Thursday, October 18, 2012

Why No Frigates?

A reader on the previous post posed the seemingly simple question,

Why isn’t the Navy building frigates? 

I’d like to take a shot a answering that.  The simple answer is that with the Navy firmly committed to the LCS, building frigates now would be an embarrassment and an admission of failure.  No way the Navy will consider new frigates, at this point.  I don’t think that even needs to be discussed further.

However, I think the reader is really asking why didn’t the Navy opt to build frigates back before the LCS program was irreversibly entrenched?  There must have been a point in time when the LCS was just a drawing and the Navy could have gone either way.  What made them choose the LCS over the frigate? 

Before I go any further, let me say that aside from a few conversations with people connected with the Navy but not in any significantly relevant position to answer the question, I have no inside information as to what the Navy’s thinking was.  In other words, this post is just speculation.

Further, I’m largely opposed to the LCS and highly critical of the way the program has been executed.  That said, I’m going to attempt to answer the question as objectively as I can.

On with the answer …

Let’s go back in time to around the late 1990s or so when the LCS was still just a concept.  The Perry class FFGs were in the final third of their lifespan, budgets were beginning to feel the pinch of fiscal reality, shipbuilding costs were escalating out of control, and people were questioning the Navy’s mission since the Cold War was over and China was not yet taken seriously as a naval competitor.

Why No Frigates?

The Navy was very concerned about their share of the defense budget.  With no readily recognizable naval enemy on the horizon, the Navy was deathly afraid that their slice of the defense budget pie would shrink.  Studies and papers were commissioned to attempt to spell out and “sell” the role and importance of the Navy.  Unfortunately, the Navy failed to convey a convincing rationale for continued huge expenditures on new ships.  It looked as if the fleet was going to shrink.  What to do?

The Navy’s solution was to put forth a new enemy.  Of course, there was no actual, specific enemy but that didn’t matter.  Lacking an actual enemy, the Navy came up with “LITTORAL” – a vague place that the non-specific enemy would reside and create all kinds of havoc.  Thus, the Navy reasoned, they could sell Congress on more ships if they pushed the idea of a magical LITTORAL combat ship that could do things that no other ship could do.  We’ve already debunked that idea in previous posts but at that time it was a simple public relations exercise to push the LCS as the savior that would do battle with the littoral monster.  Thus, the LCS was born rather than a frigate which Congress might reject, citing all the existing Perrys and the cheapness of upgrades relative to new construction.

Further, I think the Navy convinced themselves that the LCS was going to be the new age frigate.  Indeed, on paper (or Powerpoint, as the case may be!) the LCS was going to be an effective MCM, ASW, ASuW platform able to transform from one role to the next in a matter of hours.  Of course, none of those paper technologies and capabilities panned out and now we have neither a frigate nor the envisioned LCS.

The insightful reader will note the zeal with which the Navy went about retiring and giving away Perry FFGs once the decision was made to go the LCS path.  Skeptics among us might suspect that that was done to pre-empt the possibility of Congress or critics suggesting that the Perrys be upgraded.  You may recall the way the entire Spruance class was Sinkex’ed to eliminate possible competition with the Aegis program.

So, there’s your answer as to why we aren’t building frigates.  The failure of the LCS is so blatantly obvious, at this point, that one can’t help but wonder where the Admiral Harvey of the LCS is.  Where’s the Admiral who will stand up and say that the Emperor LCS has no clothes and that a basic frigate would better serve the Navy and the Nation?


  1. Wow, wasn't expecting such a detailed response, so thanks ComNavOps. Also read your link to previous post. Inter service rivalry and budget protection is alive and well on both sides of the Atlantic! Always depressing when those in uniform play politics.

    Trying to look on the bright side, LCS (in both versions - why 2?) is a young design, just coming into service. Ten or fifteen years down the line it may have morphed into something useful. Perhaps they'll sort out those mission modules.

    Still don't get the need for such high speed though (if you want to chase pirates, use helos); also, all that engine power must be noisy, not something you want when engaged in ASW.

    1. You bring up a very important point. Ten or fifteen years from now we may have effective modules though not likely the magical stuff that was envisioned. Unfortunately, the Navy's stated lifespan for the LCS is 25 years and the actual lifespan is almost certain to be significantly less. That means that many of the LCSs will have lived half or more of their lives without any effective modules. What a waste of money!

      You've also touched on another important point. Now that the ASW function is being transferred back to the seaframe rather than dispersed in remote, unmanned vehicles we realize that the ship is not designed or optimized to be an ASW platform. Oops! We're going to have ASW-LCSs that are better targets than they are hunters.

