From Frigate to Mothership Pt 1
Look closely at those cost estimates. Plug the first FFG-7 cost estimate into an inflation calculator and the result is $230 million–almost exactly the same amount of money the Navy first programmed for the LCS.
Shove that final 1977 FFG-7 cost estimate of $168 million into an inflation calculator, and the end result is $595 million in 2009 dollars. Today, the LCS-3 and 4 cost $548.8 million and $547.7 million respectively. If one of the two LCS designs functions as advertised–and are hiding no major flaws–then we’ve got a pretty interesting higher-end FFG-7-like replacement platform.
FFG-7: The LCS of the Seventies! by Craig Hooper
The Failed Frigate/Patrol Boat Combo
Here the above author makes a worthy stab at silencing the critics of the half-billion dollar plus littoral combat ship (LCS), a decade in the waiting, probably another decade entering service in quantity. Meanwhile the well worn Perry FFG , product of the post-Vietnam 600 ship Navy will continue to serve on, as patrol ships and light escorts, performing the sea control duties once managed by vast numbers of small destroyer escorts, frigates, and corvettes of Western navies. What has happened to the frigate numbers which historically were the backbone of the Navy? Part of the problem is the trend in general purpose warships to make them large and more multipurpose, a “swiss army knife” of ships. While this may be a natural progress of the design, it fails to take in account the tyranny of numbers, and even more important, small warships required to deal with agile threats in shallow seas.
The frigate is transforming into the mothership we need, which can spread capability among low capable ships in a squadron. The LCS is a failed attempt to have both in a single package, and herein is its ultimate flaw: not cost, untried technology, or faulty construction as bad as all these are, but the continued confusion of roles within the Navy, which tries to get too much work out of too few hulls. The failure to build enough hulls is suicide to a global fleet. Breaking down the multimission platform, specifically the frigate and the LCS hybrid into more usable, flexible components will answer several ongoing issues of post-war design:
- Increasing complexity of platforms.
- The extreme rise in cost.
- Reduced numbers and declining presence of Western navies world-wide.
The multimission platform is the source of our problems, not the final answer. We have plenty of capability in the fleet, such as aviation ships, missile ships, advanced radar, but too few platforms to properly take advantage of our assets. In other words, we overcompensate with quality and neglect the quantity side, hulls in the water being like boots on the ground for an army. I often accuse the navy of an “all-battleship” mindset, but more accurately they have an all-mothership fleet, where capabilities are concentrated, and thus wasted into too few platforms.
The Vanishing Workhorse
Here are some proposed new frigates designs which will take the place of the low end escorts from the last century:
- British Future Surface Combatant-The Royal Navy plans a series of vessels to replace the Type 22 and Type 23 frigates. These are currently in preliminary design stages dubbed C-1, C-2, and C-3. The C-2 design Versatile Surface Combatant has been the most talked about lately and may be built on a Type 45 destroyer hull, with tonnage up to 6000 tons. It has been compared to the LCS which bodes ominously for the Navy that needs many “cheap and cheerful” frigates instead of only a few giant ones. Cost has been estimated from $700 million US to $1 billion each.
- Danish Absalon class Command & Support Ship-A 6300 ton frigate type is an intriguing design whose cost has been quoted from $200 million to $440 million each. Really a bargain except suffering from the same mindset, like the LCS that you can replace many ships with a single large multi-purpose ship, and the Absalon is extremely that! However, if the ship might be looked on for their “command and support” role, much use can be garnered from the design.
- USCG Bertholf National Security Cutter-The NSC is often touted as an LCS alternative, not because of any reduction in cost but because it is more of a traditional frigate design. The ship has been plagued with design defects and cost overruns, pricing at $641 million. Other than being a slightly large ship, perhaps better looking, the Bertholf offers few advantages and no increase in ship numbers.
All of these, like the LCS bring much more capability to an already very able fleet, howbeit capability that is concentrated in fewer packages. In other words, none halt the decline in ship numbers, and perhaps will contribute to it. The fleet shrinks, while the Navy insist these ships can take up the slack because of their special attributes. Except all evidence shows that numbers count, the ancient Perry’s kept in service long past their prime pointing to this. Also, recently we see a massed naval surge descend on the earthquake devastated island of Haiti for disaster relief, proof that problems of seapower are varied and often come unexpectedly. A small navy, no matter how capable becomes stretched and strained, their crews driven to the breaking point.
Despite the threats from Piracy and Insurgent Smugglers, the ongoing War on Terror, the US Navy has entered a new decade unremarkably less different. For the first time in her long history, the Navy has left a period of sustained warfare smaller than when she entered. Slightly over 300 in the year 2000, now as we join 2010 she falls some 20 ships less than this. And by all accounts this appears to be a trend rather than the exception.
Returning to Craig Hooper’s statement on the similarities between the LCS costs and the FFG-7, inadvertently he has stumbled on the problem. Instead of condoning further purchases of the much criticized LCS program, the writer has condemned the frigate and vessels of its type to the exquisite “battleship” category which we now place high end cruisers, destroyers, aircraft carriers, attack submarines, and amphibious ships, or every USN warship currently under procurement. So if even the Low end general purpose frigate can’t solve the problem of increasing ship numbers, what is the answer?
Tomorrow-How to get numbers back up.