Is HII’s “Missing” FFG(X) Using StanFlex? Is it a Type 31e?

by Craig Hooper on May 23, 2018

What is Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII) going to offer for the FFG(X) competition? America is in the midst of a multi-billion-dollar competition for the next surface combatant, and HII–after years of gleeful anti-LCS rabble-rousing, agitating for FFG(X) and showing all kinds of notional National Security Cutter (NSC)-based FFG(X) prototypes–has gone completely and utterly quiet.

Why has HII gone completely EMCON? If, as the defense press corps has uniformly accepted, HII is going to present a variant of their NSC Cutter, this radio silence is completely un-necessary. The NSC-based FFG(X) is a known quantity to the press; HII is in the midst of an NSC production run, Congress and the USCG love the NSC, HII used the NSC Cutter as a basis for notional FFG(X) designs in the past, the Navy wants a proven hull for the FFG(X) etc., etc. The idea that the HII FFG(X) offering is based on an NSC hull is so firmly rooted in conventional wisdom, it would be foolish to consider anything else. To many, HII’s NSC-based FFG(X) design is the hull to beat…

But then again, if HII is bidding an NSC Cutter variant, why all the mystery?  in the FFG(X) competition, HII’s silence is deafening. HII’s gag order is certainly self-imposed and not the Navy’s fault; HII pulled all their “frigated-up” NSC variant displays/models from the trade show circuit even though they’ve already been long-cleared for display by their naval minders.  Nobody is out detailing all the wins HII has eked out of the ongoing NSC Cutter production line. Nobody is out promoting a naval takeover of the bigger USCG Cutters in the name of “future commonality”. Even the HII NSC success stories are sotto voce these days.

What’s the deal?

Well, HII could be up to something very interesting. They just might be mulling the idea of proposing something very different–even risky, while using their silence to keep their options open. Certainly, the NSC hull is likely still HII’s foundational play play for the FFG(X), but, but, I think there is a chance HII is looking beyond NSC–and considering a Stanflex-equipped variant of some new-ish hull–possibly based on the UK’s Type 31e.

As a strategy goes, I love HII’s silence. If they’re baking up some new idea for the FFG(X) after years of promoting frigates based on the NSC, credulously accepting the NSC Patrol Frigate as the HII FFG(X) offering could end up being the biggest head-fakes a defense contractor has ever pulled on a credulous defense media, ever. It’s great fun to watch play out.

So What Am I Smoking…

…and how have I gotten to a Type 31e Stanflex?  Obviously, all the other notional FFG(X) designs offer some degree fo flexibility. Each offers a low-end to high-end mix of fittings. That’s prudent; given the plasticity of Naval FFG(X) requirements of late and the innate flexibility of the LCS Class incumbents, none of the non-LCS competitors can risk presenting a variant whose capabilities were largely “frozen” and unable to show the Navy a viable and easy “a la carte” path from high-end to low-end and back.  The FREMMs–with their various flavors–can easily mix-and-match systems and the F-100s can accommodate a range of  low-to-high-end systems integration paths as well. But the NSC variants–at least as they were publicized back in ’11-’15–really don’t. As the smallest conventional offering, system/weapons trades for the NSC would likely lead to knotty and controversial capability trades that the larger–and innately-flexible conventional-hull F-100/FREMM offerings–could avoid.

Flexibility is key. With this competition–where the bidding strategy and proposal requirements aren’t quite ironed out–systems flexibility has become a paramount concern. Look, if the goal is to offer the “lowest-cost technically acceptable” bid, then any FFG(X) proposal out there needs the freedom to accommodate a really broad range of requirements. LCS competitors want the Navy to be able to effortlessly add and subtract capability so they can keep their high-end options open while driving to the best priced solution-set for whatever conventional-hulled LCS-killing requirements they want. And with LCS dead, it’d be easy to add capability.

