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Pulling Frigates from Ghost Fleet Too Expensive, Navy Memo Finds

The guided-missile frigate Kauffman departs Naval Station Norfolk for its final deployment on Jan. 9, 2015. The Kauffman was the last of the class to be decommissioned. Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Laura Hoover/Navy
The guided-missile frigate Kauffman departs Naval Station Norfolk for its final deployment on Jan. 9, 2015. The Kauffman was the last of the class to be decommissioned. Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Laura Hoover/Navy

In the Navy's push to build its fleet to 355 ships as quickly as possible, leaders have publicly discussed the possibility of pulling moldering Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates out of mothballs and revamping them for the current mission.

But an internal memo for the chief of naval operations warns such a move could cost upward of $4 billion and still leave the Navy wanting in terms of capability.

According to the Oct. 6 memo, reviewed by Military.com, restoring the 10 available Perry-class frigates to the fleet would be at best a temporary fix, and could detract from other long-term shipbuilding programs.

Instead, the memo recommended, the Navy should lean into its new frigate acquisition program and continue to modernize the existing fleet. The contents of the memo were first reported by Defense News.

In all, the Navy built 51 Perry-class frigates in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were decommissioned between 1997 and 2015 as newer, more capable platforms entered service.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson first mentioned the possibility of pulling the Navy's old frigates out of limbo in June.

In an address to the Naval War College, he said the service was "taking a hard look" at restoring the Perrys. He acknowledged, however, the challenges inherent in restoring what some have called "the ghetto fleet."

"We've got to be thoughtful about this," he said. " ... 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."

Since Richardson's remarks, other proposals regarding the Perry class have surfaced.

Rep. Rob. Wittman, head of the House Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee, told Military.com on Oct. 17 that he wants to refurbish the ships and transfer them to allied navies.

While the move would not directly contribute to the Navy's fleet size, the Virginia Republican said it would expand the service's network around the world and prove a "helpful force multiplier."

In a September brief with reporters, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer said the ships might be a good fit for drug interdiction missions in the Caribbean, according to a report by USNI News.

Few Navy ships tend to operate in that region of the world; drug interdictions there are typically undertaken now by Coast Guard vessels.

The October memo acknowledges that reality.

"Adding ships to an unfilled mission offers little operational respite to the fleet," it states.

According to the single-page memo, bringing 10 frigates back from the ghost fleet would cost more than $423 million per ship. An additional expenditure of nearly $40 million would be required to re-establish training support for the ships, plus a $4 million annual cost for instructors. Other "unknown costs" are likely, the memo found.

"With obsolete combat systems and aging hulls, these vessels would require significant upgrades to remain warfighting relevant for another decade," the memo states. "Any potential return on investment would be offset by high reactivation and lifecycle costs, a small ship inventory, limited service life, and substantial capability gaps."

And all this work and expense might be for a relatively short-term gain. The memo calculates an additional 10-year service life for the 10 Perry-class frigates. That means the ships would be back in retirement by 2050, when the Navy hopes to realize its 355-ship vision.

"Prioritizing resources toward acquisition of a multi-mission platform such as [the Navy's future frigate program, FFG(X)] and enhanced training and maintenance would increase operational flexibility and lethality across all theaters and missions," the memo's authors write.

The Navy is soliciting design proposals for its new frigate and is expected to pick a design by 2020.

 

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