Navy Changes New Frigate Design - Adding Stepped-Up Weapons for "Blue Water" Combat

The Navy plans to revise its new Frigate, to be operational by 2023. The new ship be armed with a wide range of new weapons to include long-range missiles. electronic warfare ability and anti-submarine technology.

The Navy is exploring the possibility of adding Local Air Defenses, new weapons and enhanced protection technology to its requirements for a new Frigate slated to emerge in the early 2020s.

While the new Frigate was conceived of as a more survivable adaptation of the Littoral Combat Ship, new analysis is no longer restricted to the idea of loosely basing the "hull design" upon the LCS. Furthermore, new requirements analysis underway by a Navy Frigate Requirements Evaluation Team is examining the feasibility of making the ship even more lethal and survivable than what previous plans called for.

"As a result of the Navy's 2016 Force Structure Assessment, increased emphasis on Distributed Maritime Operations, and increasingly complex threats in the global maritime environment, the Navy continues to assess the capabilities required to ensure the Frigate outpaces future threats," Alan Baribeau, spokesman for Naval Sea Systems Command, told Scout Warrior. "The Navy is pursuing an update to the analysis performed by the 2014 Small Surface Combatant Task Force to reassess Frigate requirements and capabilities."

This new analysis, which will be briefed to Congress and Pentagon leadership later this Spring, may lead to a larger, more reinforced hull able to better withstand enemy attacks. Existing plans for the Frigate have called for "space armor" configurations, a method of segmenting and strengthening ship armor in specified segments to enable the ship to continue operations in the event that one area is damaged by enemy attack. 

While Navy officials did not specify details of new technologies now under consideration, they did say the new examination could lead to a different kind of hull design, as well as new offensive and defensive weapons. Stronger air defenses and enhanced survivability initiatives open the door to a wide range of offensive and defensive weaponry, such as emerging low-cost laser weapons able to incinerate incoming enemy attacks or launch offensive strikes.

News of this new Frigate analyses was first reported by Chris Cavas of Defense News.

This revised assessment of the Frigate transpires as the Navy is finalizing the weapons, sensors and technologies it plans to engineer into its new Frigate - a  more survivable and lethal Littoral Combat Ship variant designed to perform anti-submarine and surface warfare functions at the same time, service officials said.

The Navy already plans for the new Frigate be integrated with anti-submarine surface warfare technologies including sonar, an over-the-horizon missile and surface-to-surface weapons such as a 30mm gun and closer-in missiles such as the HELLFIRE.

Some of the over-the-horizon missiles now being considered by the Navy include the Naval Strike Missile by Kongsberg-Raytheon, a Harpoon or the Long-Range Anti-Ship missile (LRASM) made by Lockheed and the Pentagon's research arm, DARPA.

It is not yet known whether the Frigate will be engineered with Vertical Launch Systems (VLS) to fire larger, longer-range missiles such as a Tomahawk or Standard Missile 6, among others. However, that could be a possibility depending upon emerging Navy requirements for weapons on the ship, developers have said. It is certainly conceivable that these kinds of considerations could inform ongoing deliberations. The LCS hull is not engineered to accommodate VLS. However, should a different hull form be considered for the Frigate, the prospect of VLS or other kinds of ship-launched weapons could emerge. 

Alongside ongoing efforts to specify weapons for the emerging Navy Frigate, the service is also hoping to integrate additional weaponry on the LCS itself. As a result, weapons development for both the new Navy Frigate and existing LCS are distinct, yet also interwoven initiatives. 

Along these lines, Baribeau added that while the design for the Frigate matures, "the Navy remains firmly committed to execution of the current LCS program of record, in order to maintain the viability of both shipyards, maximize competition for future ship contracts, and deliver critically needed capability to the Fleet as quickly as possible."

Some of the weapons such as the Kongsberg-Raytheon Naval Strike Missile, however, may still be configured for both Frigate and LCS platforms.. 