So, with flexibility in mind, how does HII distinguish itself from the low-end, low cost LCS variants and the bigger, more commodious conventional offerings?  How could it make capability trades easier for the naval customer?  Well, the Danes have shown us in their evolution from the $225 million-dollar Absalon base model to the $340 million Iver Huitfeldt, that their StanFlex system offers a neat path for a conventional hull to span low-end to high-end capability in a way that is a just a little more flexible/easily done than the F-100 and FREMM designs. And that might be enough of an edge to win.

Hats Off To The Danes:

Why is Stanflex an option?  Well, throughout this whole FFG(X) down-select process, the Danes have been marketing the heck out of their flexible platforms. In their effort to sell their high-end Stanflex-based Iver Huitfeldt design, tireless Danish embassy personnel taught a master-class at how to engage DC tastemakers. I mean, I literally watched the always-delightful Lt. Col. Per Lyse Rasmussen work over Sydney Freedberg as he was working this hit piece up. Danes moved quickly to send their ships out to work with U.S. battle groups (see the photo above), they reached out to researchers, brought (and tried to bring) Stanflex ships of various flavors over to the USA, and they’ve been an ubiquitous presence at every naval function in the DC area.

But what got me thinking was the fact that the Danes–even though every shipbuilder has found their ostensibly non-Danish solution–haven’t let up on their FFG(X) marketing efforts. They’re still marketing away, but they’re almost exclusively focusing on the Stanflex concept. And that tells me that Stanflex is in play with somebody, someplace. And I’m wagering that that someplace is HII.

Meanwhile, In the UK..

I’m less certain about HII’s interest in the Type 31e, the low-end export-focused global frigate the UK is set upon building, but, for the sake of argument, here’s a theory.

For a refresher, here’s what the First Sea Lord told us about the Type 31e back in November:

In order to continue meeting our current commitments, we need the Type 31e to fulfil routine tasks to free up the more complex Type 45 destroyers and Type 26 frigates for their specialist combat roles in support of the strategic nuclear deterrent and as part of the carrier strike group.

So although capable of handling itself in a fight, the Type 31e will be geared toward maritime security and defence engagement, including the fleet ready escort role at home, our fixed tasks in the South Atlantic, the Caribbean and the Gulf, and our NATO commitments.

The mission fits and the pieces are all there. Janes reported in April that the Danish ship design consultancy Odense Maritime Technology (OMT) joined the Babcock-led industry group bidding for the United Kingdom’s Type 31e frigate program. OMT is, essentially, the Stanflex tech rep.

BMT–who is hot off the win of the Army’s MSV(L) landing craft program– is also in the mix here, so I’m assuming we’re looking at something like the BMT’s “Venator 110” or the Babcock “Arrowhead 120” design. They are offering a modern, conventional hull, built to robust UK standards and the hull is at a point in development where it probably could be more easily “Americanized” than the F-100 and FREMMs can. That, and the hull seems roomy enough to accommodate more capability than what the UK’s “low-end” variant is showing right now.

The Type 31e design offers other advantages over an NSC variant as well; the Type 31e is being designed with export in mind. Various flavors of F-100, the FREMM and even the Freedom Class LCS are either already in or slated to see service in foreign navies. In contrast, the NSC-based hull-form was, after an intensive global marketing campaign, running out of road. Nobody had bought in, and the FMS NSC-based variants were, essentially, duds, spurned by everybody.

And finally, the Type 31e build-strategy is predicated on modular/distributed fabrication. That could be a very interesting sop to the existing LCS yards (or other critical Congressional delegations) to, essentially, “spread the wealth” around the country while also charting a path towards–if needed–a far faster build-tempo for a Navy aiming at 355 ships.

