Contenders for the US Navy’s future Guided Missile Frigate show faith in proven designs

Design concept contracts for the US Navy’s next generation missile frigates have been awarded to five bidders. Claire Apthorp takes a look at the requirements and compares the bids so far.

Image: Marinette Marine

The US Navy is spreading its bets for the future guided missile frigate FFG(X) programme with the award of design concept contracts to five different bidders in February. Working with $15m funding each (and the option to increase to $21m), Austal, Marinette Marine, General Dynamics Bath Iron Works, Lockheed Martin and Huntington Ingalls will get to work on their contenders for the new frigate.

The FFG(X) is set to become the backbone of the navy’s future capability, with 20 ships expected to be procured. It will be an “agile, multi-mission platform designed for operation in littoral and blue water environments”, according to Dr Regan Campbell, PMS515 programme manager at the US Navy’s Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA). It should be able to operate independently or integrate with a task force to conduct offensive and defensive surface, anti-submarine, and air warfare roles.

Campbell is in charge of PMS515, which has responsibility for the evaluation and initial procurement of the US Navy’s FFG(X) next generation frigate.

Reducing programme risk with multiple design concept contracts

NAVSEA initially requested proposals for the first phase assessment in November 2017 and asked that the frigate be based on an existing design that is already in service.

FFG(X) leverages the proposed capabilities of the original Frigate(FF) work that had already been underway, but with additional requirements including increased air warfare capability in both self-defence and escort roles, enhanced survivability and increased electromagnetic manoeuvre warfare capability. The brief was eagerly anticipated by industry, with a number of teams lined up for the initial scoping work submitted as conceptual design proposals. 

“FFG(X) leverages the proposed capabilities of the original Frigate(FF) work that had already been underway”

The navy hopes to de-risk the programme by awarding multiple contracts in the initial phases. 

Speaking at the US Surface Navy Association Symposium in Washington, DC, in January, Campbell said that by relying on this strategy, NAVSEA would reduce the risk involved in the detail design & construction (DD&C) phase in three key ways: by mandating the integration of particular warfare system elements and cyber architecture; requiring mature parent designs to produce the most cost effective and capable designs to meet FFG(X) requirements; and by the navy providing system specifications that detail technical requirements for the FFG(X).

Lockheed Martin is adapting its Freedom-class littoral combat ship for NAVSEA’s frigate. Image: Lockheed Martin

Lockheed and Austal show faith in existing LCS designs

Two of the contenders, Austal and Lockheed Martin, are currently building Littoral Combat Ships for the US Navy and plan to base their FFG(X) designs on these platforms. 

Austal is proposing its Independence-class LCS design as the baseline. The Independence class is the only trimaran vessel in service with the US Navy. According to Austal it is a high-speed, agile, shallow draft and networked surface ship that is open ocean capable but “designed to defeat growing littoral threats and provide access and dominance in the coastal water battlespace”.

“The Independence class is the only trimaran vessel in service with the US Navy.”

Lockheed Martin has also submitted its LCS design, based on the Freedom class already in service with the navy, for the FFG(X) competition. 

“We are proud of our 15-year partnership with the US Navy on the Freedom-variant Littoral Combat Ship and look forward to extending it to FFG(X),” said Joe DePietro, Lockheed Martin vice president of small combatants and ship systems. “Built to US Navy shipbuilding standards, our frigate design offers an affordable, low-risk answer to meeting the navy's goals of a larger and more capable fleet.”

Bath Iron Works plans to mature the frigate design of Spanish shipyard Navantia to meet US Navy specifications. Image: General Dynamics Bath Iron Works.

Proven European designs: another option for the US Navy?

Marinette Marine selected the FREMM frigate design of parent company Italy’s Fincantieri as a proven design for its contender. 

The company argues that the FREMM design, which was initially developed by Fincantieri in collaboration with France’s DCNS, is the most capable and modern off‐the‐shelf frigate available for the range of capabilities required by the US Navy. The Italian shipyard is building ten of the vessels for the Italian Navy, six of which have already been delivered and accumulated some 30,000 hours and 200,000 nautical miles in operations.

“Marinette argues that the FREMM design is the most capable and modern off‐the‐shelf frigate available for the range of capabilities required by the US Navy.”

Fincantieri told us that one of the main challenges for all FFG(X) competitors is adapting the parent design to the extensive set of US specifications, including the Navy’s system specification which exceeds 2000 pages.

Among the areas that the company said would set apart its design are the hybrid electric drive propulsion system, flight deck and aviation capabilities, auxiliary systems similar to those already in service with the navy, and integrated communication and warfare systems.

“We’ve assembled a world‐class team of partners to customise to American design standards and deliver an advanced, flexible and highly reliable ship to the US Navy for their current and future needs,” Francesco Valente, president and CEO of Fincantieri Marine Group, said in February. “Our American shipyards are tailor‐made for building small surface combatants and we have a strong, established and reliable US supply chain.”

“Bath Iron Works says it intends to mature Navantia’s design to meet the specifications established by the navy.”

The General Dynamics Bath Iron Works bid is based on the frigate design Navantia. The Spanish shipyard has designed a family of Aegis guided missile frigates that may put it in a good position for the programme. Now on contract, Bath Iron Works says it intends to mature the design to meet the specifications established by the navy that will be used for the DD&C request for proposals at a later date.

Bath Iron Works is an experienced contractor and is currently building Zumwalt and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers for the navy. In a statement, General Dynamics Bath Iron Works president Dirk Lesko said the company “looks forward to working with Navantia to further develop a guided missile frigate design that meets the needs of the US Navy.”

The road ahead: narrowing down requirements

Huntington Ingalls is the only contender that has refused to publicly divulge its design to date. 

“Ingalls Shipbuilding is pleased to be selected for the next phase in the frigate programme. We look forward to working with the navy to provide a reliable solution for this important platform,” was all a company spokesman would tell us.

With work on the contracts now underway, the next milestone will come in sixteen months’ time, when NAVSEA will use the design concepts to further narrow down the requirement. After that, the US Navy expects a request for proposals for the full and open competition for DD&C in the fourth quarter of 2019, followed by a contract award in Fiscal Year 2020.

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