Distributed Lethality

Engineering a more up-gunned, lethal and survivable Frigate than previously planned is unambiguously consistent with the Navy's often articulated "distributed lethality" strategy. This concept, underway for a year or two now, involves numerous initiatives to better arm its fleet with offensive and defensive weapons, maintain a technological advantage over adversaries such as the fast-growing Russian and Chinese navies, and strengthen its "blue water" combat abilities against potential near-peer rivals, among other things. 

Arming the Littoral Combat Ship, and its more survivable and lethal variant, the Frigate, is designed to better equip the LCS for shallow and open water combat against a wider range of potential adversaries, such as enemy surface ships, drones, helicopters, small boats and maneuvering attack craft, at beyond-the-horizon ranges.

The LCS is already equipped with 30mm and 57mm guns to destroy closer-in enemy targets such as swarms of small boats and the Navy is also engineering a maritime variant of the HELLFIRE Missile aboard the ship to destroy approaching enemy targets from "within the horizon."

While the Navy is, perhaps more than ever, still committed to freedom of navigation and working to ensure safe passage in strategic areas in international waterways, the new strategy is aimed at ensuring the entire fleet is engineered with the sensors, computer technology, radar, communications gear and weapons systems to over-match any potential near-peer competitor such as Russia or China. The strategy seeks to ensure the U.S, Navy retains its technological advantage amidst a fast-changing global technological landscape. 

Part of the rationale to move back toward open or “blue water” combat capability against near peer competitors emphasized during the Cold War. While the strategic and tactical capability never disappeared, it was emphasized less during the last 10-plus years of ground wars wherein the Navy focused on counter-terrorism, counter-piracy and things like Visit Board Search and Seizure. These missions are, of course, still important, however the Navy seeks to substantially increases its offensive “lethality” in order to deter or be effective against emerging high-tech adversaries.

Having longer-range or over-the-horizon ship and air-launched weapons is also quite relevant to the “distributed” portion of the strategy which calls for the fleet to have an ability to disperse as needed.  Having an ability to spread out and conduct dis-aggregated operations makes Navy forces less vulnerable to enemy firepower while. At the same time, have long-range precision-strike capability will enable the Navy to hold potential enemies at risk or attack if needed while retaining safer stand-off distance from incoming enemy fire. 

Navy Frigate - 2023

The Frigate is slated for delivery to the Navy by 2023; the platform is an outgrowth of the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship effort which originally planned to build 52 shallow-water multi-mission ships equipped with interchangeable groups of technologies called “mission packages” for mine countermeasures, anti-submarine technologies and surface warfare systems.  

However, lawmakers, analysts and some members of the Navy argued years ago that the LCS was not “survivable” enough. Although the LCS speed of 40-knots is by itself regarded as a survivability-enhancing attribute, critics argued the ship would be far too vulnerable to enemy attack. 

The concern, ultimately echoed by then Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, was that the ship did not have enough weapons, armor fortifications and what’s called “blue water” combat capability to challenge near-peer adversaries.

“LCS as designed is a focused mission ship. It can do one specific mission at a time and the combat capability to do that mission is provided by the mission packages,” he added.  “We are going to take a modified LCS and take that as the baseline and then add changes or modifications to improve its lethality and survivability.”

The new ship will also have seven 11-meter Rigid Inflatable Boats for short combat or expeditionary missions such as visiting, searching and boarding other ships.

At the same time the anti-submarine technologies planned for the ship include a multi-function towed array sonar, variable depth sonar to detect submarines and sensors combined with a submarine hunting MH-60R helicopter.

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joe Bishop

While the LCS, which is currently in service with the Navy, is credited for its speed, maneuverability and shallow draft which enables it to access shallow water ports larger ships are unable to reach. The LCS ships in service this far have performed quite well, Navy officials explained.

The original initiative to engineer a more survivable and lethal LCS variant emerged out of a multi-month effort directed by Secretary Hagel and the formation of an entity called the Small Surface Combatant Task Force.

There was a chorus of concern from Pentagon leaders, members of Congress, analysts and some Navy officials about whether the existing LCS will be "survivable" enough to withstand and prevail in large-scale surface combat. Could the ship continue to function if struck by enemy fire? Does it have the needed long-range offensive strike capability?

