Last summer, U.S. shipbuilder Fincantieri Marinette Marine began construction of the lead vessel of a new class of warships for the United States Navy. While the U.S. currently has the largest combat vessel in service today with the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), the lead ship of her class of aircraft carriers, the new class of surface combatants is significantly smaller in size.
This August, the shipbuilder will lay the keel for the USS Constellation, the first U.S. Navy frigate since the retirement of the last Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate in 2015. Although technically, there is one far older that is still commissioned.
The First Six
The choice of name for the new class is also notable – as it honors the U.S. Navy’s “Six Original Frigates,” which included Frigate Chesapeake, Frigate Congress, Frigate Constellation, Frigate Constitution, Frigate President, and Frigate United States.
Following the American Revolution, the United States was a newly independent nation but that also meant it no longer had the protection of the British Royal Navy. In 1792, when France and Britain went to war again, both sides accused the United States of violating neutrality. This included blockades of foreign ports, while in the Mediterranean, U.S. merchant vessels were often prey for the Barbary corsairs (pirates by another name), where the ships were seized and along with the crews, held for ransom.
Thus on January 2, 1794, the Third Congress of the United States resolved to create a naval force that included six frigates that be purchased or constructed. In March 1794, President George Washington signed “An Act to provide a naval armament,” which established the U.S. Navy.
So that the original six frigates could be built simultaneously, six different shipyards along the U.S. Atlantic coast were requisitioned to do the work. Today, the USS Constitution, homeported at the Charleston Navy Yard in Boston, remains the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat.
21st Century Frigates
Despite not being made of wood or having sails, the new Constellation-class frigates will still call upon the warships from the Age of Sail. Like those warships, modern vessels are built for speed and maneuverability. These will perform escort, anti-submarine, anti-air, and even limited anti-surface missions.
Though the warships will still rank below destroyers in terms of size and armament, frigates offer an advantage in that they are faster and cheaper to build. Each vessel will be 7,400 short tons (6,700 tonnes) and will be 496 feet in length with a 65-foot beam. Instead of rows of cannons on the wooden ships, the armament of the new frigates will include 32 Mark 41 vertical-launch cells for RIM-162 Evolved SeaSparrow missiles and SM-2 Block IIIC surface-to-air missiles, along with 16 NSM anti-ship missiles in four quad-tube over-the-horizon launch systems. In addition, the warships will have a single Mk 110 57 mm gun on the bow, and a Mk 49 guided-missile launcher with 21 Rolling Airframe missiles at the stern.
The vessels will be equipped with AEGIS Baseline 10 combat system, SPY-6 radar, and the SLQ-32(V)6 electronic-warfare system. For anti-submarine warfare (ASW), the frigates will utilize an SQQ-89 (V) combat system, a CAPTAS-4 variable-depth sonar, a TB-37 multifunction towed array, and SLQ-25 NIXIE towed torpedo decoys.
The ships can also operate with an MH-60R helicopter and MQ-8C aerial drone.
The U.S. Navy plans to build at least 10 Constellation-class frigates as part of its fleet size goal of 355 manned warships.
USS Constellation (FFG-62) is expected to be delivered to the U.S. Navy in 2026, and she will be the fifth U.S. Navy ship to bear the name, while it will also link the new class to the original six frigates of the Navy. Contracts for the second and third frigates, to be named USS Congress and USS Chesapeake, were finalized in 2021 and 2022, and a contract for the yet-to-be-named fourth frigate is expected this year.
Whereas each of the six original frigates was built at a different shipyard, currently the Navy may have to depend on Fincantieri to produce the new Constellation-class, although a review is underway to determine if another shipyard can step up.
The current plan calls for the Navy to build the first seven in the so-called “saw-tooth” pattern, meaning that it will alternate between one and two a year until at least 2028. Then the service hopes that it will be able to increase to four years a year. That will require another shipyard.
USS Constellation and her sister ships will see a different type of launch than what has been used for decades. Instead of being launched at 70 percent completion, as the shipyards had done with the Navy’s littoral combat ships (LCS), the new frigates will be built to at least 90 percent and then transferred into the water via a ship lift. The additional construction out of water is meant to be more efficient as it will provide better access to the ship.
Though the United States Navy is among only two nations – along with the French Marine Nationale – to operate a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, it is also unique in that it currently has no frigates in service (the USS Constitution excluded of course).
Dozens of nations around the world now operate the small warships, but it is those from China, which has been on a building spree of smaller surface combatants, and Russia that have been a concern. China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) operates 31 Jiangkai II-class frigates, two Jiangkai I-class frigates, seven Jiangwei II-class frigates, and six Jianghu-class frigates.
The Russian Navy currently operates one Gremyashchiy-class frigates/corvettes, seven Steregushchiy-class frigates/corvettes, three Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates, two Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates, two Gepard-class frigates, two Krivak-class frigates, and two Neustrashimyy-class frigates. A major concern is that many of the small Russian vessels are already equipped with the 3M14 Kaliber (NATO: SS-N-30A), a land attack cruise missile, while the Admiral Gorshkov is armed with the 3K22 Tsirkon missile.
With such powerful weapons, today’s frigates have armament that could be on par with World War II’s capital ships and an ability to hit targets at a much further range.