Here’s an interesting article from USNI wherein the author proposed to have a common frigate design available for the US Navy and all its allies in Europe and the Pacific, which may include the Philippines. The proposal is good but it has to consider a lot of factors including cooperation of allies who might be concerned of its effects in their shipbuilding and defense industries.
Can a Common NATO-Pacific Frigate be Built? One Ship to Rule Them All
U.S. allies and partners have no interest in acquiring the littoral combat ship (LCS). That has been made clear over the past decade years. The jury is now out on whether they will have an interest in procuring the small surface combatant/frigate (SSC/FF). The odds are that they will not—for a number of logical reasons that, perhaps until recently, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) leadership has not recognized or acknowledged. The result of this situation is that DoD has essentially given up on a significant (although under-discussed) goal of the “thousand ship navy” or global maritime partnership vision: a high level of interoperability with newer allies and nontraditional maritime partners. The highest level of interoperability occurs when allies and partners use the same platforms and systems.
If DoD is interested in working toward a common design frigate that would bring the highest level of cooperation and interoperability with allies and partners, it has to take a cold, hard look at LCS/SSC and acknowledge why other navies are disinterested in the vessel, and what frigate design could serve both their requirements and ours.
What is wrong with LCS/SSC/FF that makes it unacceptable as a common program for allies/partners? From the start, it had no desirable weapons; and permanently, it “has no legs” (to use a sports metaphor) and is not optimized for operations at sea–sea control operations. It was designed for missions other navies perceive they can do with much cheaper, specialized platforms. Allies/partners do not intend to fight in another country’s littoral, and have other methods of protecting their own, such as land-based aircraft. They rely on cheaper platforms to conduct counter-mine warfare (and mining). If they are going to spend serious money, they want to go to sea. And that requires a classically-designed, multi-purpose frigate. “Up-gunning” a less-than-optimal design does not make an expensive warship ($600 million plus) desirable.
Why a Common Design?
For the DoD acquisition community, the advantage of procuring a warship that satisfies the requirements of other nations is that it achieves economies of scale. Simply put, if other nations procure the same warship as the United States, the individual unit cost to the U.S. Navy is lower, thereby allowing DoD to acquire most warships or save money for the purchase of other systems. While that seems “mercenary” on the surface, the advantage to the allied or partner nations is that they too can save money since they do not have to pay for the design and analysis of the vessel or weapons, software, systems integration, or necessary engineering on their own. The costs of modern warship engineering far exceed that of “bending steel” in construction.
More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that common systems allow for a streamlined logistics chain of weapon reloads, standardized repair parts, and other vital supplies that are required to sustain operations. Logistics is often the Achilles’ heel of military forces. With its extensive, globally-capable logistics capabilities—from underway replenishment ships and long-range air transport–the U.S. Navy is able to keep its ships supplied with stores, spare parts and maintenance equipment.
For operations, strategy and policy, the advantage is a potential level of interoperability within a multinational fleet far beyond that which could be achieved through a patchwork quilt of systems brought by a “coalition of the willing.” During the Cold War, that was always a critical goal of NATO. Since defense spending is ultimately an insurance policy intended to deter war, leveraging a combined effort obviously enhances deterrence, as well as tightens the positive diplomatic bonds and trust between the participants. Combined efforts are made credible by strong interoperability and the trust and commitment that flow from it.
Why a Frigate?
For most navies, the desired characteristic for a modern warship is to be multipurpose and capable of conducting missions in as broad a range of the spectrum of (possible) conflict as possible at sea. Survivability also is a key characteristic. For combat, multipurpose means the ability to deal with threats in more than one medium or domain. Most nations require multipurpose combatants because they cannot afford a fleet large enough to contain enough special-purpose ships to span a significant portion of the spectrum of conflict at sea. Multipurpose also provides flexibility for non-combat missions.
The second most-desirable is “deployability,” which does not necessarily mean global range, but is used here to describe a combination of ocean-going sea-keeping, sustainability for a month or more at sea, and the capacity to deploy out-of-area or throughout a regional sea if required. These capabilities require a vessel larger than a coastal or offshore patrol craft (the larger versions of the latter approximate corvette size), and need to support a crew in the 200 personnel range. It is the size of the crew that determines operational sustainable, and despite the desire of high income nations to keep personnel costs down, the number of watch standers, technicians, and supply and service personnel must be sufficient to break the shore tether. Once its mission modules evolve beyond the initial (limited) stage, the greatest limit to the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) will be its small complement, which is one of the reasons why–up until recently–it was never described as a frigate.
Experience appears to indicate that ships in the 4,000-6,000 tons displacement range, considered standard size for frigates internationally, provide the necessary size for a range of systems to perform multi-medium and domain operations. At around 3,500 tons, both version of LCS are lower and are not designed for simultaneous multi-domain operations. Both Norway and Spain have been able to integrate the Aegis combat system into frigate-size hulls (with around 5,200 tons and 5,700 tons displacement, respectively) which—with Aegis—represent the “high end” of frigate combat capabilities. On the other end, the MEKO program (varying displacement) advertises modular construction that can support a stripped-down version that could be upgraded at a later date. Foreign navies have enthusiastically requested and operating the most recently decommissioned Oliver Hazard Perry-class FFGs (4200 tons) even if they received stripped-down versions—no missile launcher. The key is again, deployability.
