ComNavOps has often noted that the Navy, as an institution, seems utterly incapable of learning lessons regardless of how painful and obvious those lessons are. For example, concurrency has been proven to be an unmitigated failure time after time and yet it continues to be a cornerstone of Navy acquisition programs ... which continue to fail.
Well, the Navy has managed to semi-learn one semi-lesson and that is to avoid bad press. It would be much, much better if they learned one of the lessons related to warship design, firepower, project management, cost control, requirements creep, or any of a hundred other valuable lessons but they didn’t. The only lesson they’ve learned is to avoid bad press.
How do you avoid bad press, you ask? Well, if you’re the Navy, you make sure that the next ship you build has already been built by someone else, in the past. This both minimizes risk and allows you to blame some other builder/country if things go badly.
Let’s be honest and acknowledge that this approach does reduce the degree of programmatic risk and, therefore, increases the chances for apparent success. Why do I use the qualifier ‘apparent’? Well, it’s because the program won’t be an actual success, even if everything works perfectly - and it won’t! It will be a success only in the sense that it may not generate bad press and be an out and out embarrassment. Well, wait a minute, now. The Fincantieri FREMM frigate that the Navy frigate will be based on is a proven success, isn’t it? So, why wouldn’t the US Navy version also be a success?
Well, consider this … the FREMM design dates back to the early 2000’s, making the design nearly two decades old by now and it will be three decades old, or older, by the time the first few US Navy frigates will enter actual service (scheduled delivery 2026, IOC around 2030 – and schedules always slip). Can a 30+ year old ship design really be called a success?
Consider the issue of stealth. When the FREMM was first designed, it may have been considered stealthy but by today’s standards, its appearance would suggest that it is only marginally stealthy, like the Burke. Is a brand new ship that will become our front line surface combat ship as the Burkes are replaced by unmanned vessels, really a success if it’s only marginally stealthy?
Consider the Navy’s actual needs. This one may be somewhat debatable but ComNavOps has laid out the very clear case that the Navy needs a small, dedicated ASW corvette (or minesweeper or any of a dozen other ship types) far more than a mini-Burke. Is a brand new ship that is, at best, far down the needs list really a success?
Consider cost and performance. We all (except the Navy) know that the frigate is going to cost $1B+ which pushes it into the conceptual ‘half the performance for two thirds the cost’ region. Is that really a success?
Okay, all the above are legitimate reasons why the frigate program can’t be a success no matter how well it manages to avoid bad press but those are not the real reasons why it can’t be a success. The real reason is because the design is already obsolete and fails to deliver the new capabilities that are needed to fight future wars.
We’ve seen that technology – and, hence, future war – has changed radically just in the last few years and has changed even more so over the last three decades that will have elapsed by the time the first frigates enter service. Consider the developments and advances in combat technology since 2000 with the advent of drones, swarms, artificial intelligence, robotics, advanced stealth, advanced stealth detection, advanced multi-sensor guidance systems for missiles, anti-ship ballistic missiles, hypersonic projectiles and missiles, lasers, rail guns, advanced SSK submarines, and many dozens of other technologies. In order to fight a future war with those technologies, either for us or against us or both, we need new ships designed from the start to use, or defend against, those technologies. The FREMM design has none of those capabilities. Why would it? It was designed almost 20 some years ago when those technologies didn’t exist.
Here’s a list of the capabilities that a new ship - any type of new warship - ought to have to fight a future war, based on the threats we can reasonably anticipate:
- UAV - Extensive UAV capability is needed to provide organic surveillance. I’m talking about many dozens of UAVs and the ability to operate at least a couple dozen simultaneously – far beyond the capabilities of any ship today.
- Stealth - Extreme Visby-level stealth to include radar, acoustic, IR, and visible signature reductions. With the proliferation of EO guided imaging missiles, visible signature reduction will be just as important as radar and IR signature reduction.
- Emissions Control – Future ships will need total EMCON capability. Any signal, no matter where in the electromagnetic spectrum, will be a vulnerability and allow the enemy a chance to detect and target the ship. This is not only a communications and radar issue but also a stray radiation issue such as the giant, unshielded motors of EMALs. The ships the Navy is building today are entirely incapable of achieving EMCON and this must change.
- Armor – Long neglected, it has to be recognized that ships will be detected, take hits, and have to keep fighting, unlike the Navy’s recent ship designs that are intended to be abandoned at the first hit (LCS, Light Amphibious Warfare ship, and likely the Zumwalt due to inadequate manning). Advanced armors including, possibly, spaced armor, composite armor, ‘bubble’ armor, reactive armor, flexible armor, and the good old fashioned plate armor must be incorporated. Ships cost far too much and take far too long to build to allow them to be one-hit kills.
- Acoustics – As submarines proliferate, ships need modified hull shaping to lower acoustic signatures.
- Explosive Resilience – Ships need modified hull shaping to enhance underwater explosion survivability (V-shaping to deflect pressure waves; yes, this one needs to be proven and might not work as I anticipate).
- Cyber – Future ships must be as protected from cyber attack as from missile attack. Ships need the ability to totally isolate and defend the cyber realm.
- Propulsion – Industry has made significant advances in propulsion technology. Future ships need podded electric propulsion for enhanced reliability, repairability, efficiency, flexibility, and silence.
- Structure – Ships need totally revised structural design to absorb blasts rather than resist them (see, “Torpedo Lethality Myth”).
- Fire Control – Given that short range (horizon) AAW engagements will be the norm, enhanced radar and fire control is needed to manage the seconds-long engagement windows and the resulting aerial clutter. See, “Cruise Missile Characteristics Related to Detection and Engagement Range” and See, “Anti-Ship Cruise Missile Characteristics – Follow Up”
Unfortunately, due to the obsolete FREMM design and the imposed requirement to use an existing ship design, few, if any, of these attributes can be included in the US Navy design. Rather than building a ship purposely designed and optimized for the anticipated type of future combat, we’re building a nearly obsolete ship out of fear of bad press.
The Navy is using the exact same reasoning to continue building Burkes despite them being nearly obsolete and lacking the room, power, and utilities to even mount the required radar arrays, as well as lacking stealth, armor, etc. We’re intentionally building sub-par Burkes as our future surface combatants not because they represent a good ship design any longer but because they’re a safe public relations build.
So, we see that a truly successful new warship needs to be built to the requirements of future combat, not combat from 20+ years ago but, instead, we’re building to avoid a failure.
We’re not building for success, we’re building for ‘not failure’.
The new frigate will not and, indeed, cannot, be a success. At best, it can be a ‘not failure’.