U.S. Navy copies sleek Italian design for its new warships

The U.S. Navy, burned in the past, is stepping back from reinventing — or even redesigning — the wheel. 

That’s why the Navy’s new Constellation-class of frigates might bring to mind warships currently deployed on the high seas by European countries. It was based on the Fregata Europea Multi-Missione (FREMM) family of vessels from the Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri for the navies of Italy and France.

When it offered the new contract, the Navy told the bidders to consider adapting an existing design for the program — then known as FFG (X) — and in April 2020, awarded Fincantieri’s U.S. subsidiary, Fincantieri Marinette Marine, a $5.5 billion contract for the lead ship and nine additional ships.

The first ship will be the USS Constellation. 

The entire approach marks a sea change from the Navy’s troubled Littoral Combat Ship program, a radically different concept for a small surface combatant that was considered critical to the Navy‘s evolving mission but which has been bedeviled with cost overruns and mechanical problems for years. 

“There are always challenges when you build a first-in-class ship but we started with a phenomenal parent design — the FREMM —  which is internationally known as a reliable, versatile, and operationally proven warship,” Dario Deste, president of Fincantieri Marine Group, said in a statement.

The Constellation class will be capable of carrying out several missions, including taking on enemy aircraft, ships and submarines along with electromagnetic warfare. Unlike the LCS, the new frigates will be capable of operating both near the shore as well as the deep ocean. 

The new frigates, known as FFG 62, are not an exact copy of the FREMM design, however. The hull has been lengthened about 23 feet to accommodate larger generators and future growth. The bow design was modified to remove a sonar dome for stability and the propeller was changed for what Navy officials said was “improved acoustic performance.”

Retired Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery, who commanded the USS George Washington carrier strike group during his 32-year Navy career, said officials were clearly considering the headaches from the LCS program when they envisioned how their new frigates would be produced.

“It’s a way to get multimission-capable surface combatants into the fleet and at a reasonable pace,” said Adm. Montgomery, now senior director of the Center on Cyber and Tech Innovations at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington, D.C. “This could easily be a 20- to 40-ship buy over time.”

Analyst Alexander Wooley, a former Royal British Navy officer, said U.S. Navy officials were hoping the innovative LCS design would in theory result in a “Swiss Army knife-style vessel.”

Instead, the real-world product “manages to combine a lack of firepower with serious defensive vulnerabilities and routine mechanical breakdowns,” Mr. Wooley wrote in a new analysis for Foreign Policy.com.

“Two key systems — to counter mines and submarines — have never become operational,” he noted. “LCS costs doubled during construction, the original class size of 52 was cut to 35, and the Navy is retiring the lead ships after just a dozen years of service.”

Adm. Montgomery said he was encouraged by the Navy’s plan to add frigates to the fleet. But, he warned, Naval officials will need to guard against “mission creep.”

“They’re going to have to absolutely temper the appetite for more modifications and not have the last-minute changes,” he said. “That will kill the cost. They need to lock it in.”

Littoral combat ships were conceived as fast warships that could operate in close-in coastal environments and carry out a range of missions, from anti-submarine warfare to minesweeping, through customizable modules that could be switched depending on the operation. But that concept was eventually deemed impractical after the Navy spent millions trying to make a go of it.

The Navy already decommissioned the lead ships of the two LCS variants, the USS Independence and last month the USS Freedom, after only about a decade of service. Officials said the decommissioning ceremonies were kept discreet — only former crew members were invited — because of COVID-19 concerns.

The LCS program was supposed to herald in a radical change in approach for Navy shipbuilding. The Constellation-class frigate is more of a return to norms for the Navy’s acquisition program. 

“There is a recognition that we needed this kind of surface combatant. The design selection clearly reflects some risk-mitigation based on the LCS experience,” Adm. Montgomery said. “I think this was an intentional effort to be successful.”

The Constellation class of frigates will be the model for how the Navy builds its next class of destroyers, said Adm. Michael Gilday, Chief of Naval Operations.

“I can’t afford for (Constellation class frigate program) to be anything but coming off a world-class production line that produces a ship that we can count on,” Adm. Gilday said at this year’s annual Surface Navy Association convention, according to Defense News. “Those have to be world-class efforts that deliver on time, on budget, with the right capacity [and] with the right capabilities that we need.”

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