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An answer to the shortage of US Navy ships faces it: a new frigate


China now has the world’s largest navy by number of hulls, the US Department of Defense confirmed in its recent report. Beijing armed forces report.

If America’s leaders choose to catch up, there is a class of ships just waiting for a financial boost. The fleet’s new missile frigate, which could meet America’s needs for larger ships while still being cheap enough to buy in large numbers.

But if the ConstellationThe class frigate – will save the US Navy, the White House, department heads and lawmakers must make important decisions and quickly.

According to the Pentagon’s tally, the People’s Liberation Army Navy has 355 frontline ships divided into three fleets deployed along the Chinese coast. The US Navy, on the other hand, has 305 frontline ships, distributed about 60-40 between the Pacific and Atlantic fleets.

Worse for US planners, the PLAN is on track to add 70 more warships by 2030, while the USN could hopefully add just 42.

There is an important caveat in this hull count. US ships move on average more than twice as much as Chinese ships. Greater displacement gives American warships greater range, better seakeeping, and superior combat survivability.

The US Navy shouldn’t even try to match the Chinese Navy, hull for hull. The Chinese fleet can organize and train for a unique and unique mission: an attack across the Taiwan Strait.

Beijing risks little by purchasing small consumable ships with limited range. It is not for nothing that the type 056 corvettes displacing 1,500 tons constitute a fifth (72) of the main ships of the PLAN.

The US fleet, on the other hand, supports Washington’s global foreign policy every day, day in and day out, all over the world. To deter not only China, but also Russia, Iran and North Korea. Patrol for smugglers. Training with allies.

U.S. ships routinely travel thousands of miles from their home ports, a requirement that largely dictates their larger size. So $ 2 billion Arleigh BurkeClass destroyers – displacing over 9,000 tons represent one-fifth (68 and over) of the major US Navy ships.

The Pentagon could bolster its manned warships with a large number of inexpensive unmanned ships – a few hundred million dollars each – that would only deploy in wartime, potentially making up for the reduced size of the fleet in times of war. peace.

If policymakers decide this is the solution, there are already several classes of robot ships in development that they could invest money in.

However, there is an alternative. The ConstellationThe – class frigate, formerly known as the FFG (X), could strike a balance between small, cheap robot ships and big, expensive destroyers.

At an estimated price of $ 1 billion apiece, the 7,300-ton frigates with their 32 vertical missile tubes aren’t exactly cheap, but they could be. fairly inexpensive for the Navy to afford a lot of them. Enough, perhaps, to keep pace with the PLAN’s own expansion.

This is not a far-fetched proposition. While the White House under President Joe Biden plans a production of just 20 Constellations, the Navy under the previous administration had offered to acquire up to 50 frigates over the next 20 years, with production peaking at four per year in the mid-2020s.

“The increase in the number of a small multi-mission fighter such as the FFG (X) allows a more efficient distribution of missions across the surface fleet, freeing up more efficient resources … for high-end critical missions”, said the Navy.

The Navy could push the White House for these 50 frigates. If that were the case, chances are the spending lawmakers – who typically add multiple ships to the administration’s annual shipbuilding demands – would be obliging.

It’s not just because they like to spend money. Representative Elaine Luria, a Democrat from Virginia who is the vice-chair of the House Armed Services Committee, clearly indicated the House of Representatives is ready to add ships to follow Beijing. “China is a threat and we have to take it seriously,” Luria said.

If the Navy embarks on a larger frigate program, it may need to invest in additional shipyard infrastructure. At present, only one shipyard – Fincantieri Marinette Marine in Wisconsin – is under contract to build Constellations, starting with two ships paid for by Congress in 2020 and 2021.

But the Navy considered assigning frigates to a second or even a third shipyard in order to speed up production. Several shipbuilding companies besides Fincantieri competed for the initial frigate contract, and each could in theory build Fincantieri’s design.

These sites include Austal in Alabama, Bath Iron Works in Maine and Huntington Ingalls in Mississippi. Imagine three shipyards together producing three or four or more frigates each year. A production program at a practically Chinese pace.

The strategy pursued by the US Navy as it scrambles to match PLAN’s expansion – more drones or more frigates or perhaps both – could become clearer once the service releases a new plan. shipbuilding plan over 30 years as part of its budget proposal for 2023.

There is always the option of doing nothing, of course. But that means giving up the naval race to China with its huge and growing fleet of mostly small ships.

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