  2. I agree with everything you two have said. I believe the Navy needed LCS to be a "relevant game-changer" that demonstrate the new thinking of the 21st century. Or at least look like it.

    What bothered me is this hope to replace FFG, MCM, and PC classes with one ship. The missions are so diverse that even modular systems and payloads aren't enough.

    The LCS is completed unsuited for traditional ASW. Yet because of problems with the UUV and remote sensing, it will have some sort of hull mounted sonar - on a small hull optimized for speed. With waterjets. And diesels. The self-noise this ship will generate at certain speeds will be high.

    And what weapons will the ASW LCS use? Can't fit VL ASROC at this time. Mk 32 torpedoe tubes need to be added on at some point. That leaves onl what the single MH-60R can carry. Brilliant.

    This is what happens when you build a major warship with too narrow a capability. You end up trying to fit the ship to the new mission taskings, rather than build more flexibility into it from the start.


    1. You ask why the USN does not build Frigate,

      I ask why should the USN build frigates.

      Frigates were OK when the cost of manpower was cheap and the base line cost for ships were low. But today the cost of manning a frigate type ship with 200 person crew is much much more, and a weapon control system that cost twicw what a Perry class frigate, With these cost, the USN would soon find itself running out of money. Better we accept that frigates do not provide enough bang for the buck and start building larger vessels, that can carry more, and longer ranged, weapons with very little addition cost. This was the original thinking behind the DD21, which I beleive is still valid today.

      And you can not just build bigger firgates. Frigate are limited in size due to pre conception of the people, Remember the shock in people when the suggest 6000 ton frigate IN THE 1990's? People just won'taccept the notion of frigate as large vessels.

      Therefore let me suggest avoiding this problem and providing the Navy what it realy needs, Cruiser. The Ticos are growing old and need replacement, proving as need the public (and congressman) will accept. The title Cruiser has few limit it place on it in term of size, which frees the Navy from that artifical restiction. And having a bigger ships never hurts, then it relly counts.

      Let the LCS handle those mission that require shear number, since most of those mission do not require the high tech weapons Frigate carry. (you don't need AEGIS to act as a helo pad, or protecting civiliam ships from pirates.) Yes the LCS as a type need more developemnt, but that not a reason to stop that program.

    2. Wow! You seem to be arguing for a fleet composed of only high end ships with a grudging acceptance of the LCS at the low end only because it already exists. Have I misunderstood what you're saying?

      I've hammered on this repeatedly but the type of high end ship you're suggesting will cost $2B-$5B each. Look at the DDG Flt IIa restart at $2B each which is lowest cost option. The Flt III will likely cost $3B-$5B. Look at the cost of the Zumwalts. Given that the Navy's yearly shipbuilding budget is only $15B and 10 new ships per year are needed to maintain the fleet size, you do the math and tell me how the Navy can afford your approach.

      Also, don't get hung up on the word frigate. Today's frigates so far exceed traditional frigate capabilities that they should, more properly, be called destroyers, at least.

      I'm not going to bother listing all the low end tasks for which a moderately armed, smaller vessel is appropriate. You suggest that the LCS can handle all the low end missions but it can't, in its current guise, handle anything other than drug smuggling patrols.

      Don't misinterpret what I've said. The Navy does, indeed, need a Tico cruiser replacement whether it's the Flt III or a totally new build. But to suggest that a low end vessel has no value is to ignore the fiscal realities. Of course, this assumes that the Navy could build a frigate for less than a billion dollars - a big assumption given how screwed up Navy ship procurement is! The Navy ought to be able to build an off-the-shelf (see my previous post) frigate for $500M. If they could, you could build four or five frigates for the cost of one new Aegis.

      Your comment about needing a crew of 200 for a frigate ignores the manning realities of the current Navy. The Zumwalt, twice the size of the Burkes, is planned to have a crew of only 175, if I recall correctly. While manning of 175 for a true cruiser size ship may be unrealistic, 200 crew for a new frigate is equally unrealistic. I would venture a guess of 75 for a new frigate?

    3. First, I like the LCS concspt, and expect it to play a major role in future Navys. I beleif the LCS will take over the n0n-fleet Escort mission now handled by frigates, along with many other roles beyond those currenyty assign to it. What more I expect it will profrom these mission better than the Built for purpose ship like Frigates because unlikebuilt for purpose ship, it will be cheaper and quicker to update there system by updating they mission modules.

