Fit to be a Frigate?

LCS 3One of the most persistent complaints about the Littoral Combatant Ship (LCS) is that it is not fit to replace the retiring Perry class frigates. LCS has been characterized as under-armed in comparison with the Perry class, and not capable of assuming the roles and missions of a frigate. In light of these criticisms it’s useful to examine what constitutes a frigate in the second decade of the 21st century. What sort of frigate does the U.S. Navy need to meet present requirements? Finally, does the LCS, in both its current form, and as envisioned in the frigate upgrade meet those requirements, particularly in armament? The answers may surprise LCS critics who continue to call for a Cold War frigate as the solution for 21st century naval missions.

The definition of the frigate as a naval combatant has been in constant flux since the end of the Second World War. It appeared in the Second World War as a British Royal Navy (RN) classification for an independent antisubmarine warfare vessel. By 1945, the term “frigate” generally meant a ship of 1300-2000 tons; less than 350 feet in length; a speed of less than 25 knots, and an armament focused on antisubmarine weapons.

The U.S. Navy substantively changed the frigate designation after World War 2 with its first generation of purpose-built aircraft carrier escorts. The demise of the Axis surface fleets, the well-established threat from air attack, and the rise of a Soviet Navy based on submarines called for a new, affordable combatant that could meet these challenges. A ship roughly 6000 tons in displacement, a speed comparable to fleet carriers, and capable of mounting significant antiair (AAW) and antisubmarine (ASW) weapons was seen as an ideal cross between the expensive, man-power intensive cruiser and the cheaper, but less capable destroyer class. The new ship was designated first as a “hunter killer” (CL) and later as a “frigate” (DL) with missile armed versions classified as DLG’s. Destroyers, such as the Forrest Sherman class and their missile-armed immediate successors, the Charles Adams class remained general purpose combatants optimized for a variety of roles, but generally less capable than frigates. Smaller combatants optimized for antisubmarine warfare remained labeled as destroyer escorts (DE’s).

This condition persisted until the mid 1970’s. U.S. frigates had approached the size and capabilities of World War 2 cruisers in the California and Virginia class DLGN (nuclear-powered) frigates of 10000 tons and nearly 600 feet in length. The traditional antisubmarine warfare escort had also grown in size and capability. Many of these ships, such as the FF 1052 Knox class were significantly larger than the 1940’s-era ships they were replacing. These changes compelled the U.S. to re-designate a number of its warships in 1975 to better reflect the changes in the frigate classification since 1945, as well as to combat a persistent myth that the U.S. had less cruiser-designated ships than the Soviet Union. The frigates were divided into guided missile cruisers and destroyers based on size and capability. U.S. destroyer escorts were renamed as frigates.

The patrol frigate, later the FFG-7 Oliver Hazard Perry class was the zenith of American Cold War escort design. The Soviet Union was expected to deploy a significant force of subsurface, surface, and aviation platforms to destroy the expected Reforger re-supply convoys crossing the Atlantic to support embattled North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in Western Europe. Unlike previous escort classes, the FFG-7 was designed as a multimission combatant in order to better meet the expanding Soviet threat. It too, like the LCS,  ballooned in cost. According to a January 3, 1979 General Accounting Office (GAO) report, the cost per ship increased from 64.8 million dollars a ship in 1973, to 194 million a copy by 1979.

This general classification system of U.S. surface combatants persisted through the end of the Cold War and the first decade of the 2000’s. After 1991, however, the international definition of the frigate category again began to change. Falling defense budgets across the Western world in the wake of the Cold War’s end compelled many nations to put more capabilities into fewer hulls, often designated as frigates, as a cost savings measure. These ships now occupy a place in many European navies analogous to that of the U.S. Arleigh Burke class DDG as the primary surface warships of those nations’ navies. Japan and South Korea have made similar changes, but have retained the destroyer classification for these larger vessels. Russia maintained the Cold War classification structure throughout most of the last 20 years, but its recent frigates are smaller than their late Cold War cousins. The Chinese Navy has followed the Russian Cold War model and gradually increased the size of its frigates as general patrol and escort ships. Although there remain several descriptions of the frigate type warship, the post-Cold War ship now associated the frigate classification has generally grown into a large and capable surface combatant for many nations.

Does the U.S. Navy need a frigate as defined by these new standards? At the end of their service lives, the Perry class had lost much of their (AAW) and (ASUW) sensors and weapons. Their MK 92 fire control system, MK 13 single arm missile launchers, and medium range Standard Missile (SM-1 MR) systems were largely out of date against the growing antiship cruise missile threat by the turn of the century. They had become the early 21st century equivalent of the late 19th century colonial cruiser, whose chief purpose was to show the flag and conduct low-intensity combat operations.

