After a 35-year break, the US Navy is building frigates again, and it has a lot of catching up to do

·7 min read
Navy USS Ingraham Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided-missile frigate
USS Ingraham, the last Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate built for the US, returns from its last deployment in November 2014.US Navy/MCS2 Jeffry A. Willadsen
  • Construction began in August on the first of the US Navy's Constellation-class frigates.

  • It's the first new frigate since the last Oliver Hazard Perry-class ship was built in the late '80s.

  • While the US is back in the frigate game, some navies, including Russia's and China's, never left.

In the summer, the shipbuilder Fincantieri Marinette Marine began construction on the US Navy's first Constellation-class frigate, making the first cut of steel at its Wisconsin shipyard on August 31.

Fincantieri plans to lay the keel of that ship, USS Constellation, this August. It will be the US Navy's first frigate since the retirement of its last Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate in 2015.

When it arrives later this decade, USS Constellation will mark the return of a small but versatile class of ships to the US Navy.

To realize its ambitions for the Constellation class, the Navy is applying hard lessons it has learned from recent high-profile warship programs that have cost too much, taken too long, or done too little.

Frigates

Navy guided-missile frigate USS Oliver Hazard Perry
The US Navy's first-in-class frigate USS Oliver Hazard Perry in 1977.US Navy

During the Age of Sail, frigates made up the bulk of most navies. They were generally built for speed and maneuverability and carried lighter armament.

As armored, steam-powered warships arrived in large numbers in the late 19th century, frigates became a thing of the past. It wasn't until World War II that the classification was applied again to small, seagoing ships that were larger than corvettes but smaller than destroyers.

During that war, frigates were largely tasked with escort missions, mostly in the anti-submarine role. With the invention of guided missiles during the Cold War, their missions expanded to include antiair and some anti-surface operations.

Though not intended to operate alone against enemy capital ships, frigates are now primarily used to support destroyer squadrons and carrier battle groups by performing escort, anti-submarine, antiair, and limited anti-surface missions.

Today, in terms of size and armament, frigates generally rank below destroyers, which are the frontline surface warships in most navies. Frigates can be built faster and cheaper than destroyers, however, and the US Navy hopes Constellation-class ships will boost its overall numbers, while still bringing needed capabilities.

The Navy's goal for fleet size is 355 manned warships, of which 104 are set to be "large surface combatants," mostly destroyers, and 52 "small surface combatants," of which 20 are planned to be frigates. (The 355-ship goal was announced in December 2016, and proposals for a different fleet size and composition are now circulating.)

The Constellation class

Navy guided-missile frigate FFG(X
An artist's rendering of the FFG(X).Marinette Marine Corp.

The Constellation-class design was selected for the Navy's FFG(X) program in 2020. Though based on Fincantieri's FREMM-class multipurpose frigate — a French-Italian design in service with France, Italy, Egypt, and Morocco — it has several differences from its European forebear.

The hull was extended by 23.6 feet to allow for larger generators and upgrades. The sonar dome and enclosure deck were removed to increase stability. The original FREMM propeller was replaced with a fixed-pitch propeller for better acoustic performance, and the topside was modified to accommodate US Navy systems and hardware.

The modifications give Constellation-class frigates a length of 496 feet, a full displacement of 7,291 tons, and a crew of 200. They're meant to be able to operate in open ocean and in near-shore zones and be capable of antiair, anti-submarine, and anti-surface warfare. According to current plans, they are also set to be capable of electronic-warfare operations.

Their weaponry is set to include 32 Mark 41 vertical-launch cells for RIM-162 Evolved SeaSparrow missiles and SM-2 Block IIIC surface-to-air missiles. They are also planned to carry 16 NSM anti-ship missiles in four quad-tube over-the-horizon launch systems. A single Mk 110 57 mm gun will be on the bow, and a Mk 49 guided-missile launcher with 21 Rolling Airframe missiles will be near the stern.

France FREMM frigate Aquitaine
The French navy's lead FREMM-class frigate, Aquitaine, leaves the military port at Brest in June.DAMIEN MEYER/AFP via Getty Images

For anti-sub operations, the Constellations will have the SQQ-89 (V) combat system, a CAPTAS-4 variable-depth sonar, a TB-37 multifunction towed array, and SLQ-25 NIXIE towed torpedo decoys.

The ships will also have the AEGIS Baseline 10 combat system, the SPY-6 radar, and the SLQ-32(V)6 electronic-warfare system, as well as room for an MH-60R helicopter and MQ-8C aerial drone.

Congress' 2023 defense bill required that SM-6 multimission missiles and Tomahawk cruise missiles be added to the frigate, but there's disagreement about the wisdom of adding new hardware at this stage of the program, and the Navy has said there's no timeline for doing so.

Fincantieri is set to build at least 10 frigates, with the first expected to be delivered in 2026. Contracts for the second and third frigates, to be named USS Congress and USS Chesapeake, were finalized in 2021 and 2022, and a contract for the yet-to-be-named fourth frigate is expected this year.

'You can't buy back time'

Navy frigate Ingraham sinking exercise
The decommissioned frigate Ingraham during a sinking exercise in the Pacific Ocean in August 2021.US Navy/MCS1 David Mora Jr.

While the US hasn't operated frigates in almost a decade, most countries never stopped.

In fact, China has the most of any navy, with 41 in service — 31 of which were built after 2005. Russia's navy has also invested heavily in frigates, which now make up much of its battle force and carry advanced weapons, like the Kalibr cruise missile.

Consequently, the US Navy has to catch up in both frigate construction and overall ship procurement.

To do this, Navy officials have studied ship programs that went overbudget, had long delays, or ended up less capable than hoped, such as the Zumwalt-class destroyer, the Gerald R. Ford-class carrier, and the Freedom- and Independence-class littoral combat ships.

Beginning with the FREMM as the "parent design" was meant to save time and avoid delays later. Construction of the first ship did not begin until 80% of the detail-design work was done, and the frigates will be equipped only with proven technologies, rather than new or experimental ones. The Navy also says the frigates will be 90% complete before entering the water.

Fincantieri has spent more than $300 million on upgrades — including a new assembly building big enough for two under-construction frigates and new robotic welding equipment — to its Wisconsin shipyard to boost efficiency.

Navy guided-missile frigate USS Curts dry dock shipyard
The US Navy's guided-missile frigate USS Curts in a dry dock at a shipyard in California in January 1982.Bill Nation/Sygma via Getty Images

The Navy plans to buy the first seven frigates in a "saw-tooth" pattern, alternating between one and two a year until 2028, but the service hopes to increase that to four ships a year. Given Fincantieri's other commitments, the Navy will need another shipyard to reach that goal.

At a Senate hearing in April, the service's top civilian and uniformed officials said they expected to get information about the ship design from Fincantieri by the end of the year, which they will review to determine whether another shipyard can build the frigates.

"I think two shipyards is in the plan. We want to make sure that we are measuring twice and cutting once before that decision is made," Adm. Michael Gilday, the chief of naval operations, told lawmakers.

The Navy was building eight Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates a year in three shipyards at the peak of that program, and its Arleigh Burke-class destroyers are now being built in two shipyards. Like the US fleet, however, the number of shipyards in the US has shrunk since the Cold War, making the Navy's task more complicated.

"We are catching up, and you can't buy back time with the seven shipyards that we have relative to the 30 that we had years ago," Gilday said at the April hearing.

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