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An artist rendering of the U.S. Navy FFG(X) Constellation-class guided-missile frigate. U.S. Navy graphic.

Navy Frigate and Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Face Similar Design Challenges

Malte Humpert
Total Views: 4004
May 30, 2024

By Malte Humpert (gCaptain) –

A new U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report details a multitude of missteps of the Navy’s FFG 62 Frigate program. A key shortcoming is the start of construction before finalizing the design.

The vessel’s design challenges closely mirror those faced by the U.S. Coast Guard’s Polar Security Cutter (PSC) program. Similarly to the Navy the USCG now also intends to begin construction of its new heavy icebreaker before achieving final design maturity; counter to GAO recommendations.

“The GAO recommends 100 percent functional design completion by the time you begin construction,” Shelby Oakley Director for Contracting and National Security Acquisitions at the GAO cautioned during a recent Congressional hearing.

The Navy’s Constellation-class Guided Missile Frigate program looks to acquire up to 20 vessels at a total cost in excess of $22bn. 

In an effort to reduce technical risk the Navy and the shipyard Fincantieri Marinette Marine elected to modify the design of the existing European multipurpose frigates and adapt it to the service’s specific requirements.

Following a similar approach the Coast Guard and its shipbuilder Bollinger elected the design of the German Polarstern II icebreaker and to then modify it to its needs. Bollinger began work on prototype modules last year, though progress remains limited. 

Both the Constellation-class frigates and the polar icebreaker have grown substantially in size since their inception leading to design instability.

Illustration of FFG 62 design changes from parent design. (Source: GAO)
Illustration of FFG 62 design changes from parent design. (Source: GAO)

“In this regard, the PSC program appears somewhat similar to the Navy’s Constellation (FFG-62) class frigate program, which the Navy initiated as a program that would use a parent design. But which observers might now characterize as having moved over time toward a parent design in name only situation,” a recent Congressional Research Service report succinctly summarized. 

“The United States seems to be wasting time and money at an alarming level, causing significant concern about a major sector of U.S. security, and revealing crucial issues about our ability to execute the design-to-delivery steps in the shipbuilding industry, especially new generation vessels,” commented Troy Bouffard, Director of the Center for Arctic Security and Resilience at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

A critical misstep was the Navy’s decision to begin construction “before the design was complete” going counter to best practices for lead ship design. As of late last year, more than a year after construction began, the design of numerous modules remains incomplete, the GAO report shows.

Frigate 3D design modeling progress by module in October 2023. (Source: GAO)

As a result the intended April 2026 completion date has become untenable, with the forecasted delivery now delayed by 36 months.

The GAO report issued five recommendations to improve the frigate acquisition strategy going forward. Key aspects are the focus on vessel design quality over quantity as a progress metric and the assessment of design stability of the lead vessel before beginning construction of subsequent vessels. 

The Navy has agreed to implement the majority of the recommendations, though GAO maintains that all should be followed.

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