New German Warship Fails Sea Trials Due to Tech Woes

The main problem is integration, since 90 percent of the components on the frigate are brand new

4 min read
The F125 frigate 'Baden-Wuerttemberg' sails in Cuxhaven, Germany
Photo: Ingo Wagner/dpa/Alamy Live News

Reducing the size of a combat ship’s complement through advanced automation has been a goal of the world’s navies for decades [pdf]. However, as the U.S. Navy has already discovered, the German Navy is now finding out that this is easier desired than done.

In December, the German Navy refused to commission the lead ship of its new Baden-Württemberg class Type 125 (F125) frigate after it failed its latest at-sea trials. This was the first time that Germany’s navy has ever refused to commission a ship after delivery. The refusal was due in part to unresolved hardware and software integration problems affecting the Baden-Württemberg’s ATLAS Naval Combat System [pdf] and other ship systems, which have plagued the frigate’s sea trials since it entered them in April 2016.

The persistent problems with the €3 billion F125 program, which is meant to replace Germany’s Bremen F122 class frigates, have delayed the Baden-Württemberg’s planned commissioning from occurring first in 2014, then in 2016, and now to sometime late this year―assuming its problems can be resolved. In addition to the IT troubles, the ship reportedly has issues with its radar and the fireproof coating of its fuel tanks—and it’s overweight. It is critical that the ship’s problems be solved quickly since three other frigates in its class should all be delivered before year’s end.

The Baden-Württemberg’s builder, the consortium ARGE F125, has tried to downplay the ship’s many problems, saying that some setbacks were not entirely unexpected given that 90 percent of the components on the ship are new and necessarily technologically complex in order to meet the very ambitious German naval mission requirements. For instance, the F125’s multiple mission objectives are to counter “asymmetric threats” as well as be able to carry out “stabilization, crisis management, conflict prevention, and international intervention” operations.

To meet these varied missions, the German Navy requires the F125 class frigates to be able to operate and sustain themselves away from home port for up to two years, to operate with a crew of 120 (instead of the 230 on the Bremen class), and to remain at sea some 60 percent of the time (which is double the time of the Bremen class). Furthermore, the F125 frigates are supposed to not only handle a wide range of humanitarian missions, but be able to ferry up to 50 marines into combat anywhere in the world. In addition, the navy requires the F125 design to be highly survivable, as well as possess a small radar cross-section and acoustic signature.

Supporting the frigates’ wide-ranging requirements, especially those involving reduced manning and extended deployment, has created a need for highly integrated shipboard IT systems that must pass stringent reliability and availability benchmarks. Just as important, the Baden-Württemberg frigates’ various IT systems are required to support an open architecture to allow upgraded weapons, combat systems, or electronic capabilities to be easily added to meet changing mission needs. 

“Crew sizes on most new ship classes have grown over time as anticipated workload reductions from new technologies have not materialized.”

The ARGE F125 consortium admits that the integrated nature of the frigates’ IT systems, coupled with their strict reliability requirements, has made it difficult to debug hardware and software defects. A consortium spokesperson stated that the “defects are often found at the interfaces between subsystems, which makes their analysis more difficult.” However, the spokesperson says the consortium is confident that the defects will soon be eliminated to allow the lead ship of the Baden-Württemberg class to be commissioned later this year, and the others shortly afterwards.

Even if the Baden-Württemberg frigates’ problems can be completely eliminated, the U.S. Navy’s experience in trying to reduce ship manning and maintenance through advanced automation suggests that the German Navy will be forced to rethink its F125 crew requirements. A 2017 Government Accountability Office report [pdf] assessing the U.S. Navy’s multiple attempts to optimize its ships’ manning levels found that the assumption that new technologies would enable smaller crew sizes has been overly optimistic. In fact, “crew sizes on most new ship classes have grown over time as anticipated workload reductions from new technologies have not materialized,” the report states. Expect the German Navy to learn the same lesson.

The F125 program is not the only naval program experiencing embarrassing tech issues. For example, the New Zealand Ministry of Defense controversially disclosed last December that the Anzac class frigate systems upgrade program is now going to cost NZ $639 million. That is $148 million more than the previous estimate, and $265 million more than the original estimate made nine years ago. The upgrade program, which is proving to be much more difficult than expected, is meant to improve the surveillance, combat, and self-defense capabilities of New Zealand’s two frigates: HMNZS Te Kaha and HMNZS Te Mana.

Also last December, the Royal Navy said it was confident that the propulsion systems for its six Type 45 Daring class destroyers, which cost £1 billion apiece and first entered service in 2009, will be ready to support the new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier when it goes into full operation in 2021. The Type 45’s advanced propulsion system was found in 2010 to be unreliable, especially when operating in the heat of the Persian Gulf. The problem was traced back to inadequate propulsion system specifications on the part of the Royal Navy. Refittings for the destroyers’ propulsion systems are scheduled to begin this year.

Finally, last month, the U.S. Navy reaffirmed that it does not plan to acquire any new ammunition for its new Zumwalt DDG-1000 class destroyers. In 2016, the Navy cancelled the procurement of the Long Range Land-Attack Projectile ammunition [pdf] for the ships’ Advanced Gun System because it was too expensive. Each shell cost more than US $800,000, a price due in part to its sophistication and in part to the inability of the three ships in the class to provide sufficient demand to reach any sort of economies of scale. The Navy is still trying to figure out whether to make modifications to the AGS or acquire a new weapon system for the Zumwalt destroyers. The second ship in the class, the Monsoor, passed its at-sea trials last week after some initial electrical problems surfaced in builder trials in December, while the third, the Lyndon B. Johnson, is scheduled to be commissioned sometime in 2019.

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