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From Frigate to Mothership Pt 1

February 1, 2010

The new face of the frigate are multipurpose vessels like the Danish HDMS Absalon (L16).

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:

  1. Increasing complexity of platforms.
  2. The extreme rise in cost.
  3. 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.

Sep. 23, 2002 -- An aerial view of the U.S. Navy guided missile frigate USS Reuben James (FFG 57).

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.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. D. E. Reddick permalink
    February 2, 2010 8:58 pm


    Don’t be so hard about corvettes with Mike. With the proper type of support that may be provided by ‘motherships’ or tenders and backup by well-armed FFGs, then corvettes may prove to be quite useful in places where larger warships shouldn’t venture. I believe that warships such as the Absalom and Iver Huitfeldt classes represent a large portion of what future naval forces will be constituted thereof. But, I also recognize that those larger Command & Support (C&S) and General Purpose (GP) frigate types are likely to need support by smaller vessels in the littoral waters around the globe. Perhaps a tiered array of warships with varying capabilities is what will be needed to control the seas and littoral spaces along the shores of places like Somalia (and nearby nations’ shores such as those of Yemen and Eritrea). Just sayin’…

  2. Scott B. permalink
    February 2, 2010 6:40 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “Scott, you’re winning me on Absalon, in part.”

    You’re getting there, Mike, slowly but inexorably !!!


  3. Scott B. permalink
    February 2, 2010 5:23 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “The point being that the frigate is no longer the low cost escort which we can build numbers, and I reject the modern mindset that capability is a substitute for numbers.”

    In terms of costs, the Danish ABSALON compares pretty well with most of the mythical corvettes that gets so much attention here and there.

    The big massive difference with the mythical corvette is that with the Danish ABSALON you’ll get BOTH numbers AND capabilities.

    IOW : THINK BIG, not small !!!

  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    February 2, 2010 7:18 am

    D.E. Said “don’t forget the three follow-on Danish AAW frigates of the Iver Huitfeldt class”

    You’re right, I am a big fan of just about anything of a Nordic nature. Trying to concentrate on a GP frigate replacement here, or as Leesea calls “Expeditionary frigate”. The point being that the frigate is no longer the low cost escort which we can build numbers, and I reject the modern mindset that capability is a substitute for numbers.

  5. Mike Burleson permalink*
    February 2, 2010 7:10 am

    Methinks they doth protest too much? LOL

  6. leesea permalink
    February 1, 2010 9:15 pm

    Distiller, you hit a Navy nerve with that question about JHSV vs. LCS. goto here:

    PEO ships website is usually two weeks out of date, that comparison made it up in 5 days!

    There are differences for sure but how much significance does different construction rules and weapons and sensor suites make? Bill AMV will tell us that the cat design basically has more payload. Would the trade-off of cargo capacity for mission equipment keep the JHSV in the game. All good quesions, which I bet NO ONE in the Navy is willing to answer!

    To start with they should make the naval versions of JHSV into “Armed Naval Auxiliary” with more self-defense weapons – at least more than my 31 ft PBR had on it! Next would be a naval version of C4SI. That would not take any significant mods to basic MH&E.

  7. leesea permalink
    February 1, 2010 1:03 pm

    I like the term Expeditonary Frigate (ok expeditionary is an overused term~) to describe a warship whose major role is not ASW and whose capabilty set includes lower end missions like MIO, MSO and the necessary boats and helos and UAVs to support those missions. I do not mean how the USN does it today with a couple of smal boats and couple of helos onboard.
    Of course having some flexible spaces built into such a vessel is a good idea along with the necessary weight reserves in the hull’s design

    IOW an Absalon or perhaps an Endurance LST/LPD?

    I remain convinced that coast guard cutters are not the baseline for a warship.

  8. D. E. Reddick permalink
    February 1, 2010 12:59 pm


    I too like the usefulness of the Absalom class. But, don’t forget the three follow-on Danish AAW frigates of the Iver Huitfeldt class. They’re based upon the design of those Absalom command and support ships (a.k.a. “flexible support ships” or “combat support ships”).

