The Need for FFG(X)-m
Last week, the U.S. Navy released an RFI regarding the "next evolution of small surface combatant," the future Guided Missile Frigate FFG(X). Largely seen as a tacit admission that the proposed LCS frigate upgrade will not be adequate for more complex, blue water operations, the RFI calls for a new ship that will 1) provide support/relief to larger combatants during conflict and operations other than war, and 2) augment battlespace awareness by establishing independent sensor networks in high threat areas utilizing both onboard and unmanned systems ("extending the tactical grid").
While there is clearly a demonstrated need for FFG(X), given recent trends in weapons platform miniaturization, and the advent of micronaval warfare, we believe that in addition to FFG(X), the U.S. Navy should consider the development of FF(X) - m, a first generation unmanned microfrigate to be designed and constructed under a parallel program that enables technical and material synergies with FFG(X).
FFG(X)-m would be a micronaval variant of FFG(X), with a mission to defeat threats in the microbattlespace.
Like it's larger cousin, its role will be anti-submarine and surface warfare, but will also include air defense utilizing nanomissiles, self-guided nanoprojectiles, and, eventually, directed energy weapons to defeat enemy drone aircraft as they become ever smaller and more maneuverable.
The need for low cost, efficient alternatives to capital intensive shipbuilding programs has perhaps never been greater. Microfrigates could be produced in larger numbers than the proposed procurement profile for FFG(X) (one unit in 2020 and 2021, with two in each of the following nine years), and at a markedly reduced cost.
A network of unmanned microfrigates would reduce the demand on high end combatants, minimize the risk to human life, and extend the tactical grid well beyond the horizon.
Only by deploying unmanned microfrigates will the Navy be prepared to meet the coming threat from unmanned microsubmarines, micro aircraft and (eventually) unmanned surface microcombatants.
The idea of a microfrigate may seem farfetched, yet the technologies and skills necessary for the development of robust micro air and sea combatants are readily available, enabling not only near-peer competitors, but smaller players, rogue states, and even nonstate actors to fashion their own potent micronavy. As this trend toward miniaturization accelerates, the U.S. Navy must remain ahead of the curve as potential adversaries acquire ever-smaller weapons and weaponized unmanned vehicles.