Surface Forces: Peacekeeping Leaves The Baltic Undefended


January 30, 2018: The new German F125 frigates contained a number of innovations and “firsts” for German warships. Unfortunately that resulted in an unexpected and unwanted distinction; the first ship of the class, the Baden-Württemberg, was rejected by the navy after failing to perform during sea trials. The builder is now addressing the most serious problems, which were all software related and expects to have the Baden-Württemberg in service in 2018. Meanwhile the three other F125s are on schedule and will all receive any modifications made to the Baden-Württemberg.

The Baden-Württemberg was expected to enter service in 2016 but there were delays and the Baden-Württemberg was not handed over to the navy for sea trials until the end of 2016. Nearly a year of trials and inspections produced a growing list of problems and the builders hustled to fix the problems but while they managed to deal with some of the defects the list of problems was too long and the navy refused to commission the Baden-Württemberg into service. As embarrassing as that was it was also the right thing to do because otherwise the problems would become a major scandal.

Not all the problems were made public, if only because some involved new tech that was highly classified. It was known that a new computerized command and control software system for the CIC (combat information center) had an unacceptable number of bugs as did some of the other software for automating operation of the ship and making possible a smaller (by about 50 percent) crew than would normally be needed. The new radar system and other sensors had problems as did the damage control system. All these are easily fixed. There was also a perceptible 1.3 degree list to starboard, which has since been fixed.

The four F125 frigates displace 7,200 tons each. This is larger than some destroyers, but it's become unfashionable in Europe to call a warship a "destroyer." Those attitudes played a role in the failure of the Baden-Württemberg. It was no secret that attracting the best engineering and design talent to warship construction has been difficult. Since the Cold War ended in 1991 and Germany was reunited it became fashionable to downplay defense in general and working in the military or defense industries was popular. Even though these industries remained major employers and Germany continued to export innovative warship designs, the F125s were more innovative than any surface warship Germany had put into service during the last century. Before World War I Germany produced battleships that, ship-for-ship, were superior to those any other nation was building. In both World Wars German developed and produced the most advanced submarine designs. During the Cold War Germany was divided and concentrated on its land forces. The Cold War West German navy concentrated on coast defense, mine clearing and ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare). Thus the F-125s were an ambitious effort that, it turned out, the German navy lacked the project management talent to handle and the shipbuilding industry also proved unable to cope.

Some of the problems were higher up. The government thought (as did many others) that Russia would remain a benign neighbor. Russia was, for a while, but by 2008 the Russian government was dominated by former KGB (secret police) officers who decided to revive the Cold War and police state rule inside Russia. German leaders were slow to realize that this revival of Russian aggression was not temporary but growing. That became obvious in 2014 when Russia invaded Ukraine and made more threatening moves in the Baltic Sea. That was bad news because the four F125s were replacing the eight smaller (3,700 ton) F122 class ships that were designed and built in the 1980s to defend the Baltic. For this the F125s were much less capable. The F125s were designed for global operations, a first for German warships of this size. They were called “peacekeeper” or “commando” cruisers only half in jest. But now the threat is greatest where it has always been; the Baltic and the North Sea. The main deficiency of the F125s was the lack of sonar and ASW torpedo tubes.

The F125s are 149.5 meters (490.6 feet) long and highly automated. They have a crew of 110, although there are accommodations for up to 190. This allows the ship to carry commandos, aid workers, or whatever. Actually, they have two crews, so the F-125s can stay at sea for long periods of time with the crews changing every four months. Armament consists of eight anti-ship missiles, two RAM anti-missile missile systems (with 21 missiles each), one 127mm gun, four 27mm automatic cannon, five remotely controlled 12.7mm machine-guns, two manually controlled 12.7mm machine-guns, and water cannons. There are also two NH90 helicopters and four 11 meter (36 foot) long, high speed (74 kilometers an hour) boats for the commandos (who also get dibs on the helicopters) and one or two UUVs (unmanned underwater vehicles) for clearing mines. There's also space for two 20 foot shipping containers, containing any special equipment. Electronics includes a phased array air search radar (as on Aegis ships) and the usual complement of commo and countermeasures stuff. What is missing is the ASW capabilities the F122s had although these can be added. The helicopters can be equipped with a dipping sonar and sonobuoys as well as ASW torpedoes. A towed sonar array can be added to the F125s as well as the electronics needed to operate it. That will take time and be costly.

Germany ordered theF125 class frigates in 2007 and the first was to service in 2016. Each ship will cost over $800 million. Some innovations did work. In 2012 Germany received the OTO/Melara 127mm/64 five inch gun for the F125 frigates. This 127mm "Lightweight Naval Gun Mount" was ordered five years earlier and is an automatic cannon that is operated by remote control. There is, in effect, no gun crew in the conventional sense. The gun system weighs 25 tons, including four magazines, so up to four different types of shells can be used (like high explosive, anti-aircraft rounds, or GPS guided ones). The gun can fire up to 35 rounds a minute. The gun barrel can be elevated 70 degrees. Standard unguided shells have a max range of 30 kilometers, while the Vulcano (GPS guided) version can hit targets over 100 kilometers away within 20 meters of its aiming point. The U.S. Navy spent nearly a decade and over $600 million to develop a similar guided shell and failed. There are doubts that Vulcano will succeed in being affordable and reliable but so far tests have been successful and even the U.S. Navy is considering acquisition of it.


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