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An artist rendering of the Constellation-class multi-mission guided-missile frigate being developed by Fincantieri Marinette Marine for the U.S. Navy. Construction on the first ship began Aug. 31, 2022.

An artist rendering of the Constellation-class multi-mission guided-missile frigate being developed by Fincantieri Marinette Marine for the U.S. Navy. Construction on the first ship began Aug. 31, 2022. (Fincantieri Marinette Marine)

Construction on the Navy’s first frigate in more than three decades started this week, setting in motion a plan to provide the Navy with a class of versatile ships that pack a heavy punch.

Work on the $1.3 billion USS Constellation began Wednesday, the Navy announced in a statement the same day.

The Navy wants to add a total of 20 frigates, which are planned for use in blue water and along the coasts, and which have more armor and firepower than the much-maligned littoral combat ships. The frigates, along with a force of 32 LCS, would give the Navy about 52 small surface combatants, meeting its goal within the current 355-ship plan, according to an Aug. 26 congressional report.

The Navy needs more smaller, powerful ships that are cheap to operate and easy to keep deployed. Such ships are better at addressing day-to-day Russian and Chinese movements, analysts have said.

However, the Navy may jettison nine of its Freedom-class variant LCS. A House bill under consideration proposes to repurpose five of the ships.

Wisconsin-based shipbuilder Fincantieri Marinette Marine is slated to deliver the frigate in 2026, USNI News reported Wednesday. The Constellation is the first frigate built for the service since 1989.

The Navy plans to alternate buying one to two of the frigates annually over the next five years, according to the service’s 2023 annual long-range shipbuilding report to Congress. That could change if the Navy exercises an option to bring on a second shipbuilding yard, the Aug. 26 congressional report stated. 

The frigates’ capabilities include air warfare, anti-submarine warfare, surface warfare and electromagnetic maneuver warfare. They have radar, combat, missile launch and communications systems that are already used in the fleet.

Having those proven systems should help accelerate the timeline to get the ships to the fleet, the Navy said.

“The frigate program has worked diligently to minimize risks,” said Capt. Kevin Smith, Constellation-class frigate office program manager.

Fincantieri will build at least 10 of the ships. It’s not clear if the rest would be built by Fincantieri or another builder.  

The frigates are a significant part of the recently released Chief of Naval Operations Navigation Plan 2022, which envisions a future hybrid fleet of 350 manned ships and about 150 unmanned ships, the Navy said.

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Alison Bath reports on the U.S. Navy, including U.S. 6th Fleet, in Europe and Africa. She has reported for a variety of publications in Montana, Nevada and Louisiana, and served as editor of newspapers in Louisiana, Oregon and Washington.

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