Without deployability, system interoperability between navies starts to become moot. There can certainly be a level of necessary interoperability between coastal patrol-type craft and sea-going, deployable ships of foreign navies. The coastal craft can provide protection for the larger vessels against small, swarming attackers. Likewise they can provide surveillance and tactical intelligence information in the coastal region. But they generally cannot provide the detailed C4ISR of a multi-purpose, deployable vessel of greater size. For combat, fast attack craft are optimized for fast anti-ship or anti-shore attack, not mutual support in multiple mediums.
Frigates are usually the largest warships operated by smaller sea-going navies. They have an international status (and history) that makes symbol of midrange seapower. That is why a common warship of frigate size would appear to be the best vessel with which to attempt a large ship-class international acquisition program.
Not an Impossible Goal
There have been and currently are ship classes in which individual warships are owned and operated by a number of countries. In the category of ships decommissioned and transferred by a “great power” navy, the Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided-missile frigate (FFG) has the most operators with nine navies (including the final U.S. Navy units). Oliver Hazard Perry-class ships were originally built by Australia, Spain, and Taiwan, as well. Of the FFG-7 Oliver Hazard Perry-class, 71 were built for the United Sttes and her allies and partners. The earlier FF-1052 Knox-class was operated by six nations following their decommissioning, with five units of a modified version originally built by the Spanish Navy. Fifty-one Knox class were built. Among ships still under construction, the Blohm+Voss/ThyssenKrupp Marine-built Mehzweck-Kombination (MEKO) A200-series frigates sail in eight navies, with more nations purchasing other type MEKO ships of differing size and tonnage.
However, there has never been one ship design common to the all of NATO or its extended Pacific allies (de facto allies by virtue of treaties with the United States). The issues of (1) national work share, (2) cost share, (3) weapon systems selection, and (4) mission specialization might appear near-insurmountable stumbling blocks to such a huge common ship program. Yet, they are not insurmountable—as can be seen from the previous examples—and the advantages could be huge and are certainly worthy of examination.
Resolving the Stumbling (Keel) Blocks
Why would nations interested in improving their navies not want to participate in a large-class common program? Let’s look at the four issues in more detail.
First is that all nations want to preserve and create jobs for their own citizens. Opting to have ships built by other nations may be necessary if there is no or limited domestic warship-building infrastructure. But such a decision is made with reluctance—particularly if the defense budget is not overflowing with capital. If participating in a multinational program, the participating governments will want a share of the work for their own domestic industries. Work share is (naturally) difficult to negotiate, as we have seen for such programs as the F-35 fighter. In the case of the F-35, however, the fact that a number of the participating defense industry companies have European/Canadian/Australian partners or subsidiaries helps to smooth the negotiations.
A way to mitigate the work share issue could be to design the multinational warship program so that ship construction could be modular or rely on domestic capabilities where available. Those nations with advanced shipbuilding capabilities could build to a common design. If a modular design, other nations could built the modular sections within their capabilities, with the modules shipped to a common construction locations. Obviously transport costs would be involved, but they might be mitigated by lower domestic labor costs.
With multiple nations contributing resources (and possibly modules), the issue of overall cost share for the program must also be resolved. Overall cost share would include research and development (R&D) costs, administrative costs and other overhead, and the establishment of a supply-chain and maintenance infrastructure. Should participating nations share these costs equally? Should the costs be pro-rated on a per unit basis? Should the wealthier or larger nations subsidize much of the cost share for the less-wealthy or smaller nations?
It might make sense for the wealthier/larger participants to accept a greater portion of the cost sharing. This is as much logic as altruism. The lower the “entry costs,” the higher is the possibility that more nations would participate. The more nations that participate, the lower the per-unit cost and there is a greater probability of weapon systems sales to equip the ship (which in turn could result in lower per-unit costs for the systems). Additionally, many of the larger nations already provide military assistance in the form of foreign military financing (FMF) and direct grants. Reduced “entry costs” could simply become part of the existing assistance.
The issue of which weapon systems are selected for installation could also be a contention issue among those nations (and companies) that produce competing systems. As a solution, there could be a certain degree of choice among options. Even for wealthier navies, compromises in the system may be necessary to keep the ship size within budget and maintain suitable sea-keeping characteristics.) Perhaps that might spur new innovation and commercial development as companies seek to adapt their products to the common hull. In any event, modularity should be able to provide options for launchers, guns, radars, and other sensors within the framework of an interoperable platform.
Can the LCS/SSC Somehow Do the Job?
As much as the U.S. Navy would want the LCS/SSC to morph into a common multinational frigate—which would certainly reduce per-unit costs–that event remains unlikely unless the small surface combatant/frigate version is redesigned for at sea sustainability. LCS has yet to acquire a single international customer after 15 years, and periodic rumors of foreign interest have been largely exaggerated.
