Holding the Government Accountable

The Navy’s $1 Billion Frigate

The cheap end of the sea service’s “high-low mix” has a sky-high price tag
The USS Fort Worth, a Littoral Combat Ship, undergoes sea trials in Lake Michigan in 2011. (Photo: US Navy / Michael Rote)

Maybe the third time will be the charm in the Navy’s lengthy quest to buy a cheap warship. Of course, that depends on your definition of “cheap”: the service announced last month that it’s willing to pay close to $1 billion a copy for its smallest warships. It comes in the wake of fumbles involving the Navy’s post-Vietnam Oliver Hazard Perry class of frigates and its successor, the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), which has been limping around the high seas for close to a decade.

The Navy is always challenged to have as many ships in as many places as possible. But, as John Adams, the second U.S. president also known as the father of the U.S. Navy, said, facts are stubborn things. Facts dictate that the more ships you have for a given sum of money, the cheaper each ship has to be. It’s that tension that has vexed the Navy’s small warships since Vietnam.

And why not? Each of the military services has long been charmed by its big-ticket weapons: Army tanks, Air Force warplanes and Marine tilt-rotors, for example. That’s why the Navy’s quest to boost the size of its fleet always founders. When money is tight, its smallest vessels are shortchanged the most. “During protracted periods of austerity, the [Perry-class] ships and their crews suffered from spare parts shortages and reduced maintenance support,” the Navy itself admits. “As a result the men assigned to the ships became known for their determination, ingenuity and grit to meet mission—with whatever was available.”

Admirals admire aircraft carriers, the crown jewels of U.S. Navy power, not the frigates known, in politically-incorrect sailor slang, as “small boys.” (They’re also known as “missile sponges” for their lack of defensive firepower).

I spent several days in the Pacific in 2000 on the 450-foot, 4,000-ton USS Jarrett, a Perry-class frigate. Compared to the huge aircraft carriers and beefy cruisers and destroyers I have visited, the Jarrett was small enough to nurture an esprit de corps among its 262-strong crew that was largely MIA on those bigger warships.

Kathleen McGrath
The author chats with the late Navy commander Kathleen McGrath, skipper of the frigate USS Jarrett, in the Pacific in 2000. (Photo: Mark Thompson)

Last year was a tough one for the Navy, with collisions caused by the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain killing 17 sailors in the Pacific. Last week, the service said their commanders will face charges of dereliction of duty and negligent homicide in connection with the crashes. The Navy’s top surface warfare officer also is stepping down early because of the collisions.

It’s all part of a misguided military ethos to do more with less. I’ve seen how this has affected many of my reporter pals—not pleasantly—but no lives are at stake when ink-stained wretches are ordered to churn out online reams of recycled rewritings around the clock. Editors rarely challenge publishers who order them to crack the whip, but naval officers should be made of sterner stuff. “Sure, they could resign in protest or go public with the problems, but violating the chain of command this way goes against deeply ingrained military culture, where the ethos is to shut up, roll up your sleeves, and somehow make it work,” Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. noted in at the Breaking Defense website Jan. 16.

Too often senior officers who know better simply salute, lacking the guts and integrity to say “It can’t be done.” For too long, the U.S. military has cashiered such nay-sayers and replaced them with more pliable commanders. And too often, of course, it’s the sailors, and other enlisted troops, who pay the ultimate price for their superiors’ perfidy.

The Navy bought its last frigates between 1977 and 1989. The 51 Oliver Hazard Perry vessels were cheap and designed to replace World War II frigates and destroyers. The Navy mothballed eight of those frigates after only 15 years at sea, about half their expected life. Many ended up in the navies of Bahrain, Egypt, Pakistan, Poland, Taiwan and Turkey. The Perrys had a good record. They showed their stoutness in the Persian Gulf when the USS Stark was attacked by a pair of Iraqi missiles in 1987 and survived (although 37 sailors aboard her did not), and the crew of the USS Samuel B. Roberts successfully fought to save her after she hit an Iranian mine in 1988.

The Navy tried, and plainly failed, to fill its frigate gap with the Littoral Combat Ship, which didn’t go well. Born less than two months after the 9/11 attacks, the Navy originally intended to buy 52 of them. Ronald O’Rourke, the Navy expert at the Congressional Research Service, noted last month that the LCS program has suffered from “cost growth, design and construction issues with the lead ships built to each design, concerns over the ships’ survivability (i.e., ability to withstand battle damage), concerns over whether the ships are sufficiently armed and would be able to perform their stated missions effectively, and concerns over the development and testing of the ships’ modular mission packages.”

The vessels also have taken heavy fire from lawmakers. “One of the great disasters I’ve seen recently was the LCS,” Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who chairs the armed services committee, said in July. “Cost overruns more than doubled the cost of each LCS. Development costs for the ships and their modules now exceed $6 billion and keep rising,” said the ex-Navy pilot, and son and grandson of the admirals for whom the USS John S. McCain is named. “Meanwhile key war-fighting capabilities of the LCS, including mine-countermeasures and anti-submarine have fallen years–I repeat, years–behind, and remain unproven.” That lack of firepower is costly. “An M-1 tank weighing 60 tons,” one old salt posted on an unofficial Navy message board recently, “currently has more firepower than an LCS” displacing more than 3,000 tons.

