• The Freedom-class USS Milwaukee (LCS 5) slides into the Lake Michigan at the Marinette shipyard in Wisconsin.
    The Freedom-class USS Milwaukee (LCS 5) slides into the Lake Michigan at the Marinette shipyard in Wisconsin. USN

Earlier this year I wrote for ADM suggesting that there was opportunity to include the BAE Type 26 Global Combat Ship (GCS) in the mix for the USN’s FFG(X) program.

In response to that article, a number of colleagues and readers not unreasonably suggested that GCS was far too much at odds with the scope and intent of the FFG(X) requirements which had clearly set its sights on a cheaper ‘parent-design’ option to sit neatly alongside its Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) fleet as part of the USN’s future small surface combatant (SSC) force.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) has provided updates for both the LCS and FFG(X) programs this month. Most recently, Lockheed Martin has confirmed their withdrawal from the race for selection as FFG(X) prime. In light of these developments, analysis can suggest the likely way ahead for both programs.

CRS has identified two further concerns most recently under consideration by Congress. The first of these is whether or not to procure any further LCS in FY2020. The USN has stated it would rather see funding channelled towards advancing the FFG(X) program.

Given that the current LCS fleet of 35 vessels exceeds the projected force of 32, it should be a fairly easy decision to cease LCS procurement. This path, however, opens the concern of shipyard sustainability in the gap between LCS completion and the commencement of the FFG(X) build.

With echoes of Australian shipbuilding’s ‘valley of death’, the fear of having to reduce or even stop productivity at either of the two current shipyards in Mobile and Marinette is reasonably founded and would no doubt factor politically, especially during uncertainty over the China/US tariff war.

Lockheed’s decision to withdraw from the FFG(X) contest potentially makes the situation even more tenuous, with ongoing work at the Marinette shipyard now heavily reliant on the success of the Fincantieri bid. The CRS report on LCS suggests a best-case solution where both yards would have obtained portions of work. This now seems unlikely. The worst scenario would see a third prime stand up its own separate yard.

For the FFG(X), the outlook is somewhat rosier. The key debate is likely to revolve around balancing the project cost against obtaining a platform which can retain a comparable capability edge over potential adversaries throughout the intended lifespan of FFG(X). With the last FFG(X) projected to be procured in FY2030 and assuming a 30-40 year service life, this is not an inconsequential factor.

This ‘growth margin’ (five per cent for FFG(X)) is often what provides a force with its tactical and economical edge. While the US clearly has a larger overall pot of gold, they also have far more to fund and so a proposal offering a greater duration of capability should be favourable.

While formally touted by Lockheed as a decision taken in order to concentrate on involvement the FFG(X) combat and other systems, their advice to the USN that the requirements of FFG(X) have grown beyond their initial offering is telling.

Five-Eyes navies are coming to realise that to put a major surface combatant in harms’ way in the future fight requires some significant baseline capability, both offensive and defensive.

It follows that with a more mature appreciation of FFG(X) capability needs, larger offerings such as FREMM and F-100 move ahead in the race. More capable again and providing greater scope for future upgrade, Type 26/GCS now has even more validity as a contender.

Interestingly, this maturing of requirements may also be exactly what Huntington Ingalls Industries have been waiting for. While initially offering their National Security Cutter hull, the lack of subsequent clarity has fed some speculation that the company could be looking to options such as the UK Type 31e. However, Type 31e was designed to be deliberately general-purpose, meaning it may come up against the same hurdles as the LCS variants.

There is one final factor which may yet play a part in the debate around both LCS and FFG(X). What is the impact of increased focus on unmanned sea vehicles, such as Sea Hunter? One suspects that for the moment it too will be limited in its capability and more likely continue to be developed towards bespoke missions in discrete warfare spheres.

So in the short term, perhaps we have seen the end to LCS procurement. The strategic situation is changing too rapidly to delay the arrival of a more survivable and lethal platform armed with the capabilities the USN wants and needs. With the Freedom-class stepping out of the FFG(X) competition, it would be unsurprising to see Austal withdraw for similar reasons.

A Type 31e proposal or similar is possible and probably has a good chance if the project stands rigidly by its initial requirements. Yet as these requirements slowly appear to be developing, an invitation for BAE to enter the FFG(X) race with GCS must surely be just around the corner. Time will tell.

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