      If there is a problem with the LCSs, it t he possib;ity that some bureaucraies might want to freeze development to the seaframe. In my opinion these is a lot more work need on this part of LCS. For example I like to see several larger experimental Seaframethat can act a fast troop transport, resupply ships, or long range patrol ships.

      As for classical frigate, I see no future for them. They normally carry the minimum armument for modern surface warfare. The depend mostly on onboard sensors the require them to get too close to an opponent. They are seldom modernize because the USN consider them expendable. And When they are modernize it is costly as they require the removal of old system to make room for the new.

  3. Agree wholeheartedly with your reply to G Lof. Just to clarify, I wasn't suggesting you build frigates instead of cruisers, I was just wondering why your navy chose to build LCS instead of frigates.

    On the cost and crew levels of frigates - well, the term "frigate" is applied to a wide range of vessels these days - the French don't use the term destroyer at all! - but I think you've got the cost about right ($500m = about £315m), as the RN is hoping to keep the cost of its new Type 26 frigates to between £250-£300 million on a build of just 13 ships, but I think you're very optimistic on crew numbers. Of course it depends a lot on the size of your proposed frigate.

    RN is hoping automation will help keep crew numbers on Type 26 down to around 120-130. That's on a displacement of about 5400t, length of 148 meters. There will also be room to embark marines/special forces.

    I'm enjoying going through your archives - you're obviously passionate about your navy.

  4. I should have been clearer about manning levels. I, too, think a manning level of 75 for a frigate is optimistic and probably unwise in the even of combat. I was stating what I think the Navy would target for a frigate crew size.

    I am passionate about the Navy! I was born and raised on the Navy and I couldn't be prouder of the sailors who work every day to make the Navy what it is. On the other hand, I'm disgusted by, and ashamed of, the leadership of the Navy that has made one bad decision after another over the last several decades. Worse, they've violated the trust of the lower levels and failed to look out for the best interests of the sailors who are in their charge. That's why I started this blog and that's why I so often come across as critical. I want to restore the Navy that I can be proud of top to bottom.

    Thanks for checking in!

  5. I agree about the frigate needing to be affordable. I always thought the USN got a lot right with the 1970's Spruances and Perrys. The Spruances had a lot of growth in them when they were first commisioned. And the Perrys were a less expensive design that still could do ASW and contribute to a convoy or task force's AAW.

    That did not mean it was an all-singing-all-dancing design. The bow sonar was a cost compromise and the Standard missile and FCS could not deal with massed attacks. But it brought a lot to the fleet and did it in numbers, which does matter to some degree.

    Especially the two SH-60s, which are a ship's most useful item.

    And it performs well in the low-end missions where Aegis and Tomahawks are unnecessary.


  6. Of course, if you're having manning issues, there's always the press gang. Happy Battle of Trafalgar Day to you.

    1. Now that is funny! LOL You made my day.

  7. Hello,
    Just for the sake of being complete, during the EURONAVAL show a full fledged version of a "frigate" armed LCS was presented as weel as a "frigate" variant of the new Coast Guard Cutter. Something moving??

    1. William, yes, the export (frigate) version of the LCS-1 (I assume that's the one you're talking about) has been shown around for some time at the various trade shows. I've talked to a couple of the manufacturer's engineers associated with the LCS. While reluctant to get into too many specifics, the story I get is that the export (frigate) version is a gutted LCS that bears only an external physical resemblance to the current LCS. The ship has been redesigned and rebuilt for the export role. The speed requirment has been drastically scaled back to eliminate equipment and free up room and weight. Even so, the basic ship has inherent design problems. The shape and size of the superstructure don't provide much horizontal deck space for equipment and weapons placement. The hull and engines are not optimized for ASW work. The flight deck strength ratings are less than you think. Stability is a severe issue. And so on. The export version has been offered to Israel and a few other countries but has yet to generate any serious interest. If the Navy wanted to do a frigate they'd be much better off with a new design.

      The frigate version of the Coast Guard Cutter is one I don't know much about. I'll have to look into that!

  8. The US Navy's really needs a multi-role frigate. We need this more than we need a new cruiser. When the Ticonderoga's retire there are more than enough Burkes to take up the slack -- with the Zumwalt fiasco and the Burke restart we'll have 75 Burkes when all is said and done. This need extends beyond the US Navy as we really need a ship which can be supplied yo US allies (Eg. Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Israel, Singapore, Australia, etc.)