The rough seas led the Navy to scrap the second half of that 52-ship LCS buy. Anticipating more money from a Trump Pentagon and GOP-dominated Congress, it has now decided to procure 20 new guided-missile frigates instead. The Navy has always been on the bubble about its smaller ships: are they merely auxiliary vessels, not meant for war-fighting, or are they full-fledged members of the fleet? The Navy, with a goal of 52 small surface combatant vessels, had only 24 last October, including 13 LCSs and 11 mine-warfare ships.

The service is in a rush to build the new warships because they have to strike while the mint is hot. Military budgets rise and fall just like the tides upon which the Navy sails—if not quite as predictably. That’s why the Navy announced the new program last summer, issued more detailed specifications for it in November, and plans award up to six shipyards contracts for more design work before April. The service plans to tap a single builder in 2020, with the first of 20 ships delivered in 2026. Any foreign design would have to be built in a U.S. shipyard, most likely by teaming with an American shipbuilder.

The new frigate will be more capable of sailing into contested environments than the LCS because it will have at least 16—and a desired 32—vertical launch rocket systems (the LCS has none) and more protection against blasts. Like the Perry frigates and LCS, the new frigate will be part of the Navy’s “low” piece of its “high-low” mix; the “high” end consists of far bigger and more capable destroyers and cruisers. They’re going to cost roughly twice as much as the LCS, but only half as much as an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer.

The new class of ship is dubbed “FFG(X),” which stands for “frigate, guided missile, design not yet determined”. Its combat capability is going to make it heavier, which is going to make it slower than the Navy’s bigger warships. (And no, “FF” does not stand for “fast frigate” like some armchair admirals think. “There is no such thing in the U.S. Navy as a slow frigate,” O’Rourke says in an all-too-rare delightful footnote). The new frigate’s targets will include enemy aircraft, ships and submarines, as well as electromagnetic maneuver warfare—a new Pentagon term for electronic warfare.

While the Navy says it has capped the new FFG(X) at $950 million a copy (except for the first one, which always costs more, and that 95% of a billion dollars does not include R&D costs), its target is $800 million. Like most of the targets the Pentagon shoots at, the Navy will miss this one, too. That $950 million ceiling is calculated in 2018 dollars, which means inflation alone is likely to drive its cost to taxpayers above that magic $1 billion mark.

The Navy has seized on the new fleet of relatively less-costly warships to help it comply with friendly congressional orders to fatten up its fleet. The most recent defense-authorization bill incorporates language from the wonderfully-named “Securing the Homeland by Increasing our Power on the Seas”—SHIPS—Act.

The nomenclature may be a bit of a stretch, but following the 9/11 terror attacks, any call for increased military spending benefits from the suggestion that it will help defend the homeland. And its lead sponsors should come as no surprise: Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Seapower subcommittee, and Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Seapower subcommittee. Ingalls Shipbuilding, which builds about 70% of the Navy’s warships, employs more than 10,000 workers in each senator’s state and is vying for the frigate deal.

Last May, Mandy Smithberger, director of the Straus Military Reform Project here at POGO, warned that such congressional tinkering often is the enemy of smart military procurements when it pits pork against progress. The Navy’s sudden pivot to the frigate could end up being a case study if the new warship simply ends up being a bigger LCS. “The ultimate success of those efforts will…depend upon the Navy’s discipline in truly assessing and addressing deficiencies in previous designs,” she said, “and in resisting external interference by members of Congress to continue this program’s troubled trajectory.”

The Navy’s full-steam-ahead rush to buy the new frigates means something gets left behind. The service has made clear it doesn’t want to waste time coming up with anything new for them. Everything aboard already exists elsewhere or is under development for other programs.

As someone who spent days steaming around the Pacific aboard a now-scrapped frigate, here’s hoping the Navy gets it right this time. There’s a lot of history at stake, much of it good. The Navy retired its last modern frigate, the Perry-class USS Simpson (d’oh—it’s named for Rear Admiral Roger Simpson, a U.S. Navy hero in the Pacific during World War II, not for Homer) in 2015. Surprising, when it was decommissioned it was one of only two U.S. Navy vessels still sailing that actually sank a foreign warship, taking out an Iranian naval vessel in 1988.

That leaves the USS Constitution as the only remaining commissioned U.S. Navy warship to sink an enemy vessel. “Old Ironsides” was launched in 1798 at a cost of $302,718, (interesting, but irrelevant: the cost of one of the Navy’s future frigates, in other words, could have paid for more than 3,000 USS Constitutions back in the day). The original Constitution sank several Barbary pirate ships in the Mediterranean Sea just before the War of 1812, where it went on to capture or destroy four British vessels. The wooden warship-cum-museum is permanently based at the Boston Navy Yard.

The USS Constitution is, of course, a frigate.

USS Constitution and USS Carr
The USS Constitution, on the left, passes the USS Carr, a Perry-class frigate, in Boston Harbor in 2011. (Photo: US Navy / Eric Dietrich)