NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – The program manager for the Constellation

-class (FFG-62) frigate this week said prime contractor Fincantieri Marinette Marine can meet the Navy’s demand for now and any decision on using a second shipyard to increase production has been pushed back later in the process.

The Navy’s fiscal year (FY) 2023 budget request said the service plans to alternate between buying one and two frigates per year over the next five years, starting with one in FY ‘23, a slower rate than predicted under the Trump administration, which pushed for eventually moving to using two shipyards to produce upward of four frigates per year (Defense Daily, March 28).

The current budget outlook “really has to do what can the Navy afford for the 30-Year Shipbuilding plan. So between the two administrations, there were some changes in the profile,” Capt. Kevin Smith, Constellation-class frigate program manager, said here during the Navy League’s annual Sea Air Space expo.

In 2020, former Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite said the Navy intended to procure more than the 20 planned frigates, with plans to buy up to 70 small surface combatant vessels, a category that includes frigates and Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) (Defense Daily, Oct. 29, 2020).

Last year at the same forum, Smith said when the Navy starts the process to decide on a second shipyard, they would bring them in early phases, before a competition to make sure they learn design, akin to how the service worked with industry on the initial design on the frigate. This would be a more collaborative process than purely providing the Technical Data package (TDP) (Defense Daily, Aug. 3, 2021).

Slide 6 from Guided Missile Frigate (FFG-62) Update presentation by Capt. Kevin Smith at the Surface Navy Association Symposium, January 12, 2020 (Image: U.S. Navy)
Slide 6 from Guided Missile Frigate (FFG-62) Update presentation by Capt. Kevin Smith at the Surface Navy Association Symposium, January 12, 2020 (Image: U.S. Navy)

The Navy has a TDP option in its contract to Fincantieri, which includes the technical and manufacturing information needed to build and support a system throughout its lifecycle, allowing the Navy to share that information with a potential second shipyard to build more frigates.

Smith argued the silver lining of the new planned pace of frigates is it gives Fincantieri the opportunity to better wring out any issues in ship construction, being a first time prime for the U.S. Navy. Fincantieri previously worked as a subcontractor for Lockheed Martin [LMT], building the Freedom-variant Littoral Combat Ships.

He noted while the decision was not made to give Fincantieri more time to get construction right, “but as far as learning curve, we know that Fincantieri, they know how to build ships up there and once they start cranking out the Constellation-class, we’ll look and see what the Navy decides to do as far as that ship buying profile and the acquisition community.”

The Navy awarded Fincantieri a $795 million contract for detail design and construction of the first ship in 2020, with options for nine more ships (Defense Daily, April 30, 2020). 

Last year, the Navy awarded Fincantieri another $554 million modification for the second frigate, the future USS Congress (FFG-63) (Defense Daily, May 21).

When asked if the Navy is walking away from the idea of a second yard generally, Smith pointed to upcoming long-term department plans that will guide the program.

“We, the Navy, love competition, so we have to create competition. Right now, from the perspective of the 30-Year Shipbuilding Plan…there’s going to be another Force Structure Assessment that’s going to be done and then we’ll look,” Smith said.

Last month during his confirmation hearing, Erik Raven, President Biden’s nominee to be the next Under Secretary of the Navy, said the Force Structure Assessment is ongoing and should be released “shortly” and released in the “very near future” (Defense Daily, March 22).

At the expo, Smith underscored the Navy still has the TDP option and he expects them to decide to use it at some point through the end of the initial 10-ship contract.

“Right now, we have that Technical Data Package available, we will probably go and buy it from Fincantieri, and…the Navy will look at qualifying candidate yards. And then when the decision is made to move forward, we’ll be ready to look at getting that second yard, second source, and then shoot,” Smith said.

“Right now, as the acquisition program manager, the requirement is not there right now. So right now Fincantieri can meet the demand of the current profile. But I’ll tell you the Navy, from where I’m standing, is very interested in frigate, so we’ll see,” he continued.

Smith said the decision has to do with the budget and the Navy’s total obligation authority, “ but we’re going to get ourselves ready.”

He said he could not specifically say when the Navy may buy the TDP, “but I’ll tell you that we have the Technical Data Package in the contract for a reason and then our thought would be a lead yard-follow yard.”

“So the Technical Data Package timing is really tied to — we feel, what’s the right time. One could submit that, hey, when the first ship is through its complete hull erection, that’s one way to go, you’ve captured all of the lessons learned on the lead ship,” Smith said.

“Obviously, there’ll be a point in time where we say hey we feel pretty good about where we are with the lead ship as far as construction and in the second ship the capture of all the other lessons learned that – hey we should go ahead and just pull the trigger on it and have it available. Can’t really give you a timeline per se,” he continued.

Smith acknowledged Congress said “they would like to have a mature design as well, but that’s not law – but that’s how we’re looking at it right now.”

He was referring to a provision in the FY ‘22 defense appropriations law that in its report said Congress was concerned prematurely adding a second shipyard before the first yard “has identified and corrected technical and production issues will inject unneeded risk and complexity into the program” (Defense Daily, Oct. 18, 2021).

For now, Smith said the Navy and Fincantieri are still working to finish the frigate design and not repeat previous problems with first in class ships to prevent the need for rework. “Lead ships are hard, they’re very hard – lead ships, we want to make sure we get the design right, functional engineering and detail design and 3D modeling so the shipyard can build to its work orders.”

Smith’s presentation slides said the frigate Critical Design Review (CDR) was expected in the second quarter of FY ‘22 followed by a production Readiness Review in the third quarter, when the Navy would also likely award Fincantieri the contract for the third frigate, the future USS Chesapeake (FFG-64).

“So right now the  Critical Design Review, I will tell you it’s soon, we’re almost there. The Fincantieri team along with Gibbs & Cox…have a partnership doing functional & detail design. Gibbs is doing most of the detail design in 3D models.”

Once the CDR is finished, the Navy and industry will move on to the Production Readiness Review, which is “making sure that we have the right material, we have all the right enabling products for the ship to move forward with its production. Having prime of the pump as far as all the initial work orders and all the things that make production successful. So we’re going to do that a little bit later this year and then we’re going to cut the steel on the first ship,” Smith said.