Of course, the Type 31e hasn’t been built yet. It’s not in service anywhere. But Stanflex, however, has been in service for decades, and the fancy US Navy stuff able accommodate the Stanflex interface has been around for decades as well. In my mind, Stanflex could be exactly what HII needs to convince the Navy that the Type 31e’s base Hull, Mechanical and Electrical (HME) components are so mature and so low risk that the Navy can accommodate an untried hullform in the FFG(X) contest. And, frankly, a brand-new digital design (and all the rights) can more easily be transferred over to the government (a non-trivial thing that BMT is demonstrating with the Army’s MSV(L) program) than some others might be.

Conclusion:

The fact that HII has progressed through the FFG(X) competition with no hint of what they are offering leaking into the public domain is amazing. But it also suggests that too few people in Congress or the press are monitoring this multi-billion-dollar investment of taxpayer money. It may be irrelevant–the idea that HII is offering a Type 31e and/or Stanflex interfaces IS a long shot–but it would be good to have HII’s design signposts out there for navalists and national security policymakers to openly debate.

So yes, the smart money is that HII will offer a variant of their National Security Cutter, but, what the hell, I’ll go for the long-odds dark-horse if it generates a wider appreciation for HII’s fascinating no-PR gambit. If this sparks some discussion of the FFG(X) concept, I’ll be thrilled.

Regardless of route, HII has a tough road ahead. The Bath-built F-100 is still the platform to beat, but the high-level US-based FREMM team is going to give F-100 a run for it’s money. The best “low-cost” option is probably the Independence LCS variant, while the Freedom Class is, well, essentially DOA. I just don’t see an NSC variant being too competitive in this mix. while, on the other hand, the distributed Type 31e production potential and the money-saving, flexible and proven Stanflex interface could be the basis for a very solid offering.

But nobody can mull the merits if nobody knows HII’s plan. It’s inexplicable that this great opportunity for an enterprising, hungry member of America’s defense press corps is passing folks by. If I am right and HII has actually abandoned the NSC variant,  then far too few people are out there, probing, and that, gentle readers, would be a real black eye for the defense press and maritime policy circles. This is a delightful gambit worth trying once–but if HII’s radio silence it is TOO successful it’ll only deaden debate and generate less public interest/engagement, civic behaviors which, while convenient for the Navy in the short-term, will ultimately lead to a far less powerful U.S. Navy.

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Arrowhead V Leander – the leading Type 31e frigate candidates compared – Jack Nicholson
June 6, 2018 at 8:40 am

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

bryan May 23, 2018 at 9:25 pm

Dr Hooper,

I have heard several people suggest that the F-100 is the hull to beat. I find it curious that the Navy would pick a ship that will cost more than the alternatives and if it can be made to a level III survival level could interfere with the DDG(X). For what the Navy wants I suspect the LCS Freedom frigate is the hull to beat. Not that I believe it should be bought.

Do you believe the F-100 could be made for a billion? I suspect it will be somewhere from 1.25-1.5B.

Don’t get me wrong, In light of our debt/budget problem I believe the answer to the FFG(X) and the DDG(X) is to make the DDG-51 flight III a specialty ship for BMD and foregoing the DDG(X). The Navy can either continue to build the DDG IIA with EASR or to buy a DDG lite such as the F-100. But that would require the Navy to use the F-100 for some of the traditional DDG missions such as escorting amphibs. I don’t see them every willingly doing that. They, like so many other institutions in trouble, kneel at the feet of progress.

Reply

Craig Hooper May 23, 2018 at 9:56 pm

Nah, pick out any of the conventional hulls in the FFG(X) competition and they’ll certainly inflate well past a billion…$1.5 Billion is realistic. And that lands us right into a de-scoped Burke territory. Modernize the plant for efficient operations, shed bodies by eliminating some of the higher-end sensors and the like and then we’re within spitting distance on price. Here’s the link:

http://nextnavy.com/time-to-consider-a-low-end-littoral-operations-variant-ddg-51/

But I think the USN really wants a new conventional hullform to kick around, tbh.

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bryan May 24, 2018 at 10:42 am

A good read. And a viable option. Sadly, the Navy can commission several straw-man studies to explain how your good idea just isn’t efficient when it comes to VLS to manning or VLS to price. They simply just don’t get or care about any of that. Their institutional momentum is a real time train wreck.

