TechUS's constellation-class frigates face delays and cost overruns

US's constellation-class frigates face delays and cost overruns

Visualization of the USS Constellation frigate.
Visualization of the USS Constellation frigate.
Images source: © US Navy

5:58 AM EDT, June 8, 2024

According to the GAO (Government Accountability Office) report, the USS Constellation-class (future FFG-62) missile frigates being built under the FFG(X) program are already experiencing significant issues well before the prototype's launch. The report, published at the end of May, indicates that the "Constellations" have considerably gained weight.

Between June 2020 and October 2023, design changes resulted in a significant displacement increase of about 10%. This means the future US Navy ships, crucial for the fleet's efficiency, have already exhausted the displacement reserve intended for future upgrades of units expected to serve for 30-40 years, even before the prototype's launch.

According to the GAO report, one possible remedy is to reduce the propulsion system's power (and consequently its weight), preserving the modernization reserve but limiting the ship's maximum speed. This would adversely affect the missile frigates' combat capabilities and exacerbate anticipated energy shortages and cooling system inefficiencies. The US Navy, grappling with this situation, notes that these problems stem from approving shipbuilding before completing the design, particularly certain elements.

Case study

Other difficulties encountered during the program relate to adapting the design to American requirements. The USS Constellation draws from the French-Italian FREMM type, specifically the Italian Bergamini type.

The ship was initially adapted for American systems during the preliminary design phase in the bidding process. However, further changes were made during development and detailed project preparation to meet the American fleet's expectations. These changes continued even after the project approval, leading to further delays.

The scale of these changes, resulting from differences in safety standards, is significant. While the future USS Constellation and the Italian Bergamini were expected to be 85% similar initially, today that similarity is only 15%.

At the time permission was granted for the prototype series (August 2022), the project was supposed to be 80% complete, and the ship was expected to be finished in 2026. However, in April this year, it was announced that the USS Constellation would enter service three years later, with the project still 80% complete. This means the Italian design has largely been abandoned, and the platform, intended to reduce costs and risks, has been designed almost from scratch.

In total, the US Navy has made changes to 511 different sections, equipment elements, and so on. According to the GAO report, "currently, the two ships resemble only distant cousins."

Regarding the delays, the US Navy attributes them to a labor shortage at the Fincantieri Marinette Marine shipyard in Marinette. However, the GAO report suggests that continuous design changes have a more significant impact. The delays in the prototype's construction are considerable; in September last year, the prototype was only 3.6% complete, while the program's schedule called for 35.5% completion at this stage.

It will be more expensive

It is not difficult to foresee that a series of changes has led to increased costs. The US Secretary of the Navy, Carlos Del Toro, even accused the manufacturer of deliberately submitting an undervalued offer before the Senate. The value of the prototype alone has already increased by about 40% (to $1.6 billion), and given further project changes and delays, it may rise even more.

In response to the delays in this key project for the US Navy, the GAO has issued recommendations. These include reconfiguring the indicator related to project readiness (favoring document quality over quantity), implementing an improved assessment method for building the second frigate (future USS Congress), introducing an additional testing plan to the program, and seeking solutions for the future development of the FFG(X) program. It is currently unknown if and when the problems plaguing this crucial program will be resolved.


The FFG(X) program involves acquiring a series of 10 large missile frigates for the US Navy (potentially up to 20, as the Navy needs that many, with 10 more to be purchased under a different procedure). These will be the first true frigates built for the US Navy since the USS Ingraham (OHP type, built in 1989, decommissioned in 2014, and sunk as a target ship in 2021).

In April 2020, the US Navy selected the Italian Fincantieri corporation as the winner of the competition, defeating three other teams: Austal USA (new version of the Independence-type trimaran), General Dynamics Bath Iron Works (Alvaro de Bazan), and Huntington Ingalls Industries (militarized Legend type). To reduce costs, an existing design was chosen, which, however, was to be adapted to American fleet requirements and subsequently seriously modified.

The ships will be equipped with Mk.41 vertical launchers, the AEGIS combat direction system, and EASR radars. The aft will feature a landing pad and hangar designed for a multipurpose MH-60R Seahawk helicopter. The hull will be over 24 feet longer and more than 3 feet wider than the original, while the silhouette change is influenced by the use of a single mast instead of two (of different construction), various weapon systems, and other equipment.

The ships will form the core of the US Navy's surface escort forces, alongside Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and future DDG(X) destroyers, and possibly new missile cruisers.

A notorious tradition

This is not the first instance where the US Navy has faced excessive cost increases, design complications, and delays. It can be said that this is almost the norm, not only for the US Navy. In the past, other cutting-edge projects, such as the Seawolf-class nuclear attack submarines, LCS-1/2 littoral combat ships, and the large Zumwalt-class destroyers, faced similar issues. Similarly, difficulties with modernization due to poorly planned project details are not new. They affected Kidd-class destroyers and the first five Ticonderoga-class cruisers. As practice shows, even the most advanced ship design tools do not guarantee a smooth transition from concept to completion.

On the other hand, the "Constellations" should not be written off prematurely. Despite their challenging development, they may eventually prove to be successful ships. Moreover, the experience gained during such a problematic project could help streamline the process for subsequent programs, like Phase II of the FFG(X) program. This was also the case with the Seawolf and Zumwalt classes, where overly avant-garde, expensive, and complex units became technology incubators for future, more successful units.

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