SNA: Return of the phantom frigate

Huntington-Ingalls is not giving up on a naval export version of its Coast Guard cutter. Trouble is, does anyone want to buy one?

Huntington Ingalls Industries is not giving up on its “Patrol Frigate” concept.

After years of promoting the idea of an up-armed, gray hulled version of the Coast Guard’s National Security Cutter with no luck, company officials renewed their pitch again on Wednesday, with a twist: Now there are two models.

Mike Duthu, Ingalls’ program manager for the NSC, said in a briefing at the Surface Navy Association trade show that company officials think navies across the world — including Australia’s, Saudi Arabia’s and others — could buy as many as 215 new frigates over the next 20 years, and that’s a perfect opportunity for two export versions of the Patrol Frigate.

One would essentially be the Coast Guard’s ship painted gray, but with all the same standard equipment — a law enforcement or coast guard-type ship. The other would be the high-speed version we talked about before, with everything from an onboard sonar to vertical missile tubes, to Aegis — the whole shootin’ match. Duthu said the high-end ship, which Ingalls has given the lyrical name of “Patrol Frigate 4921” can accommodate all the new weapons and sensors without major modifications to its hull and with the power and engines it already has.

Duthu said Ingalls hasn’t talked with any international clients yet about either 4921 or the base model — “We’re just rolling this out,” he said. But H-I’s corporate leaders feel there’s a growth market in play and “We believe we have a great opportunity out there with both versions,” Duthu said.

It was hard to know what to make of the company’s presentation on Wednesday. The concept of a naval NSC was something first pitched when Northrop Grumman owned the shipbuilding arm it later spun off into H-I, and nobody went for it. What’s different now? The U.S. Navy decided years ago to turn up its nose at what the Coast Guard calls its Legend-class, and other navies seem to have followed suit.

There is certainly a case to be made for the NSC as a naval vessel: Everybody wants to talk about a Western Pacific focus and coalition-building and all that stuff? What better than a ship built for long transits and high endurance, and sized about right to take the place of the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates the Navy has been using for its global partnership missions. Yes, the Patrol Frigate is not built to take damage like a DDG, but neither are the Navy’s littoral combat ships, which the Navy itself admits aren’t intended for serious combat. LCS has a high sprint speed, but depends on an oiler or shore stations to refuel its thirsty main engines, where the “Patrol Frigate” can cruise on its own for 60 days.

The Navy brass does not want to hear it. It just doesn’t like the National Security Cutter. Not a true naval combatant and not invented here — and all this talk about it versus LCS is ancient history, goes the Navy line. End of discussion.

Which puts H-I in a bind. The company wants to fill out its future order book as much as possible, because from here it can see to the end of both the Navy’s San Antonio class of amphibious ships and the Coast Guard’s National Security Cutters. So it needs something to come afterward, and if the U.S. Navy won’t play, it is hoping others will.

You’ve heard the pitch a thousand times: We’re getting really good at cranking these things out on budget and on schedule, Ingalls says — why not let us make you a deal on some new frigates while we’ve got a hot production line for the Coast Guard? Duthu said the company would not need to wait until the end of its run for the Coast Guard, which has a program of eight ships — Ingalls could start building frigates for a foreign customer in parallel.

But first it would need to find one.