    A new Frigate class is way over due and the following design goals should is a good starting point:-

    ● ~150m / 5000 tons
    ● 1/2 the Complement an Arleigh Burke
    ● 1/3 the missile load an Arleigh Burke
    ● 1/2 the price of an Arleigh Burke ($900 million)
    ● No New Sensors
    ● No new technology
    ● No Extreme Range Sensors
    ● Battlegroup Deployable (4,500 nm range / 30 knots)

    I propose the following specifications:-

    Lead ship: FFG-500 USS Fletcher
    Size of Class: 50 ships
    Shipyard: Huntington Ingalls
    Cost: $900 million
    Displacement: 6,000 tons
    Length: 150 m
    Complement: 142
    Radar: Sea Giraffe Secondary Self-Defense Radar
    AN/SPY-3 X-band Multi-Function Radar
    Sonar: AN/SQS-60 Medium Frequency hull mounted array
    AN/SQS-61 high frequency hull mounted array
    AN/SQR-20 towed array
    Weapons: 1 x Mk110 57mm gun
    8 x Mk57 PVLS modules* (32-cells)
    1 x Mk49 GMLS (21-cell RIM-116 RAM missiles)
    6 x Mk 32 324mm Torpedo tubes
    * Typical Missile Load: 8 VL-ASROC, 12 SM-6, 16 ESSM, 8 LRASM
    Aircraft: 1 x SH-60 Seahawk helicopter
    Propulsion: Turbo-Electric Drive
    1 x General Electric LM6000 turbine generator 40 kWe
    2 x GE38 gas turbine generators, 10.4 kWe (total)
    1 x DRS 36.5MW Permanent Magnet Motor
    1 x Rolls-Royce Kamewa SL Pumpjet (50,000 shp)
    1 x Bow Lateral Thruster (500 shp)_
    Maximum Speed: 30 knots
    Range: 4,500 nm @ 20 knots

    1. Dwight, you make several interesting statements.

      You say the Navy needs a frigate more than a new cruiser. Why? I'm not disagreeing, just want to hear your rationale.

      You say the Navy has more than enough Burkes. Given 10 carrier groups and several more amphibious groups as well as all the usual independent operations, how many Burkes do you think are needed?

      You say we need a ship that can be supplied to other countries. Again, why?

      You've clearly put a lot of thought into the design of a frigate. You might be interested in the website,, if you haven't already seen it.

    2. In today’s context, Ticonderogas and Burkes are essentially interchangeable. Yes, the latter has ¾ as many Mk41 cells and is missing the rather redundant SPS-49 secondary air search radar. But, the USN uses the Burkes and Ticons interchangeably for Battle group escort. Both hull types can be configured for BMD duties and both have been. Hence, you can say that unless you are looking for a paradigm shift or a step up in capabilities, retiring Ticons can simply be replaced by Burkes. Burkes are in fact a better hull and platform from a operability and stability standpoint.

      For next generation capability, given the abortive DDG-1000 program, we can either for a CGX or a FFGX. Either of these platform will incorporate reduced observability (to what degree is debatable), plus the new generation radar (SPY-3 + [optionally] VSR) and sonar (SQS-60/61 + SQR-20). That, plus possibly turbo-electric drive. The only question is whether we go for a larger number (50~60) of smaller ships (5000~6000 tons) or a smaller number (12~20) of larger ships (14,000~16,000 tons).

      IMHO, we need hulls more than we need capital ships. The Perry’s are dropping off like flies. The LCS is essentially a 45 knot coast guard cutter with optional minesweeping add-ons. It is not really up to the task of mercantile escort or as a picket ship for battle groups. There is a more pressing need to add about 50 affordable hulls to the roster than to add a dozen and a half heavy combatants. Traditionally – as in the 80s – a CVSG will have one or two air defense ships in close, 2~4 frigates (usually Knox or Perrys) spread out in the outer ring. These serve as both AShM and ASW pickets. The AAW ships in the inner ring has enough high altitude air defense coverage for the picket ships, but each ship is responsible for its own point defense against sea skimmers that get through. With an all destroyer naval – which is where we are headed without a proper Perry replacement – you can’t afford that. A few closer in AAW ships and helos off the carrier simply isn’t as effective. Moreover, the USN does a lot of merchantile escort and interdiction mission in relatively low intensity environments. This is the kind of mission the Stark was on it was hit, and what the Cole was on when they got into trouble. You really don’t need, or want to, expose a 300 man, $1.8 billion vessel with 96~120 missiles for that. The LCS doesn’t really cut it either. What you need is a Frigate.

