What does the US Navy have to say about the role of the frigate? From USNI News we get this,
The RFI [frigate program Request For Information from industry] states that one of the FFG(X)’s two main purposes is to “relieve large surface combatants from stressing routine duties during operations other than war.” It goes on to say later that “this ship will reduce demand on high-end cruisers and destroyers that currently conduct [anti-submarine warfare], [surface warfare], and theater security cooperation missions, allowing for an increase of more capable assets to maintain a stabilizing presence in regions where tensions with nations that have highly capable naval forces may exist.” (1)
Unfortunately, this is just a bunch of gibberish that says nothing and doesn’t even mention actual combat use. Total, pointless garbage. As with the LCS, I guess we’re on our own to figure out how to fit the frigate into combat operations. So, why don’t we lead the way and engage in some speculation about frigate use?
In order to assess and ‘fit’ the frigate into the US Navy scheme, we need to recognize and bear in mind a few key aspects and characteristics of the frigate:
- The frigate will be a mini-Burke with 50% of the capability and 60%-70% of the cost (let’s face it, no one believes the Navy’s cost estimate and history guarantees that the cost will be much greater than current estimates!).
- Only 20 will be built.
- The design appears to have a bit of an ASW focus.
- It will carry one helo (MH-60R) and one UAV (MQ-8C).
- The Navy has around 70 Burkes in service.
So, what can we do with a frigate that will be procured in small quantity, is very expensive (likely $1.5B each), and has a bit of an ASW focus?
One of the obvious uses is as part of a surface group escort.
As an escort, frigates would offer almost nothing extra in the way of group AAW defense since we already have more than enough high end, AAW focused Burkes and Ticonderogas with Standard missiles having ranges of hundreds of miles.
What a frigate could offer is extended, outer zone ASW screening. Several frigates, pushed well out along the group’s front and sides could extend the ASW awareness significantly. That would relegate the Burkes to inner zone ASW and their main function which is, of course, AAW. The frigates, with their own self-defense AAW, are capable of surviving when pushed out a bit from the group especially if they remain under the Burke/Ticonderoga Aegis umbrella. Obviously, a concerted, focused attack on an individual frigate would overwhelm it but that’s where the Aegis umbrella comes in.
The limitation of carrying only a single helo for ASW is a problem and a design flaw in an ASW frigate (recall that the Perrys were designed to carry 2x Seahawk helos) but it’s better than nothing and the Burke’s helos could stage through the frigates to supplement the outer helo screen although the response time operating that way would be a problem. What we need is to pair the frigates with a long range, high speed, persistent ASW aircraft like the S-3 Viking. The frigates would provide initial detection and the S-3 would confirm and prosecute. But … we don’t have S-3 Vikings so the frigates and their single helo will have to suffice, if poorly.
Regardless of the helo limitation and lack of an S-3, frigates could effectively extend the ASW screen.
The other obvious use for frigates in war is as convoy escorts. The Perrys were intended to act as escorts for the US-to-Europe resupply convoys in the event of a war with the Soviet Union. Similarly, we will have need of regular convoys from the US to Pearl Harbor, Guam, and whatever other bases we might operate in a China war. In this role, the frigates would be providing limited area AAW protection and ASW coverage.
The limitation in these concepts is numbers. We are only building 20 frigates. A war time carrier group of 3-4 carriers would require around 8 frigates to effectively extend the screen given the vast area that a carrier group occupies. That means that there would only be enough frigates to provide screening for 2 surface groups at a time and, if we use frigates in this role, there won’t be any available for the typical frigate missions of convoy escort and patrols of peripheral combat areas. Again, recall that we had 71 Perrys! The reverse is also true – if we assign frigates to convoy escort, we won’t have any available for surface group escort.
Before we leave the ASW application, let’s also briefly consider what this means for the Burkes. Nominally, the Burkes have ASW capability. In fact, they are the only surface ASW capability we have! Even at that, Burkes rarely train for ASW and are not even remotely proficient at it. If we introduce frigates as our ASW assets, it is only reasonable to believe that Burke ASW training will be further de-emphasized. If we had, say, 70 ASW frigates that might be acceptable. However, with only 20 frigates we can’t depend on just the frigates for ASW. We will still need Burkes to provide ASW and I don’t see our Burke ASW training being able to meet that continued need. It’s a concern and a capability gap due to training issues.
We’ve discussed war uses for a frigate but what about peace?
As far as peacetime uses of the frigate, the Navy has suggested that the frigate will ‘free up’ Burkes for more pressing duties. However, with 70 some Burkes running around, how many more do we need to ‘free up’? Are we short of Burkes somewhere? No, we’re not. As far as the claim that the frigates will ‘relieve’ the Burkes for more pressing duties, we’ve already demonstrated that there’s nothing more pressing for the Burkes to do since we’re following a policy of non-confrontation and appeasement. Further, there’s no significant, practical difference between a $2.5B Burke chasing pirates in a skiff and a $1.5B frigate chasing pirates in a skiff. Both are a colossal waste of time and resources.
What’s more, if we assume the usual peacetime ratio of three ships rotating to keep one deployed, that means that the 20 frigates will only generate 6 deployable ships at any given moment. Six useful frigates. Six. That’s not a lot and it’s certainly not going to ‘relieve’ the Burkes from much of anything.
So, what did this thought exercise tell us? It tells us that a frigate can be an effective ASW escort but the lack of numbers means we have to choose between surface group escort or convoy escort. We don’t have enough numbers to do both. It also tells us that in peacetime the frigates won’t accomplish anything since we have more than enough Burkes and there’s no difference between an expensive Burke and an expensive frigate when it comes to showing the flag, chasing pirates, participating in the many ‘exercises’ with third rate navies, or hanging around during humanitarian assistance and handing out a few meals. A Burke and a frigate are both huge overkills for peacetime work.
Did anyone really think through the balance of costs, numbers, deployable numbers, and missions? In other words, did the Navy develop a Concept of Operations for these frigates to see if they could actually be useful? It doesn’t seem like it. Once again, it seems as if the Navy simply jumped on whatever they thought they could get funding for with no thought, whatsoever, as to how to use them.
Twenty frigates simply aren’t all that useful. I’d much rather have 60 dedicated ASW corvettes.
(1)USNI News website, “Navy Releases Details of New FFG(X) Guided-Missile Frigate Program in Request to Industry”, Megan Eckstein, 10-Jul-2017,https://news.usni.org/2017/07/10/navy-releases-details-of-new-ffgx-guided-missile-frigate-program-in-request-to-industry