When a crisis occurred almost anywhere in the world during the Cold War era, U.S. officials often would ask, “Where are the carriers?” Today some officials are asking, “Where are the frigates?” The U.S. Navy currently has 18 frigates in service. These ships are the survivors of 51 frigates of the Oliver Hazard Perry class completed from 1977 to 1989. Another 16 ships of this design were built in U.S. shipyards and overseas for the Australian (6), Spanish (7), and Taiwanese (7) navies—a total of 71 units.
Intended to escort merchant convoys, underway replenishment groups, and amphibious ships, the FFGs proved to be effective in several roles, having antiair, antisurface, and antisubmarine capabilities. Unfortunately, the deletion of the Mark 13 missile launcher from the surviving units in 2003 left them without two of those capabilities.
Under current plans, the last of the FFGs will be retired in the next few years. Discarding these ships will leave a capabilities gap as well as a numerical gap in the U.S. Fleet. Already the Navy is forced to employ billion-dollar-plus Aegis destroyers on blockade operations and chasing 36-foot pirate skiffs, assignments that are far more suitable for frigate-type ships. (And, of course, 28 of the Aegis destroyers cannot hangar and support helicopters, which are invaluable in those roles.)
In some respects the trouble-plagued littoral combat ships (LCS) were to have been the “numerical replacements” for the frigates. But the three planned LCS mission modules—none of which is ready for production—do not provide the capabilities of an FFG, especially in open-ocean operations. Particularly critical is the lack of antiaircraft missiles or viable antiship missiles in the LCS modules. While the single MH-60 Seahawk helicopter carried by the LCS could provide some antiship and antisubmarine capabilities, the current FFGs can operate two of these large helicopters and have a (small) hull-mounted SQS-56 sonar and an SQS-19 towed-array sonar. The LCS has no on-board sonar.
Thus, the LCS cannot be effectively considered a frigate replacement. At the same time, the size of the Fleet can be expected to decline significantly in the next few years or—at best—stay at approximately 275 ships. The LCS program has been reduced to 52 ships (from 55), but it is more likely that the final number of these ships will be about half of that figure.
This situation calls for the construction of new frigate-type warships for the U.S. Navy. In terms of time and money, developing a new frigate design at this time is unaffordable. While there have been proposals to modify the design of the Coast Guard’s national security cutter to serve as a frigate, that ship lacks growth potential and service life, as well as certain military features, to become an effective frigate. The Perry design dates to the early 1970s. Still, the efficacy of the design is proven. Further, the massive damage suffered by the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) from a mine and the Stark (FFG-31) from two Exocet missiles demonstrates the survivability of these ships. (Both were put out of action by the damage—“mission kills”—but they survived.)
The most cost/time-efficient approach would be to update the Perry design. For example, use the space and weight of the Mark 13 missile system for a vertical-launch missile battery for the antiair role; provide an updated, more effective gun in place of the current 76-mm Mark 75; and update the radars and electronic-warfare suite. Indeed, the Australian Navy has updated its Perry-class ships with its Mark 13 launcher capable of firing Standard SM-2MR as well as Harpoon antiship missiles plus an eight-cell Mark 41 launcher installed for the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile. (A total of 34 Perry-class frigates currently are in service by other navies—Australia, Bahrain, Egypt, Turkey, Poland, Spain, Taiwan, and Pakistan.)
Also, in an updated FFG design the hull could be lengthened by some 14 to 20 feet. This is feasible from a naval architecture viewpoint and has been done to previous surface combatants, and it should have no negative impact on the FFG design. In fact, it would increase speed by a knot or more (with the same propulsion plant). The additional length could provide improved accommodations and the space and weight for antiship missiles (lacking in the LCS). This installation could be an eight-canister Harpoon battery or more advanced weapons.
The ship would retain the current two-hangar configuration, permitting the operation of two Seahawk helicopters or a single helicopter plus unmanned aerial vehicles. Alternatively, one hangar could be used for mine countermeasures gear or other specialized equipment. Such modified ships could be employed for SEAL/special-operations support, mine countermeasures, and other missions. Such variants would be akin to the almost 100 high-speed transports converted from World War II-built destroyer escorts.
While the tooling for the original Perry class has been discarded, the plans, design data, and other material are available. The development and construction of an updated FFG-7 could be undertaken more rapidly than any new-design surface combatants. Thus, the updated FFG concept offers the means of rapidly introducing a new warship into the Fleet with minimum risk that could perform multiple missions effectively in blue-water environments as well as littoral areas.
What Are Frigates?
