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Four companies are locked into a race to build America’s next guided-missile frigate. The 20-ship program will likely be awarded in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election. Billions of taxpayer dollars are at stake. And with each new ship projected to cost American taxpayers about $1.3 billion to $900 million, the program is a “must-win” for some of America’s most storied naval shipyards.
But a mystery is distorting the competition.
One of the four designs is a secret. While three of the four contesting shipyards have been open, orchestrating intricate campaigns to introduce their design proposals, naval shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries is keeping it’s design under wraps.
The Future Frigate program was not meant to be this way. To drive as much technological risk as possible out of this new naval procurement effort, America’s next Frigate is meant to be an “Americanized” derivative of an existing combatant—a situation where many ancillary U.S. modifications may be a matter of high-tech secrecy, while the basic parameters of the underlying platform are known quantities to the Navy and, essentially, to everybody else on the planet.
The “parental” designs used by the three openly-announced contenders are not exactly modern technological marvels. Two of the proposed “parent” platforms trace their roots back to a brace of Cold War-era studies that attempted to define “common” European or NATO frigates, and the third is a derivation of a car ferry.
By keeping their design a “secret”, Huntington Ingalls is simply enjoying an opportunity to drive home a business advantage offered by Huntington Ingalls’ diverse surface combatant production lines–nothing more. The named candidates are all well-known designs that have been out at sea and operating for years. Maine-based General Dynamics Bath Iron Works is proposing a variant of the Alvaro de Bazan class frigate, a solid design from the Spanish shipbuilder Navantia. Wisconsin-based Fincantieri Marinette Marine is championing the Italian/French Fregata Europea Multi-Missione (FREMM) frigate. Alabama-based Austal USA is proposing a variant of the Independence class Littoral Combat Ship (LCS 2).
The naval architects at the surface combatant-focused Ingalls Shipyard, a Mississippi yard owned by Huntington Ingalls Industries, are proposing something, but, given the range of potential platforms the yard is positioned to offer, nobody knows what it is.
By keeping their “parent” design a secret, Huntington Ingalls have backed their rivals into a corner. By failing to lock into a defined design, Huntington Ingalls has kept their options open, retaining their flexibility as Navy requirements changed. Refusing to reveal the “parent” design has also made it very hard for competitors to, essentially, boost their own proposals by identifying shortcomings in Huntington Ingalls’ proposed design. In a business sense, this strategic silence is a stroke of genius. But that secrecy may not be doing much for the Navy–and it may even expose the competition to a bid protest capable of delaying–or even completely disrupting–this critical small combatant program.
What Is Huntington Ingalls Up To, Anyway?
Given the flexibility of the Ingalls yard, there are three viable options for Huntington Ingalls to pick from. The first, a de-scoped and simplified version of the venerable $1.9 billion Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) destroyer, offers a range of advantages. Ingalls builds the platform already. And with 87 conventional “Burkes” in service or contracted to be built, the Burke hull-form is a known quantity for the Navy, with training infrastructure, maintenance protocols and operational concepts already worked through or paid for.
Simplifying the ship is a real challenge. But, if the naval architects at Huntington Ingalls can manage to strip nearly a billion dollars out of the conventional “Burke” hull, the Navy would get a fresh take on a proven, survivable and upgradable hull-form—and probably have a lot of extra space and margin to “grow” the hull’s capabilities. In addition, Ingalls might even propose, “as a favor”, to pass their build share of the challenged DDG-51 Flight III variant to Bath Ironworks, saddling the Maine yard with what may prove to be something of an over-complex, high-tech lemon.
Another option might be a militarized variant of the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Security Cutter. Though Huntington Ingalls spent years unsuccessfully proposing a militarized NSC Cutter (the Patrol Frigate 4501 and Patrol Frigate 4921) to foreign militaries, a militarized National Security Cutter variant might be an interesting–albeit a little tight–offering for the U.S Navy.
The timing is right, too. With the Huntington Ingalls-built National Security Cutter finally leaving a tough teething period behind and completing a range of high-profile Coast Guard missions, today is a perfect time to propose some sort of militarized variation of this now-successful Coast Guard platform. And with Huntington Ingalls on the verge of closing out the NSC Cutter production run, a new NSC “frigate” variant–if picked in 2020–can slip right into the “hot” NSC Cutter production line.
Another proposal might be a different foreign design. One hypothesis is that Huntington Ingalls is proposing a variant of a British design that might not quite be in active service yet. Although the cost-effective Type 31 or the more high-end Type 26 frigates being built for the British Navy are not in service, they offer the U.S. Navy an effective path towards higher-end warfare.
To further drive down costs, Huntington Ingalls could also be incorporating certain proven aspects of foreign naval weapons systems. The Danish Stanflex system—an innovative modular weapons and sensor swap-out system is proven, has allowed the Royal Danish Navy to transform their cheap $225 million dollar Absalon frigate design into a higher-end $340 million Iver Huitfeldt multi-mission frigate. Incorporating a Stanflex-like design into either a foreign design, an Arleigh Burke spinoff or a NSC Cutter variant would be a formidable game-changer.
Conclusion: Show A Little Leg
Huntington Ingalls is America’s primary naval shipyard. But nobody–not even the defense industry press–is talking about why Huntington Ingalls is making such an effort to keep their design under wraps.
The rationale is pretty simple. By keeping their design a secret, Huntington Ingalls enjoys several competitive advantages. They avoid debate–and small naval frigates, by their nature, are creatures of compromise. No design is capable of pleasing everyone, and very single new Frigate design is easy to attack.
By refusing to release a design to the public, Huntington Ingalls sidesteps these attacks. It avoids public scrutiny and prevents competitors from orienting their proposals to attack potential shortcomings in whatever “parent” design now being used as a foundation for the Huntington Ingalls frigate.
While this secretive tactic is a stroke of business genius, the adoption of secrecy in large vessel procurement is concerning. Frankly, this rectitude stymies public efforts to keep the Navy honest, eliminating the opportunity for the Navy to evaluate well-thought-through criticisms from rival shipbuilders. Nobody is a tougher critic than experts from competing shipyards. The public, too, can offer constructive and valuable suggestions.
The Navy would also be wise to evaluate the costs and benefits of maintaining Huntington Ingalls’ little charade. Bid secrecy allows the Navy to quietly evaluate offerings without public pressure, but public interest in new designs is helpful as well. Public interest offers the Navy opportunities to develop stronger Congressional support for the frigate program and inculcate programmatic interest within the wider public.
Finally, the Navy must consider the potential that other competitors might use Huntington Ingalls’ stealth proposal as an excuse to protest the winner, potentially resetting the entire competition. If Huntington Ingalls wins, it is likely that a losing yard–facing a potentially existential loss of business–would try everything to de-legitimize the selection process. Suggesting that the Navy allowed Huntington Ingalls to enjoy an unfair competitive advantage by keeping their Frigate design under wraps is a palatable idea. Conversely, if Huntington Ingalls loses to a yard in one of the 2020 presidential “battleground” states, America won’t have a firm basis to understand the decision, leaving the Navy open to accusations of political gamesmanship.
By creating a level playing field now, and revealing the source Huntington Ingalls’ parent design, Navy can make their basis of decision on the next frigate far stronger. To start America’s next generation frigate off right, the best course is to let the competitors and the public have a glimpse at each of the four design choices in play for America’s next small surface combatant.