In the Navy's full-court press to build its fleet out to the 355 ships that recent service structure assessments demand, one idea that has gained traction among leadership is the possibility of pulling old Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates out of mothballs and readying them for present-day missions.
The head of the House Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee agrees the ships should be refurbished but says he has a better idea for their use: Transfer them to allied nations to improve global defenses and expand the Navy's network of knowledge around the globe.
"I think we could look at and say, 'Are these assets that our allies could use that would be helpful force multipliers for us, because we're going to operate jointly in many of these environments,' " Rep. Rob Wittman, a Republican from Virginia, told Military.com on Tuesday.
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The chief of naval operations, Adm. John Richardson, revealed in June that the Navy is taking a hard look at resurrecting the old frigates, which were built in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and began to be retired in 1997.
"We've got to be thoughtful about this," he said at an address at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. " ... Those are some old ships, and the technology on those ships is old. And in this exponential type of environment, a lot has changed since we last modernized those. So it will be a cost-benefit analysis in terms of how we do that."
Wittman called the idea of repurposing the frigates for the Navy's own use "a little bit of a stretch," but said the service could reap multiple benefits by repairing them and equipping them with current-day technology for allied use.
He suggested several "Pacific nations" would derive significant value from adding a Perry-class frigate to their navy.
"They're a much more modern ship than what a lot of these navies have," Wittman said. "And the good thing about it is, you can do these modernizations here in the United States, so the yardwork's done here."
Of the 51 Perry-class frigates built by the Navy, 12 are listed in the holdings of the Naval Inactive Ship Maintenance Facility, which maintains the service’s "mothball fleets" in Pearl Harbor; Philadelphia; and Bremerton, Washington.
Some of these have already been earmarked as candidates for foreign military sale.
A number of the ships were transferred to international navies, including those of Turkey, Egypt and Pakistan, upon their decommissioning in the U.S. Navy.
In 2014, the House passed a bill, co-sponsored by Wittman, that would sell four Perry-class frigates to Taiwan, and give two more each to Mexico and Thailand. Ultimately, however, the measure died in committee in the Senate.
Expert analysis shows repairing and refurbishing the frigates in inactive reserve would cost under $600 million, Jerry Hendrix, director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security and a retired Navy captain, told Military.com.
In addition to providing valuable shipyard work, Wittman said the project could prove a "force multiplier" for the Navy.
"We can put on board systems that we know will work with our systems, so that if you're in a combat environment, you know that you have the opportunities whether it's Link 16 or other commonalities to make sure those systems work back and forth," Wittman said, referencing a NATO military tactical data exchange network the U.S. military uses on both ships and some aircraft.
He added, "You don't have to give up critical systems technology, but you could have those ships communicate with ours, so if they gather [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] -- if they do a target acquisition -- that information is available to us in that theater. That's another set of eyes, another set of platforms that can really expand our reach."
That makes the plan a "win-win," Wittman said.
Despite stated advantages, Wittman's proposal regarding the frigates would not directly advance the Navy's goal of rapidly growing the fleet from its current 278 deployable ships. And that fact might give some pause.
"I think we've got to get early points on the board with our ship counts," Hendrix said. "And the Perrys give us an option with that. It allows us to add 11 to 13 new ships in our ship count in the next 4 to 6 years. That ship count is a deterring factor with countries like China and Russia on the high seas."