With Canada joining the UK and Australia as the customer base of BAE’s Type 26/Global Combat Ship (GCS) and significantly increasing the production run to 32 ships, the exclusion of GCS from the US Navy’s FFG(X) contender list warrants serious review.
While originally omitted due to the program’s stipulation of a “mature parent design” for contenders, the fact that GCS has now secured significant orders from three of the US’ most important allies opens the way to revisit this initial reasoning.
With an intended procurement timeline for the first FFG(X) of FY 2020, there is growing frustration within US Congress at the pace with which the FFG(X) program is proceeding. On the face of it, the inclusion of another contender into the mix at this stage would undoubtedly raise some alarm from a political perspective but the benefits would reward careful and deliberate consideration of this option.
Faced with an ambitious timeline (the FFG(X) program was commenced in 2017), selection of contenders was directed to favour existing designs fitted with current technology. Indeed, a report to Congress on 4 February 2019 reinforces the restriction that FFG(X) must have no new technologies or systems; a bewildering position in light of the rapid pace of change of the US’ likely enemies.
Most recently though, while the conceptual design work undertaken by the initial five shipyards has seen some refinement of the initial requirements, the USN has used this time to further consolidate its requirements, and from a quick analysis there is a latent disparity between the two expectations.
Broadly described as a multi-mission platform with capability in all major naval warfare spheres (in contemporary parlance a general purpose frigate), the FFG(X) specifications of increased anti-air (AAW), electromagnetic warfare (EMW) capabilities and enhanced survivability over and above that stipulated for LCS, as well as directed weapon and sensor fit-outs (AEGIS commonality, Standard and Evolved Sea Sparrow missiles, Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program Block 2 and Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC)), all point to a platform looking to replicate, albeit on a slightly smaller scale, the high-end and evolving capabilities inherent in the USN’s existing fleet of Arleigh Burke DDGs.
Far from looking to operate existing technology and equipment, the USN is rightly looking at the future fight which many see as being just around the corner. Having placed greater weight on this future-proofing to ensure that the USN’s future frigate force is actually fit for purpose, the GCS becomes a standout option. This is so because across the three existing customers, the technology edge that the USN actually seeks (and needs) is already in evidence through the various system/equipment/weapon integrations present in the UK, Australian and Canadian projects.
The selection of BAE’s GCS could be greatly enhanced through the prospect of shipyards and logistics chains associated with the UK, Australian and Canadian frigate programs taking on a large part of the US work and therefore risk. This is not to say that the US shipbuilding industry would miss out but rather that the industries of allied partners, who have already accepted risks associated with the platform delivery, would be able to act as a safety net. Production of US naval vessels in foreign shipyards is currently inhibited by law, however, production at least of core components, superstructure modules or associated systems in allied nation dockyards before forwarding to US shipyards for completion could yield significant benefits in time, cost and access to industry best-practice and technology.
Having established industry involvement through a distributed production line, matters of sustainment through global logistics and maintenance networks would be the next great benefit to selection of GCS. Despite an increased focus on the Asia-Pacific region, the USN is unlikely to withdraw completely from its global footprint.
To be able to access dispersed but connected industry hubs in partnership with trusted allies introduces significant flexibility to sustainment and operational models as well as reducing the risk to these of any interference, degradation or attack. Further benefits of cost and sustainment of industry workforce apply here also and having a greater number of locations providing maintenance options at all levels would positively contribute to the availability and readiness of operational vessels in direct support of an increased operational tempo.
Finally, for the US the purchase of a modern, future-proofed frigate type operated by a number of its key allies would go a great way to facilitate the much sought-after high-end interoperability dictated by modern coalition warfare. Already being borne out by the success of Australia’s Hobart-class destroyers as well as air platforms such as the P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and MH-60R ASW helicopter, having similar platforms provides force commanders with a warfighting advantage.
Even accepting the differences in some systems or weapons of the individual countries’ GCS variants, they remain complimentary overall, synergised as they would be by the similarities in the culture, training and tactical thinking of the ship’s crews. The result in a combined environment would be a highly flexible and adaptive force, providing distributed and resilient lethality against a potential enemy.