The U.S. high capability combatant class is well filled by the CG 47, DDG 51 and DDG 1000 class ships. Such a mass of AAW capable ships was not in service when the Perry’s were conceived. While the U.S. Navy requires a replacement for the Perry’s “show the flag” role, there appears to be no requirement for another medium capability convoy escort in the tradition of past U.S. frigate designs. The cruise missile threat is considerable for even high capability warships such as the DDG 51. A supporting frigate similar in size and capability to current European designs could be built, but would provide little in the way of additional capability beyond present ships. It would also not be a cost effective product for low end presence missions. Unlike during the Cold War, no potential U.S. opponent yet deploys a global naval force capable of simultaneously effectively threatening U.S. seaborne communications in multiple geographic locations. The absence of this threat for now obviates the need for 21st century version of the FFG-7. If that threat develops, advances in missile and torpedo technology will require high capacity escorts like the DDG 51 rather than a new FFG-7.

The frigate needed for the present Navy is not another Cold War antisubmarine combatant, or an expensive, but less capable version of the DDG 51. It should instead be a general-purpose warship capable of multiple tasks. It must conduct low threat missions such as counter-piracy and presence operations in order to free the DDG force for offensive and defensive missions in high intensity combat. It should be able to perform escort missions for amphibious and logistics force ships for limited periods in appropriate threat environments. The addition of a surface to surface missile armament should allow the frigate to conduct limited ASUW under the Navy’s emerging concept of distributive lethality. LCS’ endurance is 70% of the FFG-7, but it’s still sufficient for extended operations in comparison with smaller corvettes or missile patrol craft. The LCS baseline platform with 57mm gun, Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM), electronic warfare gear, boats, and large flight deck and hangar is an excellent replacement for the FFG-7 in low threat, presence missions. The ship can accomplish escort and additional warfare missions with the weapons and sensors provided in its warfare modules and frigate upgrade. The ship’s modular design readily accepts additional weapons and associated equipment. The frigate upgrade to the basic LCS hull has been derided as insufficient, but only if a 21st century FFG 7 is the desired product. The modifications envisioned for the LCS-based frigate meet current requirements and definitions for the 21st century frigate the Navy requires.

No would deny the LCS program has suffered significant problems over the course of its history. It introduced multiple new technologies in one platform in order to replace three classes of ship. Problems associated with this effort remain and will likely persist for some time. In spite of these issues, the LCS and its frigate variant represent the best choice for replacing the retiring Perry class frigates in their current role as presence, patrol, and low intensity combat platforms, as well as emerging surface warfare missions. The Navy does not need a 21st century Perry class frigate.

Steve Wills is a retired surface warfare officer and a PhD student in military history at Ohio University. His focus areas are modern U.S. naval and military reorganization efforts and British naval strategy and policy from 1889-1941. He posts here at CIMSEC, sailorbob.com and at informationdissemination.org under the pen name of “Lazarus”.

16 thoughts on “Fit to be a Frigate?”

  1. Nice review of frigate history and your conception of what a US frigate should be. Unfortunately, the USN has not been as clear about their vision or requirements for the SSC/FF. Greg Cox did an excellent job of highlighting this in his Jan USNI article that highlighted the three conflicting visions for this troubled program. If all we want to do is replace the downgraded OHP class, that is a very low bar and we could certainly do that at a far lower price than the SSC/FF version of LCS. The lower range and lower survivability should not be glossed over for a Pacific focused Navy. A modern frigate in most navies as you point out is a larger more lethal and survivable ship with far greater range. Classifying them as lesser DDG’s is true to some extent – they are highly capable, but usually have smaller magazines and guns and they are definitely cheaper. Most of these ships are over 6000 tons, or about 2/3 the size of a DDG – many have built in modularity and growth margins that are better than what the SSC/FF will end up with once the upgrades are bolted in and all the margin is gone. The DDG has virtually no modularity or flexibility as witnessed in the pain and expense of recent upgrade efforts. The definition of a frigate has indeed evolved, and by any objective view, the USN will have one off the weakest on the planet.

    1. I agree the US should be more specific in defining the role of LCS. The decade of the 2000’s was wasted in touting the immature modularity aspects of the program (transformation) at the expense of explaining the class’ strategic and operational missions. Previous classes with controversial armaments (or lack thereof) like the DD 963 and even the FFG 7 at least had reasonably well-defined missions. Despite this, they still came under severe criticism. I agree Dr Cox makes some excellent points. I wish he would have investigated the rising costs of the program with regard to how those immature module technologies slowed the program and contributed to its rising costs.

