Navy delays frigate contract amid concerns about cost, capabilities

Courtesy U.S. Navy
USS Jackson, an Independence-variant littoral combat ship, successfully completes a full-ship shock trial in June 2016. The trials are designed to demonstrate the ship’s ability to withstand the effects of a nearby underwater explosion and “retain required capability.”

The U.S. Navy will delay awarding a design and construction contract for a new frigate by one year following a critical report by the Government Accountability Office.

Two Navy rear admirals told Congress in a May 3 testimony that the contract would not be awarded until fiscal 2020. A GAO report a month earlier had urged Congress to push back the contract by at least a year because of lingering questions about the new vessel’s cost and capabilities.

The Navy will use the extra time to set up an evaluation team to examine ways to give the ship more firepower and make it better able to survive an attack, Rear Adms. Ron Boxall and John Neagley stated in their prepared testimony.

The service has determined that the fleet requires 53 small surface combat ships to protect aircraft carriers and destroyers through antisubmarine warfare and mine countermeasures. This includes two variants of the Navy’s littoral combat ship (LCS), one of which will provide the design foundation for the frigates.

The Navy initially approved two LCS designs: a monohull (Freedom variant) developed by Lockheed Martin and built at Marinette Marine in Marinette, Wis., and a trimaran (Independence variant) developed by General Dynamics and built at Austal USA in Mobile, Ala. Neither Austal nor Marinette Marine, which will be competing for the LCS successor, responded to requests for comment.

Both LCS models displace about 3,000 tons and come with a price tag of $480 million. Both initial designs were modular so they could be quickly altered for different missions, and both experienced early production and operational troubles. The GAO has criticized them for not packing enough punch or being strong enough to survive combat.

In response to the criticism, the Pentagon restructured the program in 2014 and decided to proceed with construction of 32 vessels of a revised design. The newer ships would be called frigates while the older versions would carry the same title once retrofitted. Construction of the revised vessels was supposed to begin by fiscal 2019.

In their statement to a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, Boxall, director of the Navy’s surface warfare division, and Neagley, head of the LCS program, said the Navy “is defining the requirements for the frigate to improve its ability to operate in a more contested environment than LCS.”

In April, the GAO advised Congress to hold off on funding an initial order of 12 frigates because “key frigate cost and design details will not be available to support Congress’ decision.” The GAO noted there was no formal cost estimate for the frigates, no detailed design, and no certainty on how the original LCS design would function. The new ships will contain more than 60 percent of the LCS’ elements.

The program calls for the Navy to ultimately purchase 40 of the frigates at an estimated cost of $9 billion.

The GAO’s report said the two shipyards would not have been able to build the frigates within the Navy’s now-delayed schedule. “Each shipyard has LCS construction demands that extend into 2021, suggesting no imperative for the Navy to award the frigate in 2018,” the report stated. “Delaying the frigate award until at least fiscal year 2019 — when more is known about cost, design and capabilities — would enable better-informed decisions and oversight for this potential $9 billion taxpayer investment.”

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