5 things you should know about the US Navy’s new frigate

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WASHINGTON – The Navy selected Fincantieri’s FREMM design for its next generation frigate, but as with most new platforms it will be a long time before the first ship hits the fleet.

The contract awarded May 30 is for up to 10 hulls constructed at Fincantieri’s Marinette Marine shipyard in Wisconsin. The Navy intends to buy at least 20 frigates.

Here’s what we know about what the years ahead will hold.

1) The price tag. According to Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition James Geurts, the first hull will cost $1.281 billion, which includes the design money for both the ship and for the work needed at the shipyard to set up a production line. It also includes all the government furnished equipment, including things such as the Raytheon AN/SPY-6-derivative radar and Lockheed’s Aegis Combat System.

Of that $1.281 billion, $795 million will go to the shipyard.

The next hulls in the buy should cost significantly less. The Navy is aiming for a price tag of $800 million in 2018 dollars, with the threshold at $950 million. But Geurts thinks he can beat both numbers. An independent cost estimate found the follow-on hulls should cost in the neighborhood of $781 million if all 20 are built.

“The study shows this ship as selected and the program as designed delivering underneath our objective cost per platform,” Geurts said on a May 30 phone call with reporters.

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2) The timeline. Detailed design of FFG(X) starts right away, Geurts said, and construction will start no later than April 2022. The first ship should deliver in 2026 and should be operational by 2030, with final operational capability declared by 2032, Geurts said.

The contract should be wrapped up, all 10 hulls, by 2035. The intention is to buy 20 hulls, though it’s unclear if Marinette will build al 20 or if the Navy will identify a second source.

Sailors stand watch on the bridge of the Italian FREMM Alpino, the parent design for the US Navy’s new FFG(X), underway off the Eastern Seaboard in May 2018. (Staff photo by David B. Larter)

3) What could go wrong? The Navy feels like it did a lot to try and not mess this ship up, which it could be argued is important given a not-so-hot track record with programs lately. Improving the Navy’s performance on lead ships, in the wake of the Ford-class debacle, has been a focus of Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma.

Among the steps the Navy took to retire risk with FFG(X) was to adapt many of the mature systems being designed for the Flight III DDG program, including the latest version of the Aegis Combat System and a scaled-down version of the AN/SPY-6 radar destined for Flight III.

“Some of those efforts are still maturing, such as SPY-6, but from my standpoint I’m very comfortable with how that’s proceeding,” said Rear Adm. Casey Moton, Program Executive Officer, Unmanned and Small Combatants.

Bringing industry to the process earlier will also help reduce risk in the lead ship, Moton said.

“In general, even before the solicitation went out, the fact that we had industry involved in the conceptual design phase, they were there with us in the requirements, they understood the specifications, we worked with them on cost reduction: Many of the things that tend to trip up lead ships we took proactive steps to reduce the risk there.”

4) Room to grow. The Navy weighed heavily the ability to add new, energy intensive systems on to the ship later in their calculus in selecting FREMM for their FFG(X), according to Navy officials.

During the competition, Fincantieri highlighted that they could grow the electrical capacity of the ship fairly easily and that all the major computer and engine gear could be swapped out without cutting a hole in the ship, as is often necessary with current classes in the U.S. Navy’s inventory.

The Italian FREMM Alpino, the parent design for the US Navy’s new FFG(X), pierside in Baltimore. (Staff photo by David B. Larter)

Rick Hunt, a retired Navy three-star now a senior Fincantieri executive, told reporters that his company’s bid was designed to meet the cost specs but give the Navy room to upgrade when it needs to.

“Be flexible in what you do right now, surge to more capacity as soon as we get that [requirement] and be able to grow the ship in lot changes should you need something even greater in the future,” Hunt said.

Vice Admiral Jim Kilby, the Navy’s top requirements officer, said growth will be important in Navy designs going forward as it seeks to move away from combating missiles with other missiles.

“Understanding how fast the threat is advancing made the service-life allowance so important for us,” Kilby said May 30. “We didn’t want define discretely where we are going in the future so having some margin to include things like directed energy and other systems, that’s why it was so important.

“We have an extensive laser [science and technology] program in the Navy, we have lasers on some of our ships now, we definitely view it as a requirement for the future as we move into a realm where our launchers are reserved for offensive weapons, and our point defense systems are these rechargeable magazines that we can sustain for long periods of time.”

5) Lessons learned. The Navy acquisitions boss feels good about the process that produced the FFG(X) award and thinks it can be a model for other programs.

“FFG(X) represents an evolution in the Navy’s requirements and acquisition approach, which allowed the acquisition planning, requirements and technical communities along with the shipbuilders to develop requirements for the platform ahead of the release of the detailed design and construction request for proposal.

“By integrating the requirements, acquisition planning and design phases we were able to reduce the span time by nearly six years as compared to traditional platforms. All this was done with an intense focus on cost, acquisition and technical rigor so we got the best value for the warfighter and the taxpayer. It’s the best I’ve seen in the Navy thus far in integrating all the teams together and it’s a model we’re building on for future programs.”

The Italian FREMM Alpino, the parent design for the US Navy’s new FFG(X), underway off the coast of Virginia during its 2018 deployment to the East Coast. (Staff photo by David B. Larter)

But its unclear if a similar approach would work on a clean-sheet new design the same way it worked for FFG(X), which uses already-developed technologies and a parent design.

“Having all the folks in the room early in the process helped move the process along and move it along faster,” said Bryan McGrath, a retired destroyer captain now consultant with The Ferrybridge Group. “The question comes when you consider how applicable duplicating such an effort would be if you were trying to do a clean-sheet design that was incorporating revolutionary technologies, untested technologies, perhaps even undeveloped technologies. That’s a different story.”

The FFG(X) will be a considerable step forward for the Navy in terms of capability, but isn’t exactly a revolutionary platform that may require a different process to arrive at a solution, McGrath said.

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