      I’m still not sure the US needs anything approaching the current European DDG-lite frigate concept. Those ships are more the European equivalent of the DDG 51 rather than a Perry class FFG (or similar medium capability multimission warship). If the DDG 51 is already susceptible to mass ASCM attacks, a new Perry will be even more vulnerable to such actions. It would also be too expensive for the low-end missions that LCS/FF will presumably succeed the Perry’s in conducting.

  2. Commander Will’s evaluation merits consideration by USN planners, and the congressional budget office. More comments from the field are needed to guide the decisions from the Puzzle Palace.

  3. To add to background knowledge for the discussion:

    From NATO STANDARDIZATION AGREEMENT (STANAG) 1166 (Edition 6) STANDARD SHIP DESIGNATOR SYSTEM (to which the US has signed but does not always follow)

    DD – DESTROYER, GENERAL – GENERAL DESIGNATOR FOR DESTROYER TYPE SHIPS. MAJOR SURFACE COMBATANT IN RANGE OF ABOUT 95 TO 140 METRES WHOLE GENERAL MISSION IS TO CONDUCT OPERATIONS WITH STRIKE, ASW AND AMPHIBIOUS FORCES, AND TO PERFORM SCREENING AND CONVOY DUTIES. MAY HAVE HELICOPTERS NOT ESPECIALLY FITTED FOR ASW

    FF – FRIGATE, GENERAL – GENERAL DESIGNATOR FOR FRIGATE. A SURFACE COMBATANT IN SIZE RANGE OF ABOUT 75-150 METRES. GENERALLY HAS LIGHTER SURFACE ARMAMENT THAN DD

  4. the cost per ship increased from 64.8 million dollars a ship in 1973, to 194 million a copy by 1979.

    I think it should be noted that during this timeframe, there was massive inflation, which would account for much of the ballooning cost.

  5. As noted, the French and Italians’ FREMMs are really as lower cost Burkes substitutes and in fact little different from the Type 45 DDs.

    While they were used as carrier escorts, the FFG-7s were never intended for this role. This was historically the fundamental difference in concept between destroyers and frigates. Destroyers were the “high priced spread” with the best sensors and weapons and fast enough to keep up with the carriers. Frigates on the other hand were designed to price to allow adequate numbers.

  6. The US also had frigates during WWII. They got two Canadian built River class frigates and then built 96 similar Tacoma class frigates of which 75 were retained by the USN and manned by the Coast Guard. The rest were transferred.

    Like the LCSs they were named after small US cities (as were gunboats including USS Benicia as late as 1996) so the naming convention does have precedence.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tacoma-class_frigate

  7. I thnik that analysis has one flaw
    ” potential U.S. opponent yet deploys a global naval force capable of simultaneously effectively threatening U.S. seaborne communications in multiple geographic locations.”
    Well it does not meter if in multiple location one or . Even if one location one opponent can block seaways or threaten US fleet war aims could be achieved. Instead of Pathetic LCS US Should for presence mission buy proper Frigate equipped with Anti Air, ASW ans AsW and Land attack mission.US Navy was close to this mission by having BG – 109 with Ship attack capability. US navy needs
    Anti pirate / Ground support ship it is better to have cheap vessel in 20 mm USD range. For Targeting over the horizon use Sats or Tritons or SSKs. Harpoon is pathetic get VLS capable missile with long range with ability to strike land targets as well…

  8. (Editor’s note – edited at Chuck Hill’s request)

    In addition to the influence of the Washington and London Naval Treaties, the way ships were designated may have been strongly influenced by the designations used by Jane’s Fighting Ships. Their influence has diminished. Current typology has become politicized and largely meaningless. Combat Fleets of the World might step in to impose some consistency. A criteria based on full load displacement could bring some relevance back to the names. Referring to surface warships that are not Carriers or Amphibs, a rational system might be:

  9. Ships of 500 or more, but less than 3,000 tons are Corvettes.
    Ships of 3,000 or more, but less than 6,000 tons are Frigates.
    Ships of 6,000 or more, but less than 12,000 tons are Destroyers.
    Ships of 12,000 or more, but less than 24,000 tons are Heavy Cruisers.
    Ships of 24,000 tons or more, are Battle Cruisers.
  10. I know some will question why “heavy cruisers?” The modifier is used because in the broadest sense all these ships are cruisers in that they are ocean going warships capable of independent operation.

