Constellation, F-35…: are US defense programs plagued by overspecification?

Game changer, Wunderwaffen… Since the start of the conflict in Ukraine, these terms have often been used, both to designate the arrival of new weapons delivered by Western allies, and to refer to new US or allied defense programs.

It is true that imagining a new tank, plane, drone or missile, so superior to other existing equipment, to represent, in itself, a marked operational advantage, is something to seduce. Especially for Hollywood screenwriters who used it as the pitch for many big hits, like Firefox or The Hunt for the Red October.

This feeling finds its roots in the very real benefits given to the American armies by the major programs of the early 70s, which gave birth, among others, to the Abrams tanks, the Apache helicopter, the Patriot, SM-2 and Tomahawk missiles. , the F-15, F-16 and F-18, as well as the Nimitz supercarriers, the SSN Los Angeles and the Arleigh Burke destroyers.

It has since evolved towards a bias of overspecification surrounding the design of new American defense equipment programs, which, today, seriously handicap the modernization of the American armies, in the face of a much more pragmatic China and Russia in this regard. domain.

Constellation frigates: only 15% of the Italian FREMM, 3 years late and 50% more expensive

On this subject, the US Navy had already, so to speak, touched the consequences of these excessive technologist biases in the design of its ships for many years. Thus, it spent $21 billion on the Zumwalt heavy destroyer program, supposed to give a decisive advantage in terms of naval surface supremacy, in particular thanks to its new long-range 155 mm cannons.

two failed US defense programs: ZUmwalt and LCS
The LCS and Zumwalt programs were both marked by an excess of ambitions and technological specifications, leading to the explosion of costs and capacity impasses.

In the end, only 3 ships were built, without the said guns, for a lower operational potential than the more traditional Arleigh Burkes and 2,5 times less expensive. Even if the Zumwalts will today replace their useless cannons with hypersonic missiles, this program has severely handicapped the modernization of the American surface fleet, which is currently under strain.

It was exactly the same with the Littoral Combat Ships, or LCS, program. These ships, halfway between the OPV, the corvette and the frigate, had to be equipped with combat modules making it possible to adapt the ship's capabilities to the mission, whether it be mine warfare, surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare, or support and sovereignty.

Again, it was a painful and costly technological failure, and of the 32 ships built, at more than $600 million per unit, to replace the OH Perry frigates withdrawn from service in 2014, and the Avenger minehunters currently being withdrawn, around ten are already, or will soon be withdrawn from service, due to lack of operational potential adapted to needs.

Faced with these two failures, the US Navy undertook, in 2017, to build a fleet of frigates that were lighter, and above all more economical and quick to build, than the Burke destroyers. To speed up the process and reduce costs, the choice fell on the FREMM model from the Italian Fincantieri, a 6-ton multi-purpose frigate intended to meet the needs of the US Navy, with a minimum of modifications, to allow entry into service from 000.

FREMM Bergamini class
The Constellation and Begamini frigates will ultimately only have 15% common components, which casts doubt on the value of having chosen an off-the-shelf model for the US Navy.

On the occasion of the audit ordered by SECNAV (Secretary of the Navy), Carlos des Toro, and led by the US Navy, regarding the difficulties encountered by the American naval industry, it appeared that the frigate USS Constellation, first unit of the class, whose construction comes just just started at the Fincantieri Marinette shipyards, will not enter service until 2029, i.e. with deadlines almost doubled compared to the initial schedule.


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