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Navy frigate fantasies die hard

There's a school of thought that if the Navy had called the littoral combat ship a "light frigate," -- let's say an FFE, and it had started the class with FFE 62, to pick up after the last FFG, the USS Ingraham -- it might have saved itself a world of trouble. Everybody knows what a frigate is, where it fits in the fleet, and what it's supposed to do. Even if you kept the rest of the LCS concept -- the high speed and low endurance; small, dual crews, interchangeable mission equipment, etc. -- naval analysts, lawmakers and normal people wouldn't have had to struggle to understand a new-concept warship. In fact, people might have praised the Navy for planning such a wham-o-dyne replacement for the conventional Oliver Hazard Perry class.

But LCS is a product of its time, and in the "Transformation"-crazy Rumsfeld Pentagon, the Navy needed an amazing, networked, interoperable system family of systems that was going to give commanders game-changing, disruptive warfighting capabilities across the broad spectrum of operations. (Besides, there would always be DD(X) DD 21 DDG 1000 and CG(X) to provide high-end top cover in tomorrow's sea battles.) So after about a decade and around $8 billion, LCS stands out like a leisure suit at a cocktail party -- the product of a bygone era. And people continue to pine for a real frigate.

There was a great discussion thread about this on our Friday links roundup, which included stories about the latest Coast Guard cutter and the start of construction on the fifth LCS, USS Milwaukee. Poster BigRick laid down a case for a gray-hulled National Security Cutter equipped with a full whack of naval armaments, including a bigger main gun, Harpoon missiles, a towed sonar array and other refinements. The "patrol frigate" concept could theoretically accommodate a lot more hardware, and as the CGBlog pointed out last year, the Congressional Budget Office even studied what it might take for the Navy to begin buying them in place of some LCSes.

Here was the breakdown:

In July 2009, the Congressional Budget Office Study did a study that included an upgraded 20 NSCs as an option to 25 of the LCS.

That study suggested that these 20 NSCs be upgraded as follows:

“For approximately $260 million, the Navy could replace the Close-In Weapon System (CIWS) currently used on the national security cutter with the SeaRAM Mk-15 CIWS. Unlike the former system, which consists of a rapid-firing gun designed to engage subsonic antiship missiles at close ranges, the SeaRAM CIWS would incorporate a rolling airframe missile on the same physical space but provide the ship with the ability to engage supersonic antiship cruise missiles out to 5 nautical miles. The SeaRAM system includes its own sensor suite—a Ku band radar and forward-looking infrared imaging system— to detect, track, and destroy incoming missiles.

“An additional layer of antiship missile defense could be provided by installing the Mk-56 vertical launch system with Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles (ESSMs) along with an Mk-9 Tracker/Illuminator system to detect, track, and engage antiship missiles. The ESSM can engage supersonic antiship missiles at a range of nearly 30 nautical miles. Installing 20 sets of a 12-cell launching system (which would carry 24ESSMs)(note, actually 12 cells would allow 48 missiles–Chuck Hill), buying the missiles, and integrating the weapons with the ships would cost about $1.1billion.”

So these upgrades would cost $1.360B/20 ships or $68M/ship

But this wouldn't just be a matter of upgraded weapons and sensors -- one reason Navy officials turned away from the National Security Cutter design was the configuration of its main engine spaces, which aren't designed to be as robust as a warship's in taking damage. Navy destroyers, for example, have their main engines and other key equipment distributed in spaces throughout the hull, so in theory, no one shot can take them all out. Besides, this is the Navy we're talking about here -- much as the Army has to have its own, brand-new Ground Combat Vehicle, admirals have a not-invented-here skepticism. They have deliberately chosen not to opt for a new frigate, and if Congress tried to force them, they could probably find a lot of problems with the national security cutter design, or load it up with so many new "requirements" it would sink before it got off the drawing board.

The bottom line is that for as much sense as a new frigate might make, the Navy is too invested in LCS. Pulling back now would be a huge, expensive admission of defeat. The best-case scenario for frigate backers is the Navy builds its initial run of 20 LCSes, has a change of heart, and decides not to build the planned 35 more. It could instead put the money it planned to spend on its LCSes toward more traditional frigates, although knowing the Navy, there's no telling whether it might opt for the existing NSC design or insist upon drawing up one of its own.

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