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Emerging Threats Drive the Navy's Frigate Controversy

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U.S. naval officers charged with making sure the future fleet can fight and win American wars have concluded the Navy needs a new generation of frigates.

Building new frigates to replace the U.S. Navy's Perry-class frigates was something many naval officers and Pentagon budget analysts wanted to avoid. All told, 71 Perry-class frigates served with the fleet. The last one was decommissioned in 2015.

Like most debates over military weapons acquisition, the frigate controversy has a complicated back-story.

It helps to know what a "frigate" is. Americans familiar with the War of 1812 know "Old Ironsides," the USS Constitution, is a frigate. The Constitution's modern equivalent, however, is a cruiser. In 1975, the U.S. Navy re-classified several ship types. A frigate became an ocean-going escort warship slightly smaller than a destroyer, the descendant of WW2's destroyer escorts.

Though smaller than other line warships, frigates were "built tough and rugged" to operate with the fleet's big ships in all sea conditions. Frigates provided an anti-air and anti-sub "screen" for aircraft carrier battle groups and carried a mix of weapons. Most frigates carried a helicopter and a deck gun (usually 76 mm) capable of rapid fire. The ship had the tools to conduct a solo Freedom of Navigation Operation.

The Cold War ended. The U.S. Navy confronted an increasing number of littoral operations, near coastlines or in shallow seas.

Enter the Littoral Combat Ship. Every LCS wouldn't need to "do everything." It could be smaller than a frigate and require a smaller crew. Since it wouldn't have to slug it out with enemy ships, you could arm it with a 57 mm gun. A special "mission module" could turn an LCS from an air-defense ship into a mine warfare ship.

The U.S. Navy initially ordered 52 LCSs, in two classes, expecting to pay from $300 million to $400 million a ship. That order has shrunk to 32 ships and may be cut further. Why? LCS innovations in engine design, automation and crew-size didn't materialize. Costs have risen to over $450 million a ship. Last year the Navy dropped module-switching concept.

The Navy has re-classified LCSs as frigates. Several are being upgraded to handle frigate missions. The enhancements could make the final price tag over $800 million per ship.

The frigate mission didn't disappear. The Navy needs frigates now, for anti-submarine, fleet air defense and "military presence" missions to support allies and demonstrate American resolve.

Emerging threats drive the need. China's air and naval capabilities in East Asia are expanding. Beijing intends to challenge the USN by becoming a "near peer" naval power.

Around the world a number of other actual and potential adversaries are improving their maritime "area denial" capabilities. Iran's dictators want to be able to close the Strait of Hormuz to oil tanker traffic and keep it closed. The Iranian military recently staged an exercise it claimed demonstrated its ability to sink a U.S. aircraft carrier. Russian submarines are once again conducting aggressive patrols in the Baltic and Atlantic.

Critics of the LCS argue the Navy needs to terminate it, now. Don't build anymore. Get a ship designed to do the job.

The U.S. Coast Guard's Legend-class "National Security Cutter" is an intriguing design. Several naval officers argue that with some modifications the design could meet U.S. Navy blue water fleet requirements for a "patrol frigate." Legend-class ships already serve with the U.S. Coast Guard. Using a proven design would save the Navy some development costs. Moreover, by leveraging the U.S. Coast Guard "baseline" design, the U.S. Navy would get its frigates sooner rather than later.

It's an idea worth serious consideration. The U.S. Coast Guard's Legend -class cutters patrol the Bering Strait. They are tough ships and their engines work. A U.S. Navy frigate version could have longer-range and be built to be, well, a frigate.

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