    This system would put the LCS at the bottom of the frigate classification

  11. It is understood that the LCS is not simply an upgraded FFG 7, and that earlier surface platforms have begun life perceived as under armed and overly expensive, but head into retirement as beloved warriors. Still, the LCS doesn’t measure up. Why does a 30% drop in endurance get a pass? Will the 8 cell RAM, however effective, empty in the first phase of an engagement? In a cost sensitive world, what is the point in having two entirely separate classes (Freedom and Independence) anyway?

    We are stuck with them, and the upgraded version is welcome. The big aviation deck is a definite plus, but by any other standard they are not a “best choice” unit. Still, if we could turn back time, an ABSALON like vessel would have been a better/cheaper alternative for a 21st century light combatant.

    1. Why should LCS have the same endurance as a Perry? It is a different ship designed for different missions. The US definition of “frigate” need not mirror that of current European usage or Cold War standards. When commissioned, FFG 7 had a missile magazine as large as the DDG 2 and DDG 37 classes and still 2/3 that of the Belknap class CG.

      Agree that perhaps the two designs was too experimental, by why an ABSALON type ship? The Danish Navy has no big deck amphibs, large logistics force ships, or other ships with a 5″ gun. Those ships constitute the Danish Navy’s HADR capability. Why does the USN need to duplicate them? We already possess all of the capabilities they have.

  12. Because endurance is key to fulfilling its mission. It should probably have an even greater endurance than a Perry given planned Pacific and Indian Ocean employment. I am not arguing for mirroring the traditional frigate mission. Nevertheless, the LCS doesn’t favorably compare in any category except the aviation deck. It doesn’t matter whether the ship is involved in a traditional frigate mission, or a 21st century LCS style employment. The threats are largely the same.

    The limited missile magazine capacity will prove to as problematic as assuming that a pair or two of .50 caliber mgs would be adequate for shipboard air defense prior to WWII. Redundancy in the form of an additional mount is also is a check against mechanical failure.

    The ABSALON capabilities read like a the playbook of the LCS mission (local command, small marine force employment, mine warfare, small boat capability for anti piracy/smuggling work, provision for future mission modules). The point of the LCS was to provide a presence where big deck amphibs and DDG 51s would be overkill. The large number of LCS units was also to provide a stopgap until the limited number of larger, more capable units could arrive. How does the ABSALON not fit that bill perfectly?

