The Navy may be shedding all its frigates by the end of next year, but the ships are still busy and in high demand — creating a dilemma for the Navy over which ships will pick up their missions.
Defense experts say that it's an open question of when the littoral combat ships joining the fleet will be ready to take on challenging missions like counterdrug operations and sub-hunting — frigate mainstays that have pushed their deployment pace. Some anticipate that Military Sealift Command ships and other auxiliaries may pick up some of the slack.
"There is a big unknown in regard to LCS when the three types of [mission] modules will come online and will test sat[isfactory]," said retired Capt. Jan van Tol, who's now a defense expert with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Even toward the end of their service lives, Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates play an oversize part in Navy operations. Between 2011 and 2013, for instance, frigates spent roughly a third of their time underway on average, higher than many ship classes.
The LCS is a revolutionary warship designed to load out separate mission modules, like those being developed for mine hunting, anti-submarine warfare and combating small boats.
When the frigates vanish by the end of 2015 — an accelerated retirement schedule due in part to budget pressure, experts say — there will be roughly eight LCS hulls in the fleet, fewer than the 11 frigates currently in service.
And it remains unclear when they can be deployed for missions such as narcotics interdiction or ASW.
The LCS is also slated to take over mine-hunting missions from the Avenger-class mine countermeasures ships, now nearing the end of their service lives.
In a statement, Navy spokeswoman Lt. Jackie Pau said that the service would employ whatever ships it could to fill the mission requirements.
"Our missions are platform-agnostic," Pau said. "There is no singular ship replacement for the decommissioning frigates as outlined in the Navy's Future Years Defense Plan or the 30-year shipbuilding plan. The missions previously conducted by FFGs will be performed by other elements of the fleet, including LCS, [destroyers] and JHSVs."
'Ad hoc response'
Navy observers agree that the service will have to string together a strategy to make up for the absent frigates.
To fill the gap, the Navy is going to have to get creative, and some missions, such as the counterdrug patrols and presence missions in South and Central America, could suffer, said retired Cmdr. Bryan Clark, a former aide to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert and an analyst at CSBA.
"I imagine they'll go into the kit bag to cover some of these missions," Clark said, adding that the move would be "not such a bad thing, because it will force them to look at different ways of using the mobile landing platform, perhaps the [dry cargo ships] or the joint high speed vessel. But this is all based on sort of an ad hoc response to something they should have anticipated."
Navy leaders view these vessels as alternatives for low-end missions like training foreign navies and disaster relief. At April's Sea-Air-Space exposition, Greenert extolled the JHSV as a cheaper option to cover missions like counterpiracy, freeing up blue-water combatants for other missions.
"We need lower-cost approaches," Greenert said. "We need to tailor the ship more to the mission."
This is something that's already happening in the fleet. In May, the Spearhead, the lead ship in the JHSV class, returned from Africa Partnership Station, one of the many train-and-assist missions that frigates have done in the past.
The Spearhead is now in the Caribbean on patrol, having made stops in the Dominican Republic and Belize. The Navy is ordering 10 of the JHSVs, which will be forward-deployed around the world.
But the Navy isn't the only service eager to use the JHSV — the Marine Corps is also excited by the platform.
Capt. Marc Lederer, a former mission commander for the JHSV Spearheard, told Navy Times in May that the ship can carry as many as 312 Marines and 600 tons of equipment. And the Office of Naval Research is testing a lightweight ramp that can support an M1-A1 tank.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Amos recently joked that the ramp was the "John the Baptist of ship-to-shore connectivity."
Ultimately, though, the Navy will need another frigate, van Tol said, and the service is looking at options including adding vertical launch tubes to a future frigate class for missiles, better preparing the vessel for more high-end missions like defending an aircraft carrier from incoming missiles.
"There are frigate missions that LCS is just simply not designed to do," van Tol said. "Carrier operations is one of them, and there are questions about its survivability. I suspect that's one of the principal reasons that the Pentagon put out a proposal for a new ship that will serve as an actual replacement for the frigate."
In February, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel cut the number of LCSs the Navy plans to buy from 52 to 32 and directed that the service put forward "alternative proposals to procure a capable and lethal small surface combatant, generally consistent with the capabilities of a frigate."
In testimony before Congress, both Greenert and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus have said that the new frigate-like ship will likely be a variant of the LCS, because it is difficult, time-consuming and expensive to design a whole new ship from scratch. ■