Congressional Meddling Could Begin To Sink The Navy's Frigate Program

The Navy says that if a new spending bill becomes law, certain provisions will delay the frigate program's schedule by at least a year.

USN

The House of Representatives has passed a defense spending bill that includes language that could upend the U.S. Navy's future frigate program, also known as FFG(X). The bill, which still has to pass in the Senate and receive President Trump's signature to become law, would withhold all funding for the FFG(X) program if the Navy were to pick a ship design that didn't incorporate only American-made components in a number of critical subsystems, including its propulsions system and various auxiliary equipment. The service has already warned Congress that this will delay their schedule for buying and fielding the ships by at least a year, might lead to significant cost increases for the program, and would render worthless months of risk-reduction work already done at the cost of tens of millions of dollars on possible designs that will not meet these criteria.

Defense News was first to report this potential debacle after obtaining the Navy's formal response to the House Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Defense, or HAC-D, which is dated June 17, 2019. The House voted 226-203 to a pass a nearly $1 trillion minibus spending package consisting of four different bills, including the defense appropriations one with the frigate program stipulations, on June 19, 2019. 

Defense News' David Larter was nice enough to share the full text of the Navy's information paper on Twitter, which includes the specific language in the bill. You can read in full below:

DOD

The obvious goal is to protect and ensure work for American companies for what is likely to be a lucrative shipbuilding program for years to come. It is worth noting that this provision in the spending bill also affects the TAO Fleet Oiler program. The Navy has already selected a design for that class of ships, which will be known as the John Lewis-class, and says it will not be impacted by this decision.

The same cannot be said about FFG(X). As the Navy notes in its paper, the future frigate program has been focused entirely on ships derived from in-production "parent designs," specifically to keep costs and risks low, as well as to speed up development and acquisition process. For more than a year, the service has been working with a number of shipbuilders to refine their offerings to meet its particular specifications, which you can read about in more detail here.

General Dynamics Bath Iron Works has partnered with Spains Navantia to offer a version of the latter's F100 frigate, while Fincantieri Marine Group is pitching a variant of its Fregata Europea Multi-Missione (FREMM), or European Multi-Mission Frigate, via a U.S.-based subsidiarity. These two established European designs could easily run afoul of the new Congressional requirements. 

Joseph Trevithick

A model of Fincantieri's FREMM-based design.

The Navy says that it has already stipulated FFG(X) designs use a number of foreign-made components, which are already in use on ships it operates now, as another way of helping to keep costs low. The service did not name the other ship classes that use these parts in its information paper.

But, with this in mind, it's not clear if Australian shipbuilder Austal, which has been working on an expanded derivative of its Independence-class Littoral Combat Ship by way of its American subsidiary Austal USA, might also have trouble meeting Congress's demands. Virtually nothing is known about the ship that Huntington Ingalls Industries has been working on and Lockheed Martin already announced their decision not to compete for the final FFG(X) contract in May 2019.

"There are certain several FFG(X) components that would fall into this broad language which are not currently available in the U.S. marketplace (e.g. Auxiliary Propulsion Units and exhaust cooling, etc.) which would result in redesign to obtain equivalent capability with U.S. parts," the Navy wrote in its information paper. "Finding U.S. suppliers would drive developmental systems into the program as new equipment is engineered and qualified to U.S. standards."

Joseph Trevithick

Austal's FFG(X) design, which is derived from their Independence-class Littoral Combat Ship.

The Navy noted that the FFG(X)'s conceptual phase is almost over, that Naval Sea Systems Command has approved a final complete specification for the future frigates, and that many of the shipbuilders that have been under contract already have since made firm decisions about various subsystems. A new requirement to use only U.S.-made components would force them in various cases to have to redesign their ships to accommodate them, which in turn could cause more schedule delays and open the door for additional cost increases and design risks.

"The Navy does not agree with the proposed language in the HAC-D bill," the service had told legislators just days ago in no uncertain terms. "An insertion of change of this magnitude would negate much of the progress achieved during the Conceptual Design phase. This would result in a loss of design maturity and the FFG(X) DD&C [Detail Design and Construction] award will be delayed by a minimum of one year."

USN

An overview of the participants in the FFG(X) Conceptual Design phase. Lockheed Martin has since dropped out of the effort.

In its response to lawmakers, the Navy underscored that trying to avoid these kinds of developmental delays and risks, and the costs that go along with them, was the entire point of employing the "parent design" strategy, to begin with. The service also pointed out that no other ships would be bound by this restriction, save the John Lewis-class. 

As already noted, the plan has been for any FFG(X) to use as many components as possible in common with existing Navy ships and the service says the House bill would implicitly prevent them from doing this in a number of cases, including with regards to foreign-made fuel oil purifiers. 

This, in turn, could lead to additional maintenance and logistical issues by inserting the need for entirely new parts into the supply chain that may not be interchangeable with existing components. This would also limit commonality with ships in service with allied and partner navies that use the same parent design, another potential benefit of the Navy's present plan, especially for future coalition operations.

General Dynamics-NASSCO

A rendering of the future USNS John Lewis, the first of a new class of oilers, which Congress also included in its new protectionist provision.

At present, the service expects to issue the DD&C request for proposals no later than September 2019 and award the contract in 2020. In January 2019, NAVSEA had also said it would be targeting an average unit cost of $800 million per ship, down from a projected $950 million in 2018. That revised cost target would almost certainly be at risk of the new spending bill's language become's law.

Of course, it's not clear whether or not that will happen. The House passed its bill strictly along party lines, with no Republicans voting for it, and a companion bill could run into numerous issues, related or not to the FFG(X) language, in the Republican-controlled Senate. Whether or not President Trump, who has often opposed spending packages approved by his own party, would sign it is another question.

On top of that, the separate annual defense policy bill, also known as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), for the 2020 Fiscal Year presently includes language that directly contradicts the protectionist provisions in the new spending bill. If both were to become law, it is unclear which would take precedence. 

Regardless, all of this can only add uncertainty to the FFG(X) program that the Navy can ill afford, especially as it moves closer to releasing the final FFG(X) request for proposals. Hopefully, lawmakers will be able to find a compromise that they feel sufficiently protects U.S. industrial interests, but does not impose painful costs of this extremely important program.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com