The US Navy’s FFG(X) Program Could Take a Nod From East Asian Shipbuilders

Should the next U.S. frigate come from the Pacific?

The US Navy’s FFG(X) Program Could Take a Nod From East Asian Shipbuilders
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Navy Counselor 1st Class Jorge Delgado/Released

The future of naval power lies in the Asia-Pacific, not Europe.

Japan, China, the United States, and South Korea will remain among the world’s foremost maritime nations, and all possess sophisticated military shipbuilding industries. But Craig Hooper argues that the United States in particular, and the West more generally, has not paid sufficient attention to innovations in naval architecture in East Asia. In particular, Hooper wonders why Japanese and Korean designs have had relatively limited impact on the U.S. FFG(x) competition. Both countries have developed advanced frigate or small destroyer designs, and both have integrated technology compatible with U.S. requirements; both also have longstanding experience in shipbuilding.

Why have these designs had less of an impact, despite their apparent sophistication and the heavy investment than Japan and the RoK have made? As Hooper suggests, Korean and especially Japanese shipbuilders simply lack experience and expertise in export-oriented shipbuilding. Korean military shipbuilding has only recently matured to become internationally competitive, while Japan has until recently resisted entering the arms export industry. But these are explanations for the relative lack of attention, not reasons to perpetuate that lack of attention.

Shipbuilding remains collaborative; Korean and Japanese designs owe much to the United States, and Chinese designs still have deep roots in Soviet shipbuilding of the Cold War. Japan’s shipbuilding industry came of its own in the first decades of the twentieth century, with the assistance of the British. As Hooper points out, at its core industrial innovation owes a great deal to policies that facilitate the transfer of information and practice. During the Cold War, the United States reaped immense civil and military advantages from managing a globalized system of innovation and technology transfer that allowed it to leap ahead of the Soviet Union.

It’s also worth noting that while arms transfer relationships can solidify an alliance, the bulk of the transfers between the U.S. and Korea and Japan are one way, often with the United States saying “no” when technologies become too sensitive. But investing in ship designs with significant Korean or Japanese components could help bind the respective alliances together. And of course, it would also behoove the Trump administration to think hard about how the trade relationships that the United States has laboriously constructed with its network of allies over the past seventy years has helped lay the foundations for America’s military technological advantages.