Hans Uwe Mergener
Fincantieri’s US subsidiary Fincantieri Marinette Marine has been selected to provide future guided missile frigates to the US Navy under the FFG(X) programme, beating competition from Austal USA, Huntington Ingalls Industries, Fincantieri Marine and General Dynamics Bath Iron Works and Lockheed Martin.
The detailed design and construction contract includes one ship in the current financial year (FY 2020) and options for up to nine additional vessels with a total value of US$5.58billion if all options are exercised. The cost of construction for vessel number one is estimated at US$1.3 billion, while the following ships are expected to cost US$800m US dollars each, though costs for the equipment and armament to be provided are either not, or only partially, included. The first ship is to be delivered 72 months after the contract is awarded, with the US Navy expecting the contract to be signed this year. Although the Pentagon’s procurement plans specify twenty new-generation frigates, the Navy has not committed itself to an acquisition strategy beyond the first ten units as it wants to retain the flexibility to order the next batch from another shipyard if necessary, something observers note could be done from FY 2025 onwards.
It is envisaged that FFG(X) will have air defence, anti-submarine warfare and surface combat capabilities both near the coast and on the high seas in order to help relieve large surface combat units of routine tasks. The programme dates back to 2015 and is a reaction by the US Navy to the fact that the Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) are not fulfilling their originally intended role to the extent expected. “FFG(X) is the further development of the ‘small’ naval surface unit with increased lethality, survivability and improved capability to support the National Defense Strategy across the entire range of military operations. It will undoubtedly help us to conduct large-scale naval operations more effectively and improve our ability to fight both in contested oceans and near coasts,” the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) of the US Navy, Admiral Michael M. Gilday, is quoted in US trade media.
The US Navy stipulated that FFG(X) must be built at a US shipyard and be based on an existing US design or the design of an ally. Fincantieri was awarded the contract to build the first unit and the options for the following nine – not only because key factors favoured the design, but as the US Navy expects added value from its adaptability to future technological developments. American observers have suggested other aspects, besides operational requirements, which may have been decisive.
For one, Fincantieri Marinette Marine and Lockheed-Martin are already working together on the FREEDOM Class of the LCS with twelve units launched in Marinette so far. In the past, the shipyard has created growth potential for itself, both in terms of infrastructure and finances while export projects have been acquired such as the multi-purpose frigates for Saudi Arabia. The American election campaign may also cast a shadow as in the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump unexpectedly won Wisconsin by a narrow margin of 0.77% – a gain of ten electoral votes.
Additionally, a look at the competitors reveals Austal in particular has suffered repetitional damage with its LCS design (the INDEPENDENCE class) while in addition, Australian aluminium shipbuilding is not well received by the US Navy. Ingall’s proposal, about which little was known, may have seemed too far-fetched and thus too uncertain in terms of risk management while their shipyard is considered to be working at full capacity. The same applies to General Dynamics Bath Iron Works, which is also facing imminent strikes imminent, while doubts about the stability of their proposal, which is based on the Spanish F-100 (or ÁLVARO-DE-BAZÁN class) from Navantia may not have been dispelled after the accident involving the Norwegian frigate HELGE INGSTAD (also a Navantia design).
Originally, ten shipyards applied for the FFG(X) programme including Lockheed Martin, which announced its withdrawal from the programme in May 2019 and Atlas North America, with a proposal based on the MEKO A-200 frigate.
The French-Italian “Fregata Europea Multi-Missione (FREMM) design is in service with the French, Italian, Egyptian, and Moroccan navies, though variants differ in maximum speed and crew size. For example, the French Navy plans to have eight FREMMs (six ASW and two air defence versions), which are considered more automated than their Italian equivalents. Italy has ordered ten, six in general purpose configuration and four as ASW platforms although the two currently under construction, SPARTACO SCHERGAT and EMILIO BIANCHI, are now scheduled for delivery to Egypt.
For Fincantieri, the American order represents a success with the Minister of Economics Roberto Gualtieri commenting on the result of the tender in a tweet: “The award of the US Navy tender for ten new frigates confirms Fincantieri’s excellence in shipbuilding. A contract of high technological and economic relevance that confirms the quality of Italian industry and the ability to relaunch our country”.
See the full specifications for the winning vessel here