    Without additional mission modules the Absalom class carries two Storebro SB90E LCPs, two RHIBs, and two Agusta Westland EH101 Merlin medium helicopters. Those three features provide for a great deal of capability in placing small units and boarding teams in places where they’re needed. HDMS Absalom (L16) is presently the command ship of a NATO task group in the Gulf of Aden operating against Somali pirates. It’s too bad that there are only two ships of the Absalom class in commission. More of them could be of use in many places around the globe.

    Here’s a Danish webpage showing the construction of the newer AAW frigates. Photos one through five show the December 22, 2009 keel-laying of the third ship Niels Juel (F363). In the fifth image the other two ships Iver Huitfeldt (F361) and Peter Willemoes (F362) can be seen in the background. Pairing an Absalom with one these newer Iver Huitfeldt AAW frigates will provide for the core of a task group. Just add some PBs, PCs, and/or OPVs plus small amphibious vessels and you could exert control over a portion of the coastline of a place like Somalia.

    Here’s the homepage for the above:

    Here’s an article from 2008 in Defense Technology International regarding the development and planning for this class of AAW frigates:

    Here are the two Wikipedia pages (with links) for the Iver Huitfeldt and Absalom classes:

  9. Mike Burleson permalink*
    February 1, 2010 12:14 pm

    Distiller-Good point, especially if the excuse for the light armament on LCS is its mainly for the mothership role! Plenty of room in the HSVs and you can buy from 3-5 of them for the price.

    Scott, you’re winning me on Absalon, in part. See tomorrow’s post!

  10. Distiller permalink
    February 1, 2010 10:05 am

    The answer is a question: What keeps the JHSV hull from doing the LCS job?

  11. Scott B. permalink
    February 1, 2010 9:40 am

    Mike Burleson said : “So if even the Low end general purpose frigate can’t solve the problem of increasing ship numbers, what is the answer?”

    I’ll spell out the answer for you : A-B-S-A-L-O-N !!!

  12. Mike Burleson permalink*
    February 1, 2010 8:29 am

    “talking about the Bertholfs”

    I thought I was the only one who didn’t like these! Very expensive at a time with the USCG is aging and needed more than ever.

    “I think you don’t get around a reasonable minimum of ~170 large vessels for the power projection/battle fleet”

    But because these are so capable, we should be able to do with fewer. The small warships I often propose don’t need to sail in threats areas without battleships, but the same must be said for the high end vessels, which need escorting.

    The large warships create a condition where we can control the seas, but they can’t do this alone. The whole point of this post is to get beyond the idea of the do-it-all-nothing well warship. Capability isn’t the problem, but lack of presence and you only get this with small warships.

  13. Distiller permalink
    February 1, 2010 7:34 am

    I think you don’t get around a reasonable minimum of ~170 large vessels for the power projection/battle fleet (not including SSBNs) – something along the line of 9 CVN, 27 Large Amphibs, 72 Large Escorts and Naval Fire Support Ships, 60 SSN.
    Not included in this setup are the handful of SSK that would be useful for the PacRim theatre, but they’d not be a major cost factor.
    Also no LCS is included, since the major combat systems of the LCS are *offboard* on UxV and MH-60, which could be based on *any* of the above major units.

    For the global Patrol & Presence duties the Navy needs ~60 vessels. These don’t have to be capable of major combat operations, as they are more the watch-dogs, the observers. And I changed my thinking here a little: Of course a 3500/4000ts MEKO would be a very good basis, but is there any reason the JHSV hull couldn’t be used?

    Btw, money is not the issue, I think. More mission grabbing.
    If the Navy wouldn’t be so eager to get its hands on (near-)strategic BMD – which is not a Navy job in my mind, a lot of money could be saved.
    And also – despite the unquestioning support for the Corps in the QDR – by taking away fast jet aviation from the Marines.
    Ah! And someone should also reign in the Coast Guard: There is no need for a second Navy – talking about the Bertholfs.


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