While very few question the utility or overall benefit of having the LCS in the Navy fleet, the idea of a stronger, more weaponized and fortified Frigate variant seems to address these concern in the minds of many. This new analysis appears to be taking this effort even further. 

Several years ago, the Secretary of Defense directed the Navy to stop building LCS at 32 ship and do a study or come up with alternatives to see what the remaining 20 need to be to meet the small surface combatant requirement. .

The emerging Frigate ship will also be equipped with next-generation and stronger electronic warfare technologies far greater than the existing LCS and instead comparable to current Navy Cruisers and Destroyers, Navy developers have said.     

In addition, the ship will be configured in what’s called a “modular” fashion, meaning it will be engineered to accept and integrate new technologies and weapons as they emerge such as lasers and rail guns. It certainly seems realistic that a new, even more survivable Frigate might be engineered with an additional capacity for on-board electrical power such that it can accommodate stronger laser weapons as they become available. 

The Frigate is being engineered to meet anti-submarine and surface warfare missions at the same time.

Navy Missiles & Weapons Being Considered

Harpoon

The Littoral combat ship USS Coronado has successfully executed live-fire over-the-horizon missile tests using a Harpoon Block IC missile.

Navy officials told Scout Warrior that part of the rationale for the live-fire Harpoon exercise was to assess the ability of the LCS to withstand a deck-firing of the weapon. 

Harpoon is an all-weather, over-the-horizon weapon designed to execute anti-ship missions against a range of surface targets. It can be launched from surface ships, submarines and aircraft and is currently used on 50 U.S. Navy ships: 22 cruisers, 21 Flight I destroyers and seven Flight II destroyers, Navy statements said. 

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Michaela Garrison

The Boeing-built Harpoon reaches high subsonic speeds and is engineered to reach over-the-horizon ranges of 67 nautical miles, Navy information says. It has a 3-foot wingspan and weighs roughly 1,500 pounds. The air-launched weapon is 12-feet long and the ship and submarine launched Harpoon is 15-feet long; it uses Teledyne Turbojet solid propellant booster for surface and submarine launch, Navy information specifies. 

The Harpoon generates 600 pounds of thrust and fires with a sea-skimming mode to better avoid enemy ship radar detection. Its warhead uses both penetration and high-explosive blast technology. 

Naval Strike Missile 

The Naval Strike Missile, which has been assessed aboard the USS Freedom LCS, is built to find and destroy enemy ships at distances up to 100 nautical miles, service officials said.

The Naval Strike Missile weapon is developed by a Norwegian-headquartered firm called Kongsberg; it is currently used on Norwegian frigates and missile torpedo boats, company officials said.

 In 2014, NSM was successfully test fired from the flight deck of the USS CORONADO (LCS 4) at the Pt. Mugu Range Facility, California, demonstrating a surface-to-surface weapon capability, the Navy official explained.

First deployed by the Norwegian Navy in 2012, the missile is engineered to identify ships by ship class, Kongsberg developers said. 

The NSM is fired from a deck-mounted launcher. The weapon uses an infrared imaging seeker, identify targets, has a high degree of maneuverability and flies close to the water in “sea-skim” mode to avoid ship defenses.

The NSM was designed from the onset to have a maneuverability sufficient to defeat ships with advanced targets; the missile’s rapid radical maneuvers are built into the weapon in order to defeat what’s called “terminal defense systems."

Developers say one of the distinguishing features of the missile is its ability to avoid terminal defense systems based on a passive signature, low-observable technologies and maneuverability; it was specifically designed to attack heavily defended targets,

For instance, the NSM is engineered to defeat ship defense weapons such as the Close-In-Weapons System, or CIWS – a ship-base defensive fire “area weapon” designed to fire large numbers of projectiles able intercept, hit or destroy approaching enemy fire.

CIWS is intended to defend ships from enemy fire as it approaches closer to its target, which is when the NSM’s rapid maneuverability would help it avoid being hit and proceed to strike its target.

