From 1968 to 1977 the number of surface combatants in the US Navy dropped from 304 ships to 182 ships. The 120 ships were unofficial casualties of the Vietnam war, an unpopular war that carried with it a heavy price tag at the time. In the early 1970s, Admiral Zumwalt Jr. recognized the decline in the surface fleet and put his ship engineers to work designing a "patrol frigate," basically a lightly armed escort capable of sustaining 20 knots intended to provide ocean escort of ships ranging from amphibious ships to logistical ships to merchant ships. The strategy was apart of a larger shipbuilding Hi-Low mix strategy that included very large aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, and guided missile cruisers at the high end, and a large number of relatively inexpensive ships low end ships.
During the design of the "patrol frigates" Zumwalt was ruthless in maintaining cost controls by cutting both the weight and the systems on the ships multiple times until it reached his price goals. There were many sacrifices made in the design of the patrol frigate, among them:
- Half inch plates of High-tensile alloy was replaced with medium steel three quarters as strong
- Aluminum hull instead of steel to conserve weight
- A single rail Mk13 missile launcher instead of a two rail launcher
- Reduced capability SQS-56 sonar instead of the new at the time SQS-53
- A reduced capability SPS-49 air-search radar instead of a "three dimensional radar, making it the only USN missile ship that couldn't determine a targets altitude
- Other postponed or deleted equipment included a recovery assist securing and traversing (RAST) control station, the SQL-32 Nixie, a MK 36 Super RBOC, and an ASROC launcher.
Source: No Higher Honor (ISBN 1-59114-661-5)
The result was the PF-109 class, which Zumwalt sent out to industry competition to complete the design. A struggling shipyard in Bath, Maine bid the job, and eventually won a contract of 92.4 million. In the Navy effort at the time to ensure more than one shipyard could build new ships, a second design award went to West Coast Todd Shipyards. The Oliver Hazard Perry class was born, and with a second award to Bath that was slightly longer to support the new LAMPS III, the FFG 7 came in two versions (known as short and long).
Some of the major cited capabilities of the FFG 7 was it's reduced crew, sporting 70 fewer sailors than other frigates of comparable size of that era, and a gas turbine propulsion plant instead of the steam power used by other combatants at the time. While some critics at the time pointed out the reduced weapons capability of the frigate with its "one armed bandit," many within the Navy generally accepted the frigate would never perform long patrols, that other ships would always be nearby, that its helicopters would bridge the gap in ASW, and the ship would never be used in a front line role.
The rest of the story isn't just history, it continues today...
This tale should sound eerily familiar to anyone remotely familiar with the current Navy Littoral Combat Ship program. Where the FFG-7 constituted part of the low end of what developed into the 600-ship plan, the LCS constitutes the low end of the 313-ship plan. The FFG 7 introduced new propulsion with gas turbines, like the LCS breaks ground with all electric engineering. The FFG 7 had reduced weapons, sensors, and capability because it was never intended to be a front line ship of action, which is how the LCS is introduced and sold. The FFG 7 was designed to reduce cost of ownership by reducing crew, just like the LCS is designed today by reducing its crew to 60% fewer sailors than even the FFG 7. The FFG 7 was thought to be able to bridge the gap in its weaknesses by participating with larger vessels with more capability, but without the endurance to sustain such operations without extensive logistical support. The LCS mimics this bad example. There were two versions of the FFG 7, just like there are two versions of the LCS. The FFG 7 has an aluminum hull to make it light and fast, just like both versions of the LCS have an aluminum hull to insure its littoral access and speed.
One could almost think these two stories are the same, except they aren't, in fact not even close, because the story of the FFG 7 ends differently.
In December of 1978 George Wilson of the Washington Post wrote a story about the Oliver Hazard Perry titled "Destroyer Built on Time, Under Budget." Vice Adm. Joseph Bulkeley who was president of the navy's Board of Inpection and Survey at the time personally conducted the Sea Trials of the Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG 7), and reportedly was so satisfied with the ship it returned 2 days early from its first trial. He was quoted as saying the ship was "magnificent" and "The Best Ship in 20 Years."
The LCS-1 is already overbudget by about 60% and still doesn't have a commission date set, not to mention one of the original 4 funded ships canceled completely. The FFG' 7s limitations have hurt the class over time, in both the USS Stark and USS Samuel B. Roberts incidents in the Persian Gulf. The FFG 7s expectations were shattered, as it did become a front line ship, despite being the low end of a shipbuilding plan intended to produce 600 ships. The LCS is also not intended to be a front line ship, but is sold as operating beside front line ships on the front line, while actually making up the entire low end (thus most affordable) of a 313-ship plan that stretches the budget to the seams.
These shipbuilding programs are similar stories that take two distinct roads heading into the last chapters. The FFG 7 story is about a cost effective ship program able to meet its requirements and perform its role effectively, even after the ships era passes the ship by, and sometimes going beyond its intended role despite its reduced weapon systems, reduced capability in electronic systems, and reduced crew.
The LCS story is about a program way over budget, being produced for a new role in an uncertain era of naval competition, with such limited on-board capability that it lacks even the potential to overcome its limitations in filling gaps for defensive roles in mildly contested seas. The LCS doesn't just have a reduced weapon payload, it has a bare minimum self defense load out that makes it legitimately questionable whether the LCS can intimidate even smaller 3rd world navy corvettes operated by potential adversaries, not to mention such a reduced crew compliment that the LCS is unlikely to overcome any potential disaster that it does accidentally encounter.
While some may think this story told of the FFG 7 sounds similar to the LCS, to me it is like comparing apples, and lemons.