The current global crop of “conventional” frigates (which I loosely define as a multi-purpose combatant of somewhere in the vicinity of 2,000-4,500 tons), has reached something of a developmental dead end.
These ships cannot be improved–or, in the case of foreign models, brought into compliance with U.S. Navy standards and then improved–without a huge investment–An investment, I might add, that is totally out of proportion to any subsequent gains in the platform’s overall combat capability/survivability.
Despite having more visible weapons than the average Flight 0+ LCS, the “international standard frigate” is also, well, still little more than cannon-fodder. Over the near-to-mid term, these “international standard frigates” the Navy chattering classes so admire, will, in any likely “local war under high-tech conditions”, be sunk. And be sunk in great numbers.
First, a bit of definition. What is a frigate? Generally, a frigate, for our purposes, is a surface combatant not intended to serve as part of the screen for the Carrier Strike Groups. Frigates such as the FFG-7 class currently in service, are directly descended from the Destroyer Escorts of World War II. They were intended to provide open ocean escort of logistics force shipping, escort carriers, amphibious shipping, and merchant convoys. They generally have less speed than destroyers, less armament, and less sophisticated sensors and combat systems, as well as being somewhat smaller.
Internationally, the term is a bit more… flexible. Some navies have ships they call frigates that we would more likely call corvettes (the next size down, generally) or destroyers that we would call frigates. In the Royal Navy, destroyers are focused on the anti-air mission, while frigates are anti-submarine focused, regardless of the size of the ship. As a rule of thumb, though, Craig’s loose definition quoted above is sufficient for our purposes.
But is the frigate really dead? Only if you presume that the secondary missions frigates were built to fulfill have disappeared. While the great trans-Atlantic convoys of past wars are not likely, our Navy will still need to provide escort to amphibious shipping, and the supply ships of the Combat Logistics Force that provides the beans, bullets and black oil to the Carrier Strike Groups at sea. And we are unlikely to ever be able to buy enough Burke class destroyers to fill those missions.
The imperative in buying a frigate type is to keep costs as low as possible in order to afford larger numbers of ships. But each ship has to have at least some respectable combat capability, or it is little more than a target. Indeed, the major criticism of the LCS class currently in production is that it is so under-armed that it can’t defend itself, let alone kill any enemies. But in today’s complex threat environment, especially in the littoral region, the combat systems and computers needed to provide a credible armament rapidly drive the unit cost of a ship too high to be affordable.
Hooper’s post has some thoughts on how to address the issue. I’m not convinced yet that the frigate is dead. But let me note a couple things quickly. He calls for a “devolved cruiser” – basically an austere variant of the Burke. NAVSEA actually took a look at what a Burke with only half the engineering plant and a more austere combat system would look like. It still wasn’t cheap enough to justify. As for his urging to go small, and forward deploy patrol boats like the forthcoming MkVI PB, I’m quite supportive of that. There is often a place for that type of boat. The Swift boats were generally successful in Vietnam, and Hooper’s call can be seen as analogous to that. But that still would leave a need for either more destroyers, or a frigate replacement.
Hooper has high hopes for the Coast Guard’s future Offshore Patrol Cutter being adapted for this role. I’m dubious that it would come to pass. It’s possible, but the changes required would be quite costly. And “Not Invented Here” is likely to cause the Navy to turn up its nose at a Coast Guard ship.