Vice Admiral Rick Hunt, USN (Retired) is the Strategy Director for the Fincantieri Marine Group. While on Active Duty he served as the Director of the Navy Staff, Commander Naval Surface Forces, and Commander of the San Diego based Third Fleet. He joined me this morning to discuss getting the fleet rebuilt and specifically the role of frigates in that expansion:
HH: I’m joined right now by Vice Admiral Rick Hunt, United States Navy, retired. He is the strategy director for the Fincantieri Marine Group. But when he was on active duty, he was director of the Navy staff. He commanded Naval surface forces. He was the commander of the 3rd Fleet, based in America’s finest city, San Diego. And he was my host last night aboard the amazing Alpino, which is an Italian Navy frigate. Admiral Hunt, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show, good morning.
RH: Good morning, Hugh, glad to be with you.
HH: Good to talk to you last night. I appreciate very much that Captain Hendrix and you were guiding me around this ship along with the other people who were there. And I want to start big, going back to your days as the head of the 3rd Fleet and the director of the Navy staff. The President promised in 2016 and 2017, and he did it at Annapolis last week, a 355 ship Navy. I cover this a lot on the show. Why is that necessary?
RH: Forward presence, you know, around the globe, so we can respond quickly at any situation, is absolutely essential. You know, I agree with what the CNO has been saying. I think we need a Navy of about 355 ships. You know, the change in the environment over the last year or two, a great power competition, we used to call it peer competitors between Russia and China becoming more aggressive and vastly more capable than they have been in the past. It drives us to larger numbers of highly-capable warships. And I think a frigate is part of that important puzzle that needs to be put together.
HH: Now we were on a frigate last night. It was an Italian frigate. It’s a ship of war. It is active duty. It’s in Baltimore today. It’s going up to New York and Boston for other people to take a look at it. Why are the Americans looking at buying an Italian frigate, even though it would be built, I believe, in Wisconsin?
RH: It would be built in Wisconsin. And what I would say is the Navy is looking for, again, a highly-capable warship with a proven design that they can quickly introduce into the fleet to replace a void of the frigates. When Oliver Hazard Perry class went away some years ago, it left us with a gap. Frigates kind of the, you know, utility workforce for the Navy. It does a variety of missions including very important independent operations where it has to have credible warfare capability, out and about working partnerships with our allies and putting presence in places where we need to show the U.S. might. So you know, the independent ops with long capability, sustainability, is one aspect of it. And the other piece that I think with this changed environment is our frigates need to provide an additive capability when operating with carrier strike groups, or with amphibious ready units. And that’s why they cast a very wide net. So it’s not just looking at Italian ships, it’s looking at all ship designs to see what is the best, making a decision, and then starting to get on a pretty rapid production pace to fill that void that the FFG has created in absence when Oliver Hazard Perry went away.
HH: I mentioned to you last night I was at the commissioning and the decommissioning of the USS George Philip, which was an FFG. It got commissioned in 1980. I think it was retired sometime in 2003. I was at the decommissioning of it. And for a time being, we didn’t think we needed frigates, right? They kind of vanished. Why did they suddenly go out of favor? And why have we suddenly realized we need a frigate?
RH: Well again, I believe it’s a change in the environment. You know, one of the things that was going on in that time frame is the DDG-Aegis fleet, between the cruisers and the Arleigh Burke destroyers, was kind of taking over a very, very dominant role. And what we find is those highly-capable ships, many of them BMD, ballistic missile defense-capable, have other demands, you know, national mission. And they’re being driven very, very hard with presence requirements, the regular deployment requirements on top of those national missions that they do. And so it was a changing time, a changing environment, and now guess what? We’re back. And we’re looking at the time when we did the high-low mix, and frigates were a part of that. I think it becomes a very important component as the Navy looks to kind of recapitalize and to get those numbers back up into the 355 range.
HH: I’m talking with Vice Admiral Rick Hunt, United States Navy retired, and he was my host last night along with a bunch of other people on the FREMM frigate, which is the Alpino. It’s an active duty Italian ship, which we are, it’s a mature ship. It’s been around for a while. They know how to build it. They know how to build it fast. It would be built in Wisconsin. And exactly how fast once it, if it were to win the competition that is underway, and I want to emphasize there’s a competition to Admiral Hunt, if it were to win the competition and be selected by the Navy, how soon can these start rolling off into Lake Superior and down the St. Lawrence Seaway to the ocean?
