Helicopters, drones, over-the-horizon attack missiles, missile defense radar and deck-mounted guns are all key elements of the Navy’s vision for its emerging Constellation-class Frigates intended to fill a critical mission gap between the lighter, shallow-water Littoral Combat Ship and heavily-armed “blue water” warships such as cruisers and destroyers.
“The ships will perform surface warfare, electromagnetic warfare and air warfare. In a lot of ways it is like a DDG (Destroyer), it just does not have all the magazine capacity and does not have all the armament you would expect of a DDG. This is a Frigate,” Capt. Kevin Smith, Frigate Program Manager told an audience at the 2022 Surface Navy Association Symposium.
At the same time, make no mistake, these Frigates will be armed and combat capable warships equipped with over-the-horizon Naval Strike Missiles, Rolling Airframe Missiles and the Mk 48 Gun Weapons System. The ship will operate with one MH-60R SeaHawk helicopter and one drone, supported by Vertical Launch Systems and Variable Depth Sonar for submarine hunting.
Smith described the Frigates mission as a “hybrid” or multi-purpose approach, meaning it can perform heavy, open-water maritime warfare missions, yet also fill critical mission gaps such as escort operations or protecting valuable assets.
“Its an agile, multi-mission platform and just like a DDG, its going to be dual purpose. For things like escort missions for high value units, it is going to take a lot of the workload off of the DDGs and the Cruisers out there,” Smith said.
Missions to escort and protect groups of otherwise vulnerable surface ships passing through critical strategic waterways may not need the weapons range and full force firepower of a destroyer, yet it will clearly need to be armed and ready for maritime warfare in the event of an attack. By performing these missions, Frigates can free up Cruiser and Destroyer for heavier ocean war missions.
Constellation-class Frigates Aegis Radar
Also of great significance when it comes to the question of maritime warfare capability, the Constellation-class Frigates are being equipped with Aegis radar, a ballistic missile defense system combining sensitive radar for threat tracking with ship-integrated fire control and interceptor weapons.
This also includes closer in air and cruise missile defense capability, meaning it can try to find and help destroy enemy helicopters, drones, fixed-wing aircraft and incoming attack weapons such as anti-ship cruise missiles.
Frigates will receive an Aegis-capable radar system now being integrated into Ford class carriers called the Enterprise Air Surveillance radar or A/N SPY 6 v3, a sensitive threat detection radar tailored to the kinds of mission requirements anticipated for the Frigates.
Video Above: The Navy is working on new radars called The Spy 6, 30 times more sensitive than existing radar
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As part of the SPY 6 family of radars, EASR is a scaled or tailored system, meaning it does not need the massive range and sensitivity of SPY 6 v1 systems being built into DDG 51 Flight III destroyers yet still operates with an effective and highly sensitive radar suited for its mission requirements.
Constellation-class Frigates Construction
The Navy is about to start building its first-in-class new Frigate, a first step toward adding a new fleet of heavily-armed Constellation-class ships intended to protect high value units, support distributed maritime operations and conduct warfare missions at sea.
The service plans to formally begin construction of its first ship, the USS Constellation, by April 2022 once current design work is completed.
“The biggest thing about a lead ship class is you have to get the design right before you start building it,” Capt. Kevin Smith, Program Manager for the Frigate, told an audience at the 2022 Surface Navy Association symposium. “We're getting through our functional design and we're getting through our detailed design. We're going to have a critical design review this year. And then when we're ready, we're gonna go ahead and move into the production phase of the ship Constellation.
”The Navy’s plan to add the new class of ships is progressing along an ambitious timetable and seems to be on track to keep pace with the service’s 30-year Shipbuilding Plan released last year which calls for as many as 15 Frigates to begin development within just five years.
“We have three ships now that have been named the Constellation, the Congress and the Chesapeake. Two of those ships have been awarded to Fincantieri, the third ship USS Chesapeake is an exercise option that we'll be looking at this fiscal year,” Smith said.
The Navy is working with Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri to build as many as two new Frigates every year. Fincantieri is standing up a land-based engineering facility in Philadelphia to “burn down risk” by performing development, tests, assessments and integration.
“What we've learned in Aegis Shipbuilding is you want to try to reduce risk as much as possible on the land based test side,” Smith added.
Smith said the Navy intends for the new ships to operate for at least 25 years, but that efforts are underway to strengthen the hull to enable an even longer service life. The ship is 496 feet long and displaces 7,300 tons. The Frigates are not being built with the kinds of armaments used on destroyers, yet the ships will be armed with heavy weapons, Aegis radar and missile-launching Vertical Launch Systems. Its size and weight specifications are, by design, intended to fit the ship in between the Littoral Combat Ship and DDG 51 destroyers.
The Navy is now making its final tweaks, assessments to the ship’s final design in preparation for construction, a process which the Navy plans to fast-track in order to ensure the new class of ships gets to war as quickly as possible.
“We want to make sure that we don't start building a ship, where design is not mature,” Smith said.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven -the Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.