Initially, the lack of interest lay in the choice of mission modules. At one early NAVSEA briefing, a foreign admiral asked when an “anti-air (AAW) warfare” module would be designed. When the briefer pointed out that the U.S. Navy had no intension of going beyond the mine countermeasures (MCM), littoral antisubmarine warfare (ASW) and surface warfare (SUW)/VBSS modules, the admiral politely explained that his navy could perform those three missions cheaper and more effectively using existing specialized vessels. LCS simply does not provide capabilities other nations want–at least not at the current price. Additionally, with a crew size of 70–90, LCS cannot support long deployments. In contrast, the stated complement of the MEKO A200 frigate is 220 personnel. The international consensus seems to be that, at $600 million per ship (plus additional cost for mission modules); LCS does not deliver the multi-mission capability, firepower or deployability expected in a frigate. LCS original cost estimate was $220 million, which might invite foreign sales, but that production price was always unrealistic.
Will the small surface combatant/frigate version of LCS satisfy international requirements? Plans are to “up-gun” the SSC version with over-the-horizon surface warfare and antisubmarine warfare (ASW) capabilities such as an anti-ship missile follow-on to Harpoon and permanent towed-array sonar. However, these plans do not seem to resolve the deployability issue, or provide more than a point defense AAW capability. To become frigate-like, SSC gives up the “mission modularity” of the LCS, but does not gain the construction modularity options claimed for the MEKO.
Toward an International Frigate Program
As noted, the weakness in the MEKO program is that it is not operated by the world’s largest navy with the world most extensive and effective defense industrial base and supply chain. To paraphrase a financial statement, it does not bear the “full faith and confidence of the U.S. government,” which—whatever criticism it may bring—remains the linchpin of all western and eastern alliances. MEKO and similar existing efforts can never produce the large ship-class cost savings of a U.S.-backed common international frigate consortium program. Unfortunately, the LCS/SSC/FF program remains even more the “square plug in the round hole,” a phrase once used by critics of the Oliver Hazard Perry-class FFGs.
If the U.S. want to achieve the full promise of an interoperable “1,000-ship navy” in which allied and partner nations can provide capabilities that can complement and occasional substitute for U.S. naval forces, it should consider initiating a long-term, construction-modular and multi-purpose/deployable frigate program based on requirement generated by an international consortium. This must be a clear-deck, “blank page” effort; LCS/SSC/FF will not fill this bill. (Actually, U.S. defense industry has already looked at alternative options—so perhaps it will not have to be a long “blank page” process.) The ultimate design needs to be one in which construction can be shared by multiple nations through section modularity or simply by working to a common plan. It must also be modular enough so that nations with limited budgets and focused mission can buy “enough” of the ship for their purposes, but still be able to upgrade at a later date. Even if the hull does not generate unit-cost savings for the United States combat and weapons systems and ordnance should.
At minimum, the design of the international frigate should be optimized for the two mission area capabilities that allies and partners want most in a major warship: fleet air defense/antiair warfare (AD/AAW) and passive and active sonar-based anti-submarine warfare (ASW).
Such an international program could be (and properly should be) structured as a cooperative effort between U.S. and foreign defense companies working from a single set of plans that includes configuration options. Encouraging such close industry cooperation goes against the current acquisition approach of maximizing competition in order to drive down costs. The reason that approach would not necessarily fit a common international frigate program is, again, the issue of work share. Each participant would be very keen on supporting its own domestic defense industries, and would likely not countenance a winner-take-all approach. The negotiations between the commercial companies would be as involved as those between the nations, however, they would require less ratification and thereby might be swifter. Critics might charge that close cooperation between companies will result in price collusion or fixing, something the program managers must be aware. Perhaps it would be a true test of “should cost” calculations.
An even wilder suggestion is that United States/NATO could consider a commitment to purchase a certain number of ships and lease them to members or partner states (along with appropriate maintenance packages and availabilities). Lease-to-own agreements might be possible with guaranteed periodic upgrades. Such arrangements for new construction may seem implausible, but have been used for military aircraft. It has also been used for EDA.
Even before initiating a new design project, there are steps DoD the U.S. Navy can take now to work toward a common platform. The first step is to admit that foreign sales of LCS/SSC/FF are a very unlikely prospect. If we want high international interoperability, we need to look elsewhere.
Secondly, we should begin discussions at the Naval Services level at existing forums such as the International Seapower Symposium. It will take time to “socialize” the idea of a truly international frigate program; the place to start is with allied and partner naval professionals identifying the requirements. Once we have a good view of common requirements, the issue of work and cost share can be discussed in general terms. Funding for the preliminary design must then be identified, perhaps as part of DoD’s existing security cooperation efforts.
The third is to analyze and wargame the comparison between LCS/SSC/FF and a “classically-designed” international frigate. Like the ISS, the Naval War College can complete this task with existing assets.
Interoperability is best achieved through common systems and platforms. With a continuing focus on a Cooperative Strategy and international partners, now would be a good time to examine if one common frigate can serve them all.
By By Dr. Sam Tangredi https://blog.usni.org/?p=25803