The Navy's Rationale For Not Reactivating Perry Class Frigates Doesn't Float
The numbers actually show how much of a value the idea of regenerating the available Perry class frigates represents, not the other way around.
An internal Navy memo recommends that the ten remaining Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates shouldn't be returned to service due to cost considerations and other priorities. Moving forward with the initiative would supposedly cost the Navy $4.32B over ten years, which includes restoring and operating the regenerated Perry class fleet, or roughly $432M per ship. The seven hulls that are in the best condition would cost the Navy $3B over the same amount of time.
The move to return the Perry class frigates the Navy still has, as dozens have been sold off to allies or sunk for training purposes, comes as the seafaring force struggles to figure out ways to obtain its goal of maintaining a 355 ship Navy in the coming decades.
The idea was that at least seven Perry class frigates sitting in mothballs would be able to be returned to service, and at the very least they could do so with minimal upgrades and take on the lower-end, lower threat environment missions such as drug and smuggling interdiction and possibly anti-piracy operations. These missions have to be fulfilled by higher-end surface combatants today which would be far better utilized executing more demanding tasks.
At first glance that $432M figure seems troubling, but when you dig deeper, it actually represents a real value for the Navy. According to the Congressional Research Office's October 3rd, 2017 report on the Littoral Combat Ship program, the unit acquisition cost per vessel along with just a single mission package averages a combined $658.2M:
The Navy’s proposed FY2018 budget, as amended on May 24, 2017, is requesting the procurement of two LCSs at a combined cost of $1,177.1 million, or an average of about $588.6 million each. Certain LCS sea frames that were procured in prior years were subject to an LCS program unit procurement cost cap.
A March 2017 GAO report states that the total estimated acquisition cost of 64 LCS mission packages is $7,100.7 million (i.e., about $7.1 billion) in constant FY2017 dollars (an average of about $110.9 million per package), including $2,611.6 million (i.e., about $2.6 billion) in research and development costs and $4,456.3 million (i.e., about $4.5 billion) in procurement costs (an average of about $69.6 each in procurement cost).
Once again, at first glance the $658.2M per Littoral Combat Ship number seems like a fairly good deal over the Perry class frigate's regeneration costs, but remember, the Perry class ship cost of $432M is not just for regenerating it back to the fleet but also for operating it for a decade.
In a 2014 report on the LCS program by the General Accountability Office (GAO), the annual estimated cost of operation for the Navy's surface combatants are clearly displayed. The Perry class frigate cost $54M per year to operate. Although that number would likely be drastically reduced largely because the regenerated Perry class ship would be used for simple missions, and would not require the investment in training, manning, or even keeping many of its combat system online for their reduced role. They would also likely stay close to home, and would not deploy for long stretches as part of a carrier strike group. We don't know what this new figure would but we can guess based on available information.
Admiral Richardson, the current Chief of Naval Operations, has said that he has seen Perry class frigates returned to service by allies for extremely small sums of money. As we stated in a previous report on the issue:
...Under the plan that SECNAV Spencer is talking about, these ships wouldn't get any combat system upgrades at all. Instead they would be seaworthy and navigation ready only. USNI News reports Spencer mentioned that other navies have gotten retired Perry class frigates back out to sea for as little as $35,000, which is about one sixth the price of a full tank of gas for the type.
With no combat system upgrades, a reintroduced Perry class would primarily be tasked with supporting the highly controversial war on drugs—sailing in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico to interdict contraband shipments. Basically they would work as counter-narcotics platforms for operations in very low threat environments. In doing so, the plan would relieve higher-end assets of the mission, including Arleigh Burke class destroyers and Littoral Combat Ships.
Spencer stated the following regarding bringing back what's left of the Perry class:
“Is a DDG the thing to put for drug interdictions down in the Caribbean? I don’t think so... Do we actually have something in the portfolio right now? One of the things we might look at is bringing the Perry class to do a limited drug interdiction mode... No combat systems, but sea-ready, navigation ready, radar ready out the door... That’s a pretty inexpensive proven platform right there...Can you arm it up with Tomahawks? No.”
