There is no doubt that our Navy has fallen on lean times. In the late 1980s, the fleet size increased to 594 ships (just shy of President Ronald Reagan’s goal of a 600-ship Navy), but with the end of the Cold War in 1991, ships were paid off without being replaced, construction was slowed on needed classes of ships, and the Navy focused on littoral warfare.
Without a blue water opponent, the Navy retired all cruisers that weren’t of the Ticonderoga-class, and even the earliest versions of them were mothballed or (as in the case with USS Valley Forge CG-50) used as gunnery targets. At the time, the United States had nine nuclear-powered guided missile cruisers. All of them, (the four ships of the Virginia-class, two ships of the California-class, the Long Beach, Bainbridge, and Truxton) were decommissioned in the final decade of the 20th century. The conventional cruisers followed the same path. Of the nine ships of the Leahy-class and nine ships of the Belknap-class, every single one was decommissioned between 1993 and 1995.
This left the 27 ships of the Ticonderoga-class to carry the cruiser load. Of course, the first five of those ships were decommissioned in the first decade of the 21st century, leaving 22 cruisers total. Destroyers, frigates, amphibious ships and aircraft carriers followed the same path. Older versions were decommissioned and either sold off or scrapped.
The frigate situation was particularly troubling. By the end of the Cold War, the US Navy had 51 Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates in commission, 46 Knox-class frigates, and a handful of short-run classes to carry out duties that were too minor for the more expensive and valuable cruisers and destroyers. Less than 25 years later, the navy had none.
Although the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) was supposed to pick up the slack, that ship class has been an unmitigated failure. Cost overruns, constant problems with the engines, the failure of the modular design, and numerous problems with armaments have made the LCS a ship without a mission. Additionally, the resurgence of blue water operations by the Russians and Chinese have made the concept behind the LCS questionable. They would make pretty good Coast Guard cutters but really don’t have a place in the fleet.
That brings us to the Navy’s planned FFG(X) frigate program that has been garnering some news lately. The Navy has narrowed the field of potential frigate designs to five. Of these designs, two are based on upgraded LCS designs, while the other three use already existing hulls. If you believe that using existing technology to design these ships would be cost-effective, you would be incorrect.
All five of these designs are expected to cost nearly a billion dollars apiece. Granted that is half of the cost of an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer – but twice the cost of an LCS. It is eight times as much as what it cost to build an Oliver Hazard Perry! A ship that costs nearly a billion dollars is not a ship that can be used to make the Navy more cost-effective.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Type 054A frigate, commonly referred to as the Jiangkai II-class, costs 1.4 billion yuan to build. Unfortunately, the conversion rate is 1 yuan equals 16 cents, making the Jiangkai II very cost-effective at less than 250 million dollars apiece. The Type 054A frigate has all of the capabilities that are needed with a price tag that is certainly affordable.
During the Cold War, frigates were used as low-cost, less effective deterrents and combat ships that could handle any task – perhaps not as well as the more expensive and less generalized cruisers and destroyers – with a fair degree of success. You wouldn’t send a solo frigate to provide anti-air protection to a Carrier Battle Group, but you could send it to provide anti-air protection to cover a merchant convoy. Today, however, the Navy seems to want an expensive ship that employs cutting-edge technology that “will include integrated operations with area air defense capable destroyers and cruisers as well as independent operations while connected and contributing to the fleet tactical grid. Additionally, this platform must defend against raids of small boats.”
Laudable goals to be sure, but are they worth the cost?
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