We also have no one in Congress that has the inclination to stop the Navy continuing on it’s foolish path. So my prediction is the Navy(entire military really) will continue on their path until they simply can’t. What will that look like? Much like the Soviets, we will park our hulls and spend the vast majority of our budget keeping reactors from going critical.

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Bryan May 23, 2018 at 11:26 am

HII’s silence is rather odd. But we’ve seen recent antics that don’t seem to have any reason other than pumping up stock prices. Who knows.

Like you I would bet that HII will put the NSC in for their hull. The secrecy might surround the amount of change they may submit. Closing the stern in will allow deck space to radically alter the superstructure. The secrecy might be a 32 VLS NSC with a bit more reduction in the RCS to the superstructure.

As far as a true dark horse? Well I’ll go crazy and suggest HII could jump on the band wagon with everyone else in the Navy and say, “Just buy more Burkes”. Like Lockheed is submitting a stretched hull form could HII submit a proven hull form yet make changes to it?
So could HII submit a 48 VLS Evolved II Burke? Perhaps a 470 foot CODAG mini burke. Just evolving again from what they submitted for the Hobart competition? That would be a dark horse.

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Craig Hooper May 23, 2018 at 9:40 pm

A simplified Burke variant (I’ve written about the littoral Burke for awhile) would solve a lot of things–it’s a proven hull, it’s a program of record and modifications wouldn’t run into a Test and Evaluation buzz-saw.

But whenever I mention a de-scoped DDG-51, “tastemaker” folks get all queasy for some reason.

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Philip R O'Leary May 23, 2018 at 11:42 pm

I agree this makes the most sense. In fact, they might be able to make a HED work on such a ship due to having less intensive radars and requirments and it would have the added benefit of having similar ship handling characteristics.

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The Dude May 24, 2018 at 10:29 am

HED is a goat’s breakfast. How about just a more efficient/quiet propulsion system?

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Bryan May 24, 2018 at 11:39 am

HED could have it’s place on certain hulls. Some folks just want to put it on everything because it’s new tech. That is silly. If you need to go fast to keep up with a carrier but need to go slow during other missions, the HED can increase fuel efficiency. HED also allows for more variable power plant placement on a tight hull space.

One of the big problems when we talk hulls is, “Just buy a Burke” syndrome. There is a very real difference to a ship’s propulsion that must stay with the carrier and a ship that is just staying with an amphib or on presence mission. If the Navy would separate those missions into two different hulls then your ideas would start to make sense.

That difference is also important when quieting a propulsion. There is being quiet so the sub has a harder time finding you and being quite so you can isolate your ships sensors from your own motor noise.

For carrier escorts there is no need for the first. When the escorted, on a daily basis has marine mammals surf on its bow wake, you are not going to be quiet. You are not going to make it harder to be found with a quiet propulsion.

New ASW tech has also helped the isolation issue for all ships.

bryan May 24, 2018 at 10:30 am

“Tastemaker” is a good description.

I do come at the DDG lite from perhaps a different direction. I believe the debt crisis is a strategic problem that isn’t in the future but is happening now. e.g. 2008 is how it will continue to look (most Americans foolishly believe end of empire looks like Armageddon).
The Navy absolutely rejects this type of thinking. Bigger is better and and, what about the laser? They will hollow out the fleet between recessions and get more money on the rebound (even if it cost sailors lives). They’ve been doing that for decades.

It might not be high tech but having a navy that gets better gas mileage per hull. Having a hull that then allows greater range. Making efficient hulls for lower manning instead of optimized for vls (not the Navy’s magic manning numbers but true optimization). This is what a resilient navy looks like. This is what helps win wars.