The nice thing about turning the last of the Perry class frigates into an adaptable low-cost "platforms" of sorts is that you can leverage how well built these ships are and take advantage of more of their service life while bolting on modular systems as needed. Specialized personnel would only have to be deployed to operate certain systems when needed. Helicopters and drones can make use of the ship's flight deck and hangar spaces, and overall you get a ship that is only as capable as you need it to be, and fairly affordable to operate as well. The Navy's afloat forward staging base USS Ponce was put to use around a similar concept and was highly successful in doing so.
So instead of the $35,000 figure Richardson highlights, let's just be generous and say it will cost $32M per ship to regenerate them in so called "navigation and radar ready" form. That leaves $400M for operations over 10 years, or $40M per year.
Now take the LCS, which is fulfilling counter narcotics missions today (even worse, Arleigh Burke class destroyers are being wasted on this type of tasking), and according to the GAO report the Navy spends $64M per year operating each vessel, and another $15M to keep up its mission modules. In total that equals $79M per year per LCS. A destroyer isn't all that much more expensive at $88M per year. And LCS operational costs are unlikely to have gone down drastically over the last couple of years as the program has been restructured with more manpower, training, and ship enhancements.
So an LCS's cost of acquisition and operation over a decade is $1.45B. That is 3.35 times the cost of the regenerated Oliver Hazard Perry class ships, and this is for all ten frigates, not just the best seven of the bunch. If just seven were regenerated, that cost would drop.
Yes the LCS has more capabilities than regenerated Perry class ships would, but once again, for the counter-narcotics and other mundane missions the Navy is going to execute one way or another, their capabilities are excessive.
What all this shows is that the Navy is playing number games in an attempt to not have to sacrifice a penny for the new toys it wants even if polishing up the old toys it already owns is an outstanding financial opportunity, which it clearly is.
And, according to Defense News, the Navy pretty much says exactly that in their memo—they don't want to invest a dime into these ships if it means sacrificing any existing procurement programs funds, including the failed LCS:
“...Absent any external source of funding, these costs would likely come at the expense of other readiness, modernization or shipbuilding programs... Funding for [frigate] reactivation should not come at the expense of Cruiser and Destroyer modernization, Littoral Combat Ship procurement, and FFG(X) procurement... If additional funding were made available, recommend funding the service life extension of Cruisers before funding FFG-7 reactivation as Cruisers would not require additional combat systems modernization and would provide much greater warfighting capability.”
The Navy is also playing somewhat of a capabilities and mission set shell game in this memo. The idea is not to create a high-end surface combatant out of the surviving Perry class ships, but to free up higher-end surface combatants for more challenging missions that could be done by far more cost effective Perry class frigates. The fact that the Navy even brings up modernizing its cruiser fleet as a priority over regenerating a handful of Perry class frigates for very little money is laughable.
In the end they are basically telling congress if they want to pay for it, have at it, but we don't want to make it priority no matter how much sense it makes. This is sadly unsurprising but it is troubling as far more expensive Littoral Combat Ships and destroyers will continue executing these missions when an incredibly cheap alternative is sitting silent on the Navy's own piers.
In the end shipbuilding and all its politics and special interest influences that go along with, as well as the Pentagon leadership's obsession with new shiny objects, always wins out, even as our allies have shown us how capable and cost effective our old Perry class throwaways can be. In the meantime the Navy will continue to complain that it doesn't have enough ships to meet its requirements and how it needs 355 hulls, while its Littoral Combat Ships, which aren't all that cheap at all it turns out, and its multi-billion dollar destroyers are being used to catch guys in tiny speedboats carrying bundles of pot and cocaine.
So U.S. Navy, after years ofbad procurement decisions, let logic prevail for once and bring back the Perry class. It's the right thing to do. And enough with the loaded and misleading statements that don't even attempt to compare apples to apples when making a force structure and procurement case on fiscal grounds, because clearly it doesn't have one here.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com