keep pace with the aircraft carriers most of the time and it stands to reason that the patrol frigate should be able to do the same. On the other hand, one must wonder if a frigate even needs to be that fast.
The United States currently has 11 aircraft carriers that require escort. For escort ships, the Navy has 66 Arleigh Burke class destroyers and 22 Ticonderoga class cruisers. That comes out to eight escort ships to every carrier, more than what makes up a typical carrier battlegroup. Does the Navy really need another warship to fill a role that is already well taken care of? The patrol frigates should instead be pressed into second line roles such as convoy escort and screening for other slower warships such an amphibious assault carriers.
The Navy may be looking for the latest, most cutting edge warships, however the LCS debacle shows that cutting edge does not always produce an effective warship. Instead, the Navy should look for a frigate that is cheap, easily mass produced, and effective in a specific role. A ship that can escort convoys, survive in a combat environment, and contribute to the fleet as a whole. The patrol frigate concept proposed by Ingalls shipbuilding can do all of that. It certainly will not be the most advanced warship, but that is exactly what the United States needs at the moment.