Many people greeted the announced truncation of the LCS build as the advent of a true frigate. ComNavOps has already gone on record as stating that the Navy won’t build a frigate but will simply build an upgunned version of the LCS – watch, though, they may designate it a “frigate” as a PR move to placate Congress and the LCS critics. That said, what if the Navy did actually build a frigate? Well, here’s a thought on the subject.
Frigates are smaller and lighter built vessels which are, theoretically, cheaper than their full featured, larger cousins such as destroyers and cruisers. As such, they aren’t expected to last as long. A 20-25 year life would be typical as opposed to a 40 year life for a larger ship. This imparts a potentially valuable characteristic to a frigate: it doesn’t need to be built with the long term in mind. Properly recognized and utilized, this characteristic offers the basis for significant cost savings, speed of construction, and flexibility.
If we’re not building for far future threats that we can only barely imagine right now, we can, instead, focus on the immediate threats that are clearly defined. Those threats can be dealt with using currently available technology and existing, proven weapons and systems. In other words, the threats won’t change significantly enough over the life of the frigate to warrant investment in non-existent, what-if technology that will escalate costs, delay construction, and provide only portions of the promised or hoped-for performance.
|Frigates - Inherently Adaptable?|
For example, consider AAW. A frigate, by definition, is not an area AAW platform. It only needs to defend itself and a few nearby ships it might be escorting. While future ballistic missile defense concerns might suggest a need to invest in sophisticated BMD radars and missiles, that threat does not yet exist and won’t for many years. We don’t need to invest in imaginary technology to defeat a non-existent threat for a ship whose lifetime won’t see the threat. We can limit ourselves to existing threats and existing solutions – a much cheaper approach.
Or, consider the current darlings of naval development: lasers and railguns. Oooh my … I got a tingle just typing that! Despite the Navy’s public relations announcements, these weapons are many years, probably decades, away from full functioning versions. For a frigate with a 20-25 year lifespan, there’s no need to build in enormous electrical capacity, cooling capacity, and whatever other structural or utility support they might need. We can save all that money and effort and in 20 years, if the weapons have panned out, we can build new frigates that are designed to support the systems. Plus, we’ll know by then what’s actually needed instead of building in guessed-at capacities that may or may not meet the needs.
We see, then, that the shorter lifespan of a frigate actually offers the potential for greater flexibility and adaptability than a larger warship. If the lifespan is around half that of a larger warship (say 20 years versus 40 years, to illustrate) we can build an entirely new frigate halfway through the lifespan of a larger ship and the new version can be completely adapted to the threats that exist at that time.
If executed correctly, the more limited lifespan of the frigate offers some advantages. The build can be cheaper since we don’t have to worry about far future, non-existent threats and can use off-the-shelf weapons and systems. The ships, as a class, offer a larger degree of flexibility thanks to their shorter lifespans. The use of existing technology should allow a much quicker design to construction timeframe instead of the usual R&D concurrency delays so prevalent today.
Of course, this is all predicated on being able to build a “cheap” frigate with a focused mission and specific, limited capabilities. If we try to build a frigate with all the capabilities of a Burke then it won’t be cheap and it won’t be on-time and we won’t be able to afford to retire them at 20-25 years.
The Navy has an opportunity, now, to adjust the fleet’s size and composition in a more useful and effective direction. Will they? History suggests not. We’ll see.