Could Japan and the U.S. Cooperate on a New Frigate?

Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels under way (undated file photo)

By CIMSEC 2017-07-18 16:12:43

[By Jason Y. Osuga]

“Our history is clear that nations with strong allies thrive, and those without them wither. My key words are solvency and security to protect the American people. My priorities as SECDEF are strengthening readiness, strengthening alliances, and bring business reform to DOD.” – General James Mattis (ret.), Secretary of Defense, at his confirmation hearing on January 11, 2017

At current growth rates, China may become a comparable power to the United States in economic and military terms in the not too distant future. In this future world, China will be less constrained than it is today to attempt to coerce other Asian nations to its will. China is set to overtake the United States between 2030 and 2045 based on the global power index, which is calculated by Gross Domestic Product, population size, military spending, and technology, as well as new metrics in health, education, and governance. An unbalanced multipolar structure is most prone to deadly conflict compared to a bipolar or balanced multipolar structure.

The execution of the responsibility as the regional balancer requires political will, military capability, and the right grand strategy. While it is difficult to dictate or gauge the political will in an unknown future situation, the U.S. can hedge by building capability and advocating a forward strategy to support partners in the region. One of the ways in which the U.S. can increase joint warfighting capability is through the co-development of defense platforms with key allies such as Japan. Increasing Japan’s warfighting capability is in keeping with a grand strategy of forging an effective maritime balance of power to curb growing threats from revisionist powers such as China and Russia. Production of a common frigate platform would enhance bilateral collective defense by increasing joint interoperability. The joint development of frigates would deepen the U.S.-Japan security alliance and enhance the regional balance of power to offset China. Industrially, a joint venture will reduce costs of shipbuilding through burden-sharing research and development (R&D), maximizing economy of scale production, and exploiting the comparative advantage in the defense sectors to favor both nations.

Reducing Seams in Naval Strategy and Forward Presence

A major argument for joint development of a frigate is increasing fleet size of the USN and the JMSDF. The Navy has advocated for a fleet size of 355 ships. The Center for Strategic Budget Assessments (CSBA) recommended 340 ships, and MITRE recommended a total force structure of 414 ships to meet fleet requirements.

One of the main rationales behind these recommendations has been the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), which has increased its naval ship construction on a vast scale to push the U.S. Navy and JMSDF out of the first island chain. According to Rear Admiral Michael McDevitt (ret.), by 2020, China will boast the largest navy in the world measured by the number of combatants, submarines, and combat logistics vessels expected to be in service. According to CNAS, China “will be a Blue-Water Naval Power by 2030” approaching 500 ships.

Not only is the PLAN building more frigates and ASCMs, but it also “enjoys home field advantage.” Therefore, despite the PLA’s overall military inferiority vis-à-vis the U.S. military, the U.S. can execute only a partial commitment of forces to Asia due to its global commitments. China can offset a fraction of the U.S. Navy with the combined might of the PLAN, PLA Air Force, and the PLA Rocket Force with anti-ship missiles, combat aircraft, and missile-capable submarines and patrol craft to deny the U.S. access to waters within the first island chain. Thus, the PLA is quickly becoming a balanced force. A balanced and regionally-concentrated force is creating a growing gap in the ability of the U.S. Navy or JMSDF to gain sea control. The USN and JMSDF require more surface combatants to prosecute an effective sea control strategy. One of the best ways to increase fleet size and sea presence is through building a common frigate.

A Frigate for High-Threat Sea Control

The U.S. and Japan should consider a joint venture to develop a common frigate, displacing roughly 4000-5000 tons, whose primary missions are anti-surface warfare (SUW), anti-submarine warfare (ASW), and limited-area air defense/anti-air warfare AD/AAW. In addition to increasing interoperability, a frigate dedicated to these sea control missions would reduce mission shortfalls in the current naval strategy and fleet architecture. Aegis platforms, such as the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers (DDG) and Ticonderoga-class cruisers (CG), must perform myriad missions such as theater ballistic missile defense (BMD) and air defense (AD) of the strike groups, in addition to theater ASW and SUW. While half of the CGs undergo modernization and the cruiser’s long-term replacement is undecided, and where the Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) do not yet provide robust SUW and ASW capabilities, the DDGs must shoulder a larger share of the burden of those missions.