RH: Well, I think once Navy decides which ship they’re going to go with, if you take a look at what we’ve done at Fincantieri and in Italy, from the time you cut steel to the time the ship goes in the water, it normally takes about 36-40 months, about three years to do that. So there are some design changes that we are working, and the Navy has prescribed a U.S. combat system suite that goes on the hull that is really what we’re talking about right now. And depending on what exactly those requirements are going to end up with, that’ll drive the time, you know, a couple of months in either direction. But it’s three years, probably nominal to build and get in the water and then presenting it for sea trials and tests and certification.
HH: And people always ask about cost, and obviously one of the things, you’re very good to have a civilian with, because you were pointing out this takes fewer sailors. If you have fewer sailors per ship over the lifespan of a ship, 25-30 years, it’s going to cost extraordinarily less to run that ship. Moreover, it’s got an ability to expand or contract armament. So would you talk both about how many sailors are on an average FFG of this class, a FREMM, and exactly what kind of armament it carries?
RH: So it’s very interesting. Fincantieri is a huge shipbuilder. They’ve got 20 yards that are global, you know, shipbuilder out of Italy, but 20 shipyards around the world. So they build everything from cruise liners, 150,000 tons, a U.S. aircraft carrier is about 100,000, to give you an idea of perspective.
RH: They do highly complex mega-yachts, oil rigs. You know, they are big into this. And one of the things that they focus on is human factors, efficiency, safety, all those things that are important to men and women serving at sea. And so they have driven the crew size, I think, to a very efficient and highly professional capability. The number of crew on FREMM varies between 120 to 140 personnel. And the Italians have two versions. What you saw last night on Alpino was the anti-submarine warfare version, a little bit more complex than the general purpose version that has extra boats so they can do rescue missions or takedown missions with Marines or SEALs on board with, you know, that kind of equipment. So 120-140 is about the right number. They have berthing on board for 200. They have spaces for an embarked staff to do different kinds of missions. You saw that just adjacent to the combat information center. I think right now, they’re sailing with about 165, and with guests, I was a guest underway last week, you know, just to really get an appreciation for the ship. And so I think they had about 172 or 3, you know, easily handled. Interestingly enough, they do it with four-person staterooms. A DDG, for example, in the U.S. Navy, has berthing compartments as big as 89 people in one space. And so as you look at our younger sailors, the millennial generation and how they want to live in a very demanding, high pressure environment, this gives them a little bit of relief just with a very good design, you know, from a living and habitability perspective.
HH: And weaponry?
RH: Weaponry, again, and so you saw the anti-submarine capability.
RH: They had a variable depth sonar. They had the towed array, state of the art. It’s exactly what you need as the submarine threat gets more complicated so you can get below the layer. There’s kind of an inversion in water temperature that acts as a shield, if you will, for most sensors when submarines are in a different part of that zone from where your sonar or your listening device is, so that the ASW capability is very important. You saw last night the size of the helo deck. Helicopters, direct support on U.S. Navy surface combatants is very important, and the Italians take that very seriously. Two well-equipped and large helicopters, hangers, rather, to carry two helicopters of the same kind of size and weight that we have in the U.S. Navy are SH-60 versions that we have on our destroyers and cruisers right now. So that carries torpedoes, they carry a dipping sonar, that they carry SANA buoys. They carry air to surface weaponry missiles to be able to fire, and that adds quite a bit. You know, they have a very capable air defense radar for anti-air coverage. They also have strike capability. The French version of FREMM, you know, fired as part of their contribution and support to the activity striking the chemical plants in Syria here several weeks ago. So it’s at sea surface to surface capability, it’s strike capability, it’s air defense, anti-submarine warfare. And it can carry two three-inch guns, 76 millimeter guns, very much a complete package. And I think…yeah, go ahead.
HH: And so it can go off, it can go off by itself and do a mission by itself. It doesn’t need to be part of a flotilla.
RH: Yeah, well that’s exactly what’s so important, is to have a complete suite of highly-capable sensors and weapons so you can go out and operate safely, securely, ensure mission success, deal with a variety of challenges that could come up. I think that’s what you get out of FREMM. Now one of the things that’s important to note is U.S. Navy is prescribing U.S. systems to go on it. So we’ll do the same missions that I just described, and we’ll do it with the very best state of the art systems that the U.S. Navy is producing both in anti-submarine warfare, strike warfare, and air defense.
HH: Vice Admiral Rick Hunt, I appreciate it very much. A tour of the Alpino last night was amazing. Thanks to you and Captain Hendrix, and to every one of the Alpino’s crew and the Italian Navy who brought it over. I appreciate it, and to the FREMM. Good luck. I hope you guys get this thing underway very, very soon, because we’ve got to get to 355. It’s a promise. It’s not a punchline. It’s a promise, and we’ve got to start making these things, and I appreciate it, Admiral, for the time you took with me this morning to explain that. I appreciate it very much.
End of interview.