      Finally, we have to also ask ourselves which kind of vessel can really benefit from an all new design (presumably with significantly enhanced LO technology)? Is it the big DDG or CG next to the CGN? Or is it the picket ship further out or traversing the straights of Hormuz with a tanker or two? I mean they are going to see that carrier group as a whole whether or not the escorting ship(s) have an RCS of a fishing boat. On the other hand a stealthy picket beyond the horizon of the battle group’s core can pick off AShMs and Subs, while being more survivable out on their own.

    3. As far as supplying allies, this is both to our advantage strategically and industrially. Aussies bought Perrys. Taiwanese bought Perrys. In recent years many allies – Singapore, Israel, Taiwan, Australia, are looking to or have purchases European hulls. We want any want who doesn’t build their own to buy American not European – or at least have the competitive option to buy American. This is not a patriotic thing. It is a practical matter of increasing run rates for our shipyards which reduces the unit cost of our ships. The way the US defense industry works is that we will basically pay what it costs to keep the industry employed and at a certain capacity, this is regardless of whether we use that capacity to the fullest or not. Most of it is fixed costs. Buiding 2 burkes may cost you $3.6 billion. Build three may only cost 4.0 billion. We are going to pay to keep Bath, Ingalls and Newport News open and the skilled workforce on payroll not matter what. Right now you are going to the table with say Singapore and you are going to have Burkes to sell. They don’t want a Burke, they don’t need a Burke, they can’t park a Burke and they can’t afford a Burke. They ended up buying a Lafayette derivative from the French. So we end up with no exports and high sticker prices on our ships. There is a market for about 12~24 Frigates with allies in the next decade and a half we want to sell to. That’s a 50% increase in run rate for a Frigate program. A CG program does not enjoy that secondary benefit.

      Anyhow, you may want to check this out… This is five years old and specs are a little out of date, but I actually modeled the FFG-500…

    4. Dwight, we're a little off topic, here. The post was about why the Navy opted not to build frigates and instead went with the LCS but that's OK. You're making interesting points.

      You make good points about the need for lots of low end ships versus fewer high end ones. You won't get any argument from me!

      Thanks for commenting!

      Your conclusion that the low end ships would benefit from stealth more than high end ships which are going to be "found" as part of the carrier group seems appealing on the face of it. However, stealth is not just about not being detected - it's also about not being easy to lock on to with a missile during an attack. Any ship can be found and you're right that it's hard to hide an entire carrier group when the carrier itself is not very stealthy. However, during an attack, if the Burkes are hard to lock on to, they'll avoid damage easier. Of course, if attacking missiles can't see the escorts that may just mean more of them will go after the carrier! Regardless, the use of stealth to protect multi-billion dollar Burkes seems a pretty good investment! Coldly, I'd rather lose a low end ships than a high end one. Having said all that, I don't think anyone needs to choose when it comes to stealth. For ships, stealth is mainly a matter of hull/superstructure shape and there's not a huge cost to slant the sides of the ship.

      Good point about keeping the shipyards in business. If we did do a frigate, why not make it a ship that would have broad appeal to other countries? I agree.

  9. The problem with the LCS program is not the LCS. It is the program.

    The LCS is supposed to be a $220 million helo platform with a 57mm gun, a CIWS and space to carry optional equipment as needed. It’s a large, fast, oversized gun boat capable of overseas deployment. Most missile corvettes are more heavily armed. But, that’s all well and good if it is indeed a $220 million large patrol craft capable of over blue water deployments to troubled littorals.

    The problem is that it turned out to be a $650 million Frigate without Frigate armament or sensors. If anything the US Navy buys could have been done on a firm fixed price contract, the LCS could and should. It wasn’t and that was the problem.

  10. Ticos are cruisers for land & sea strike and AA, Burkes are destroyers for A/Sub and AA and Firgates are small & cheap destroyers for convoy protection and "littoral" warfare. Problem solved.

    1. Anon, you lost me there. What problem was solved? I missed your point - maybe try again?

    2. In my navy, the LCS (and the LCS-frigate) would be a modern multi-mission corvette, not unlike the Kamorta and Khareef classes. These are essentially 3000 ton, semi-stealthy mini-frigates, armed to the gills for ASW, AAW and surface-surface warfare, capable of operating in offensive and defensive roles inshore and on the high seas. Sure they might require larger crews than and LCS to operate effectively, but so what? This goes with a multi-mission capability. With ships such as these, why build any frigates, when you already have DDGs?

  11. Why not just take the Freedom-class, give it torpedoes, a 16-cell Mk41 VLS, 8 Harpoons, and the necessary sensors?

    1. This question has been answered a hundred times over throughout this blog. You need to read through the archives and absorb the wisdom contained therein. It will save you from asking repeat questions and greatly broaden your knowledge!