The above requires one thing, splitting the DDG mission apart. We can not only skip DDG(X) but permanently cancel CG(X). I suspect by removing the BMD mission from the DDG lite we can make changes that hit the trifecta of savings: smaller hull, smaller crew and less fuel. Spread that out over not just 52 Frigate hulls but half the DDG hulls and the Navy has more than a bit of savings over the life of it’s ships.

Using the Flight III as a carrier escort and even make a flight IV with their precious laser will give a small number of high capacity ddg’s to escort the carriers for war time air power. Let’s face it, we don’t need more super carriers. We need less. We need to use the Amphibs as peacetime carriers. But perhaps I’m preaching to the choir on some of this?

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Nate June 3, 2018 at 10:32 am

I dont think you can use an amphib as a carrier, peacetime to otherwise.
I know it looks like a flattop, but it doesn’t have the capacity for any kind of sustained air operations, even with the fantasy of sticking some F-35B’s on it. Not in any kind of serious tempo.
For prestige and USN presence? Sure, fits the bill, its big, impressive, and carries a lot of seamen.
As to the discussion,
Im confused, maybe its my ignorance, but making a shorter shallower DDG lite, sounds like an entire redesign entailing all the requirements of a full testing program for a new unproven hull form, to make it littoral sounds like too profound a change for it to be simply accepted as a ‘proven design’.
I doubt congress would ever allow a foreign design to be built for USN, even if the navy screams for one.
So its an LCS with simpler/slower/cheaper engine spaces or the Cutter. Don’t see it going any other way. I have no idea which is a better option. Both seem overly expensive for what you’re getting.

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Bryan June 3, 2018 at 12:40 pm

I hear what you are saying, but a carrier that is not present has a sortie generation rate of zero. I assure you during the 80’s we never even came close to attaining the advertised rate on the Nimitz unless we came close to killing people. On other carriers they did kill people trying. The reason the Navy believes it needs that sortie rate is to kill the Soviets. The very nature of our evolving threats assures that we will never need that rate. The carrier will be too far away geographically to make that happen.

In real life we need Vastly less sorties. A harrier carrier absolutely will get the job done. It’s not a replacement for the super carrier. It’s the forward presence. It has far less strategic risk than forward deploying our limited super carriers. If we ever go to war against China, our kids will not talk about Pearl Harbor. They will talk about Yokosuka and Sasebo and how we lost 20% of our fleet.

Now the LHA is not a good wartime carrier because it doesn’t have the necessary speed for ASW and certainly doesn’t have the legs. But it doesn’t do a good job at getting Marines ashore during war time either. It’s just too risky to put 3-4B that close to shore. Right now it is a peace time carrier (Libya), help on planned ops(Iraq), peacekeeping, and that’s it.

Again during peace time we absolutely need air cover. We are talking about putting a super carrier in the Med because? Russia has a few aircraft in Syria. Just crazy. We love talking about modularity and such. But that’s all it is. Just talk. We can’t use light carriers because? Congress might think we need less super carriers.

As for the LCS, many of the problems were caused by the Navy and can be fixed by the Navy. But, and there is always a but, if I were a PLAN Admiral and needed a plan to hollow out my enemies’ force I would definitely suggest more level one survival on their ships. It is the best strategic way to:

1. Kill more sailors for each incident (mines, missiles, torpedos, hitting tankers, running aground) even in peace time.
2. Have a higher likelihood of sinking if hit. Thus causing other ships to help sooner when they should be fighting.
3. Have a higher likelihood of not being fixable if hit but doesn’t sink.

There are other ways to get the coverage with a level 2 ship. But that requires busting up the DDG mission because we just don’t have the money. But keep in mind that we don’t have the money for more DDG and more LCS. So the plan to save money with LCS didn’t work out.

They don’t like that idea and will never go for it. Is it a bad idea? That’s debatable, but it’s a non-starter due to how high end officers make high end admirals. Being perceived as not making a bigger, more powerful ship is a way out of the Navy, not a way up in rank. That’s true even if the plan makes the Navy more resilient.

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