McCain Wants to Scrap Navy's Frigate Plan, Open Design Competition

FILE - In this Sept. 15, 2016 file photo, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 15, 2016 file photo, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

The Navy's blueprint for a future frigate is short on capability and long on cost, and it's time to entertain a different design, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said Tuesday.

Speaking on Capitol Hill at the rollout of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments' report on the structure of the future fleet, Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said he wants to open up a new contract competition on the frigate's design, entertaining both U.S. and foreign proposals.

"We've got to look at the challenges we're facing that the littoral combat ship does not address," he said.

Speaking to reporters following the briefing, McCain said he plans to hold hearings in the subcommittee on seapower to discuss the frigate's evolving requirements and how to proceed on the program.

"Very often, the nature of the challenge we face requires us to have more capability," he said. "You look at some of the renewed capability and naval capabilities that both the Russians and the Chinese have. It requires more capable weapons systems."

McCain has been an outspoken critic of the littoral combat ship program, on which the frigate design is based. The current plan has the Navy down-selecting to one of two LCS variants, a trimaran made by Austal USA or a monohull from Lockheed Martin, by 2018. The frigate design is supposed to build in additional survivability features, including a tougher hull and the Nulka missile decoy system and the SEWIP electronic warfare system that come standard on destroyers.

Government watchdogs have been critical of the plan. In 2016, a Government Accountability Office report found the frigate design "will not result in significant improvements in survivability" even with its added features. Another GAO study found the frigate failed to satisfy identified requirements for a small surface combatant, including speed, range and surface warfare capabilities.

McCain said he is hopeful his proposal to open the frigate design to competition will be heard under a new administration and fresh incoming Navy leadership.

"I've known [Defense Secretary Jim Mattis] for 20 years," he said.

A more popular frigate design may also open the door for the Navy to purchase more of the small surface combatants. In December 2015, then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter sent a memo to Navy leadership requiring the service to reduce its planned LCS/frigate buy from 52 ships to 40, with a down-select to one shipbuilder.

The report published by CSBA on Tuesday calls for the Navy to grow to 340 ships, with a total of 71 frigates.

Report co-author Bryan McGrath told the discussion about the number of small surface combatants the Navy needs had to be separated from concerns about the LCS class of ships. A plan put forward by the Senate Armed Services Committee, he said, would work to develop a "proper" frigate while protecting the industrial base by continuing to buy LCSs during the design maturation period.

"The Navy doesn't look askance at small, powerful, resilient surface ships. There is just a question of how do we get to that ship," he said. "LCS was designed to do very discrete things. The world changed around it. We need to change too."

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at@HopeSeck.

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