The NSM is also engineered with a “stealthy” configuration to avoid detection from ship detection systems and uses its sea-skimming mode to fly closer to the surface than any other missile in existence. The subsonic missile was designed to attack advanced CIWS systems by banking and turning with a horizontally stabilized seeker, Kongsberg officials said.  

Raytheon and Kongsberg signed a teaming agreement to identify ways we can reduce the cost of the missile by leveraging Raytheon’s supplier base and supplier management. Kongsberg is working with Raytheon to establish NSM production facilities in the U.S., Raytheon officials said. 

Kongsberg is also working on a NSM follow-on missile engineered with an RF (radio frequency) sensor that can help the weapon find and destroy targets.  

The new missile is being built to integrate into the internal weapons bay of Norway’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as well. 

Kongsberg and Raytheon are submitting the missile for consideration for the Navy’s long-range beyond-the-horizon offensive missile requirement for its LCS.  

The two firms are pitching the missile as a weapon which is already developed and operational – therefore it presents an option for the Navy that will not require additional time and extensive development.

Long Range Anti-Ship Missile

Lockheed Martin is developing a new deck-mounted launcher for the emerging Long Range Anti-Ship Missile engineered to semi-autonomously track and destroy enemy targets at long ranges from both aircraft and surface ships.

The weapon, called the LRASM, is a collaborative effort between Lockheed, the Office of Naval Research and the Defense Advanced Project Research Agency, or DARPA.

While this emerging weapon is earlier in the developmental process than both the Harpoon and the NSM, it could provide an even more capable, high-tech ability to the LCS or Frigate. However, industry sources indicate that the LRASM is expected to be much more expensive than the other alternatives, and a LRASM-specific deck-mounted launcher for the LCS would need to be operational before the weapon could successfully fire from the ship. 

Lockheed Martin

The adaptation of the surface-launcher weapon, which could be operational by the mid-2020s, would use the same missile that fires from a Mk 41 Vertical Launch System and capitalize upon some existing Harpoon-launching technology, Lockheed developers told Scout Warrior.

The LRASM, which is 168-inches long and 2,500 pounds, is currently configured to fire from an Air Force B-1B bomber and Navy F-18 carrier-launched fighter. The current plan is to have the weapon operational on board an Air Force B-1B bomber by 2018 and a Navy F-18 by 2019, Navy statements have said.

With a range of at least 200 nautical miles, LRASM is designed to use next-generation guidance technology to help track and eliminate targets such as enemy ships, shallow submarines, drones, aircraft and land-based targets.

"The objective is to give Sailors the ability to strike high-value targets from longer ranges while avoiding counter fire. The program will use autonomous guidance to find targets, reducing reliance on networking, GPS and other assets that could be compromised by enemy electronic weapons,” a Navy statement said.

The missile has also been test fired from a Navy ship-firing technology called Vertical Launch Systems currently on both cruisers and destroyers – as a way to provide long range surface-to-surface and surface-to-air offensive firepower.

Navy officials told Scout Warrior that the service is making progress with an acquisition program for the air-launched variant of LRASM and is also working on a ship-launched version of the anti-ship missile. 

High-Tech Semi-Autonomous Missile

Along with advances in electronic warfare, cyber-security and communications, LRASM is design to bring semi-autonomous targeting capability to a degree that does not yet exist. As a result, some of its guidance and seeker technology is secret, developers have said.

Once operational, LRASM will give Navy ships a more a short and long-range missile with an advanced targeting and guidance system able to partially guide its way to enemy targets and achieve pinpoint strikes in open or shallow water.

LRASM employs a multi-mode sensor, weapon data link and an enhanced digital anti-jam global positioning system to detect and destroy specific targets within a group of ships, Lockheed officials said.

LRASM is engineered with all-weather capability and a multi-modal seeker designed to discern targets, Lockheed officials said. The multi-mode sensor, weapon data link and an enhanced digital anti-jam global positioning system can detect and destroy specific targets within a group of ships, Lockheed officials said.

LRASM is armed with a proven 1,000-pound penetrator and blast-fragmentation warhead, Lockheed officials said.

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