The future frigate should have a greater length and beam compared to the LCS to accommodate more space for sensors, unmanned platforms, and combat systems. This should not be confused with a modular concept of the LCS where ASW, SUW, or mine warfare modules can be laboriously swapped out in port in a time-consuming process. The future frigate should focus on ASW/SUW superiority with limited area AD capabilities, and not have to change mission modules to complete this task.  These frigates also would not replace the LCS. The LCS could continue to play a niche role as a carrier for drones and UAV/USV/UUV. Thus, the protection of the LCS from attacks will be an important factor, which will fall on the DDGs and future frigates to contribute.     

Addressing Sufficiency

As far as increasing fleet size with next-generation frigates, how many frigates is enough? Based on global commitments for the U.S. Navy and regional commitments for the JMSDF, 60 frigates for the USN and 20 frigates for the JMSDF would be justified. By building 60 frigates, the U.S. Navy would be able to forward-deploy at least one-third (20 frigates) to the Western Pacific. The JMSDF would also build 20 frigates of the same class. Taken together, there would be a total of 40 frigates of the class in the Western Pacific between the USN and JMSDF. This would be enough mass to establish a distributed and forward sea presence, and when required, gain sea control with Aegis DDGs in hunter-killer Surface Action Groups (SAGs).

Meanwhile, the JMSDF has not built 20 ships of any combatant class. Setting the goal high with 20 vessels of the next frigate would be an important milestone for the JMSDF toward increasing its fleet size in a meaningful way. The JMSDF recently announced that, to speed up vessel production and increase patrol presence in the East China Sea, it would build two frigates per year compared to one destroyer per year. It appears the JMSDF is also realigning its strategy and procurement to cope with the changing security environment in East Asia.

Industrial Advantages of Joint Development

Bilateral development of the next frigate will enjoy industrial advantages in burden-sharing R&D, maximizing economy of scale production, and exploiting the comparative advantage of the U.S. and Japanese defense sectors. Burden-sharing R&D through cooperative development helps to reduce risks, and any newly developed or discovered technologies can be shared as part of the platform’s development. Moreover, maximizing economies of scale would help mitigate the rising costs of producing warships and weapons systems under unilateral R&D.

The U.S. and Japan have begun to move in the direction of cooperative development. In 2014, the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, and Japan Foreign Minister, Fumio Kishida, announced that the Defense Ministry and the DOD would hold studies to jointly develop a new high speed vessel under the bilateral Mutual Defense Assistance (MDA) agreement. Although not many details were released to the public on this agreement, the studies may have centered on the LCS as a possible platform to base the bilateral project. A joint frigate project should be designed on a platform that addresses all of the LCS’ deficiencies and that meets bilateral requirements to achieve sea control via SUW/ASW superiority and distributed lethality.

While license-production has advantages in guaranteeing technology flowback, it only works if the platform being license-produced is already a proven effective platform. In the case of frigates, there is no such platform yet. The LCS has too many issues for it to be a viable future frigate that could replace JMSDF’s light escort destroyers. With no viable alternative to the future frigate design, the U.S. risks “going at it alone” on a program that has already consumed precious time and resources. It is unlikely that Japan would want to produce or buy an ineffective and problematic platform.   

A Frigate for the 21st Century

Cooperative development of the future frigate would mutually benefit the U.S. and Japan and the security of the Pacific for the greater part of the 21st century. A common platform would enhance interoperability by basing its design on bilateral operational requirements and integrating it into Surface Force Strategy’s distributed lethality concept. Furthermore, this strategy would reduce seams in the current strategy by burden-sharing sea control responsibilities with existing platforms, principally the Arleigh Burke DDGs, and increase the size of USN and JMSDF fleets by factoring in joint planning and collective self-defense considerations.

In an age of limited resources and persistent cost growth in unilateral defense programs, a joint development program offers solutions by reducing cost through burden-sharing R&D, leveraging economies of scale and comparative advantage to favor both nations. A shared platform would enhance operational logistics and maintenance through the use of same components, streamlining bilateral inventory, and enhancing expeditionary repair capability. Therefore, the joint development of a frigate would improve operational, industrial, and logistical capabilities of the alliance in a concrete manner. Ultimately, this project would enhance the U.S.-Japan collective defense and security to counterbalance China’s revisionist policy in the maritime sphere.   

LCDR Jason Yuki Osuga is a graduate of the Advanced Strategist Program at the Naval War College, and is the prospective Naval Attaché to Japan. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive. This article appears courtesy of CIMSEC, and it has been edited and abbreviated for a general audience. It may be found in its original form here