The frigate was the glamorous type of ship in [Nelson’s navy]. It was big enough to carry a significant gun power, but fast enough to evade larger enemies. It was likely to be given an independent role, while ships-of-the-line normally operated in fleets off the major enemy naval bases. It often fought single-ship actions against enemy frigates, and these were followed avidly by the press and public. Successful frigate captains like Cochrane and Broke achieved great fame, and some became extremely rich on prize money.
— Brian Lavery, Nelson’s Navy: The Ships, Men and Organization 1793–1815
While frigates were a key component of Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson’s navy, in the late 1790s the fledgling U.S. Navy built what were by many criteria the world’s largest and most effective frigates. Designed by Joshua Humphreys, these six ships included the Constitution—“Old Ironsides”—which survives as the world’s oldest afloat warship. These 44-gun ships were large, heavily armed, and fast sailing ships. “They are superior to any European frigate,” wrote Humphreys.
Indeed, the American frigates could fire faster and more accurately than their British opponents because of training and the use of powder charges encased in lead, not cloth, hence there was no need to swab out the gun after firing to wet down any burning pieces of cloth. Also, the Americans used gunsights. Neither innovation was yet adopted by the Royal Navy.
From these versatile, fast-sailing ships of Nelson’s day, by the early 1940s the “frigate” had devolved into a relatively slow, highly specialized antisubmarine ship. The U.S. Navy’s equivalent warship was the destroyer escort (DE), with almost 600 units constructed in U.S. shipyards for the Navy and Allied fleets during World War II. The U.S. Navy did acquire 98 “frigates” (PF) during the war. Two were built in Canada and the remainder in U.S. yards based on the British River-class design. These ships quickly were discarded after World War II, with several having gone to Great Britain and the Soviet Union late in the conflict. All such U.S. ships were manned by Coast Guard crews.
After World War II the U.S. Navy reclassified the DE as simply an escort (DE), with amphibious control (DEC), radar picket (DER), and guided-missile (DEG) variants entering the Fleet. Post–World War II shipbuilding programs provided with Navy with 81 DE/DEG-type ships plus the USS Glover (AGDE-1), a “research escort.”
The frigate classification—with the symbol DL—was established in 1951 for large, destroyer-type ships that were designed to operate with fast carrier forces. According to Admiral Arleigh Burke, many members of Congress “had the impression that destroyer leaders [DL] were really light cruisers.” Thus, Burke concluded, since the U.S. Navy was not building “frigates,” that term should be applied to the new “heavy destroyers.”1
While initially intended as highly capable antiair and antisubmarine ships, with the provision of surface-to-air missiles in these ships (DLG/DLGN), the emphasis has been on the antiair role, although some ships also had first-line antisubmarine systems. Five “straight” DLs were built, two of which later were converted to guided-missile ships (DDG), and another 28 were constructed as DLGs with the Terrier missile system. Eight additional missile ships had nuclear propulsion (DLGN). Thus, the DL-frigate family consisted of 41 hulls (all numbered in the same series).
Then, in 1970, when Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt became Chief of Naval Operations, he began several ship programs, including the patrol frigate (PF), with the lead ship to carry the hull number PF-107. (Including canceled ships, the World War II PF series had reached No. 106.) The Zumwalt-era PF would evolve into a 455¼-foot ship displacing some 4,000 tons full load. Thus, not only did the PF program attempt to reintroduce the more-universal term “frigate” for U.S. antisubmarine ships, but dollar, crew, and tonnage constraints ordered by Zumwalt arrested the growth trends in these areas of the DE/DEG programs.
In 1975—with the lead ship, the Oliver Hazard Perry—still under construction—the Navy belatedly reclassified its frigate/escort ships. The larger DLG/DLGNs became cruisers (CG/CGN), while the smaller DLGs were reclassified as missile destroyers (DDG). All existing DE/DEG types became frigates (FF/FFG). Since the six DEs armed with the Tartar missile became FFG-1 through -6, the Perry was commissioned in 1977 as the FFG-7.
This 1975 reclassification brought the U.S. frigates’ type in alignment with the rest of the world’s major navies. Still to be done is to bring the ill-named littoral combat ship (LCS) into the greater frigate family. Some possibilities are FMM for frigate—multi-mission or frigate—multi-module. But even with a classification change, these ships are not frigates. And the U.S. Navy needs frigates!
1. ADM Arleigh Burke, USN, letter to RADM E.M. Eller, USN (Director of Navy History), 3 May 1962. Burke served as Chief of Naval Operations from August 1955 to August 1961.