New World Threats Prompt Navy to Review Frigate Design

The littoral combat ship USS Independence (LCS 2) steams off the coast of San Diego on Dec. 8, 2016. The Navy's future frigate design is based on the controversial LCS design. Petty Officer 1st Class Ace Rheaume/Navy

A planned $143 million review of the Navy’s future frigate design was prompted by a changing threat environment that will require the ship to complete more missions, top service officials told Congress this week.

The review was included as part of President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget request, released Tuesday.

The money, budget documents say, will allow the Navy to “reassess the capabilities required to ensure the multi-mission frigate paces future threats.” Priorities, according to the request, include maximizing lethality and survivability, particularly in the areas of surface warfare, air warfare through local area defense, and anti-submarine warfare.

The future frigate is set to be based on the controversial littoral combat ship, a platform that saw major cost overruns in its early years and still faces harsh criticism from oversight authorities on survivability and ability to execute its major mission sets.

In April, the Government Accountability Office released a report recommending that Congress delay what had been a planned frigate block buy in 2018 to pursue more information on the ship’s cost and capabilities. In a 2016 report, the GAO noted that the lethality and survivability of the LCS was still unproven, raising questions about investing more in the same design for the frigate.

Acting Navy Secretary Sean Stackley told a panel of the Senate Appropriations Committee in a Wednesday hearing that the service now plans to contract for the frigate in 2020, saying the revision of the initial 2014 plan reflects a changing world.

“Since that time, the security environment, the budget environment, and the industrial base have changed,” he said. “We are refining our requirements to the frigate to increase multi-mission capability and, in view of the additional year required to get to a 2020 contract, we will continue to procure LCSs to maintain the industrial base.”

Funding for just one LCS was included in this year’s budget request, but Navy officials said Wednesday that the workload would be enough for the shipyards when coupled with last year’s three-LCS buy. Currently, two variants of the LCS are made by competing companies: Lockheed Martin/Marinette Marine, and Austal USA.

Stackley said the Navy wants to make sure the LCS and frigate program remain “heel to toe” so that the industrial base will remain financially healthy and able to build the ships.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson called the pace of change in global threats “exponential,” saying the current threat environment will inform the way the Navy rewrites its requirements for the frigate. Tighter budgets, too, mean the service will have to ensure it is getting the best value for its money, he added.

“The way we operate is changing. The way the U.S. Navy operates in terms of networking … this frigate into the larger fleet, executing distributed maritime operations — that has changed as well,” Richardson said. “And so the combination of those three things really necessitated that we go back to the drawing board and make sure we haven’t missed an opportunity to put to sea a ship that will address today’s threats and be modernizing into the future.”

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