  13. Comparisons of the LCS vs Oliver Hazard Perry Frigate (FFG-7) is a ludicrous proposition when trying to defend the LCS platform.
    Survivability standards (compartmentalization and water tight integrity) are not on the same scale. The FFG-7 is made to take damage in combat, and provide the resouces and ability to survive should that reality transpire, and it has several times in HiStory. The LCS is not, and when it does take damage it will sink because too small to perform damage control due to lack of manpower, resources, and an unsurvivabale seaframe.
    Frigates have been traditional escorts of other shipping since their inception in HiStory. The LCS is too lightly-armed to assume the responsibility of protecting a charge from an air attack. The LCS can just barely defend itself, and will not survive a sustained multi-sector attack by a determined enemy using ASCMs.
    The term Frigate predates all modern naval warfare. When the United States Navy built its first firgate, it conformed to no one’s limited standards. We led the way with the USS Constitution still in commission today. It was a heavily armed fighter n its day. The redefinition attempts almost always go to European examples that were less expensive and mostly single in purpose. With the advent of modern combat at sea the average surface combatant must be a jack of all trades to survive, less try to rise of real-time challenges that require a specific capability. A HiStorical review is instructional in this case only to demonstrate the flexibility of the frigate hull to meets many tasks based upon shipboard outfit, and real-time tasks at hand. The modern battle space REQUIRES more capability just to survive, and to meet the need as they arise in the rapidly evolving and changing battle, of which you are not in control.
    If the US Navy embraces the concept of F-35B equipped Expeditionary Strike Groups (Marine-centric), or Light Carrier Battle Groups (Navy-centric) then the need for a less expensive yet very capable frigate will be well understood. Insufficient numbers of expensive, capable and valuable DDG-51 Arleigh Burke Destroyers will be available for the task. Half the Aegis Cruisers are being parked for upgrade as a cost saving measure and to stretch out available cruisers hull for another decade. Multiple scenarios will demonstrate the absolute need for a very capable smaller surface combatant. They cannot all be placed at sea at once. Available resources, BMD capable and otherwise, will be pressed into service by necessity, further limiting tasking availability. Future scenarios in the Pacific will look a lot like the Soviet threat of the past, and the tried and true frigate platform will be required to meet those needs.
    The FFG-7 / P-3C ASW team was as important as the new frigate /P-8A team will be is as it grows currently and will expand into in the future. An FFG-7 with tail coupled with its organic ASW helo and P-3C on station can hold down a subsurface contact, and be prepared to deal with that contact, for a near indefinite timeframe, as demonstrated so many times.
    The inevitable reality of austere defense budgets with high dollar technology programs pitted against one onother sucking up funds, will necessitate a low end destroyer in the form of a Small Surface Combatant for less than half the cost of a DDG-51. As with the versatility of the F-35 aviation platform, the new surface combatant tasking must have a floor capability of detecting, tracking, targeting and destroying a Theater Ballistic Missile, Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile, Tactical Ballistic Missile, or supersonic Anti-Ship Cruise Missile to survive in the modern at sea battle space.
    Every US Navy Surface Combatant should have a decent gun. The Naval Gunfire Support Mission that precipitated on the beaches of Normandy was not a one-time apparition. Coming to the aid of our fellow soldiers, sailors, airman and Marines, is something that should always be a given. The 5” gun insures that reality on every vessel on which it is installed. The 5’ foot print will be sufficient space for railgun back-fit when that technology matures.
    “ Unlike during the Cold War, no potential U.S. opponent yet deploys a global naval force capable of simultaneously effectively threatening U.S. seaborne communications in multiple geographic locations.”
    This statement is made in the vacuum devoid of eventual reality. We have a belligerent Pacific neighbor that is already leaning on multiple adjacent countries and consuming resources outside its territorial waters, and they are doing so under the guise of having redefined their territorial waters based upon ancient claims over 400 years old. A Proactive US Navy policing presence is very much needed in that region to counteract the new 10,000 ton Chinese Coast Guard Cutter that will soon be underway patrolling the South China Sea and intimidating its smaller neighbors. The Chinese navy will exceed the US Pacific Fleet combat power in 5 years in surface combatants. We will only lead in aircraft carriers and large amphibious platforms. A requirement of a new frigate with 50% of the DDG-51s capabilities is so obvious a blind man can see it . . . unless you’re in denial.
    Two potential adversaries are expanding their submarine forces. A new frigate with an ASW capability is an absolute, and anyone who doubts this is in denial.
    A multi-warfare surface combatant is required more today than ever before. At 1/3 -1/2 the cost of the DDG-51 Flt III should be the target cost goal. Integrated power systems of greater capacity will facilitate the introduction of the new technologies (Directed Energy and Railgun). This should be a very efficient platform with instant speed available if required, have a decent persistence, and be able to handle whatever task is assigned at the drop of a hat, not have to go back to port for reconfiguration. The LCS’s greatest weakness is it cannot handle any task at hand as they transpire in the field. One of the realities of combat is to be ready for anything at all times. The LCS is specifically designed not to be. NOT a recipe for success in the modern battle space. For this reason alone the LCS is the least advantageous choice for the US Navy’s next prolific surface combatant.
    We either rise to the challenge, or we are just be sending sailors into the meat grinder.

    1. The US Navy will not get the financial resources to develop a Perry replacement. The US Navy has no need of such a platform. When the Perry’s entered service in the 1970’s, their capabilities were similar to that of the older DDG’s (Adams and Coontz). Today, the USN has a mass of highly capable DDG 51’s to handle all of the missions traditionally done by the Perry. The LCS/frigate is capable of mounting a credible number of ASCM’s. It will assume the traditional low end roles that the PC, MCM and now much denuded and retiring Perry (with no missiles) once held, and free the DDG 51’s for the high end AAW/ASW/ASUW missions you suggest. Why a bigger gun? LCS is not designed for NSFS. FFG’s were not designed for such either. A hypothetical, mid weight surface combatant would be too weak in AAW armament to repel a significant ASCM attack. If it could be made so, it would be too expensive for the US to procure and field. As for survivability, the concept is avoid attack in the first place. If detected, LCS has a better self AAW capability than the now missile-less retiring Perry’s and their 3 engagement at best CIWS.
      No new frigate design is yet planned to support directed energy weapons. The DDG 51 would be very challenged to do so. I served on MCM’s PC’s, FF 1052’s and FFG 7’s in my 20 year naval career. LCS is more than capable of replacing the capabilities of all three. It’s modularity concept is the way ahead. No doubt, the LCS has been poorly managed in the past as a program. It introduced too many immature technologies and is struggling to catch up in fielding its modules. There is also, frankly, no money for a mid range surface combatant even if we needed one. The “frigate” concept has changed. It’s no longer in its World War 2, or even its Cold War configuration. LCS is a useful replacement for the retiring ships it replaces. Respectfully, I think you need to move past World War 2 and Cold War assumptions about war at sea. Much has changed.

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