The Navy’s Potential New Frigate Connects Crew, Lots of Space for Commandos

BALTIMORE HARBOR: The U.S. Navy is in the market for a new frigate, and the ship of the future might be sitting pierside in Manhattan.

The Italian frigate ITS Alpino steamed out of Baltimore harbor Wednesday evening to spend a few days in New York and Boston, the final leg of an East Coast tour that also saw it conduct training operations with the USS Gonzalez off the Virginia coast.

For Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri — and its Marinette, Wisc.-based subsidiary, Fincantieri Marine Group, — the tour is a prime opportunity to show off the capabilities of the ship that is competing for the contract to build the Navy’s next guided missile frigate, known as the FFG(X). During a tour of the ship on Wednesday in Baltimore, one of the things that struck me first was the amount of space belowdecks. Company representatives said they used lessons learned in the commercial shipbuilding world to ensure that sailors could reach critical machinery and hardware quickly, without having to take apart parts of the ship to perform repairs. That means wide walkways with wires tucked away (though visible) and lots of machinery stacked along the walls that can easily be pulled out, repaired, or replaced.

Since the ship is networked to a degree that we haven’t seen in U.S. naval vessels, sailors are able to access the internal network from almost anywhere onboard by literally plugging a laptop into ports located throughout the vessel and entering their unique login information. It’s an innovation that keep the crew connected, and gives engineers the ability to monitor and adjust systems from wherever they are. The Alpino features two hangars big enough for U.S. Navy helos. That plug-and-play networking, along with a fire control system that uses overhead sprinklers and heat-activated cameras to alert the command center when a fire has broken out, allows the crew of about 140 to identify and isolate any problems quickly, something that Vice Admiral Richard Hunt (Ret.), Fincantieri Marinette Marine’s chief strategy officer, told me was critical for a ship of this size with a relatively small crew.

Hunt pointed to the double helicopter hangers and the large flight deck that, unlike U.S. ships, doesn’t require sailors to go outside to help the aircraft land, since the helo lands on a claw that locks the aircraft in place, and then retracts into the hangar bay. If the U.S. Navy chooses the Aegis-equipped version of the ship Fincantieri is pitching, Hunt said he envisions the second hanger possibly being used for unmanned systems, even though the Navy has stated it wants the FFG(X) to have room for one MH-60R Seahawk helicopter.

The Alpino is the anti-submarine warfare version of the 472-ft. frigate, and the ship had pulled into Baltimore after conducting training operations with the destroyer USS Gonzalez off the coast of Virginia, where the ships conducted visit, board, search and seizure exercises and communication drills.

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