Germany is planning to build an innovative frigate that will be able to fight sustained wars against drug lords and pirates – or just help keep the peace. But it’s not only at sea that new designs and technologies are changing the defence landscape.
Germany’s Navy has signed off and frozen the design of the F125, a new class of four frigates, which will change the way the Deutsche Marine operates and highlight a growing internationalism in Berlin’s foreign policy.
The F125 is designed for long-range deployments, such as anti-piracy patrols, peacekeeping and special forces support, so it is arguably the world’s first warship not actually built for war. This means it has attracted a disparaging moniker as “the world’s first politically correct frigate”, but perhaps this is exactly the kind of capability that other navies need.
Today’s anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa use very expensive, top-end warships to counter small, low-tech fishing boats. The situation is the same fighting drug smugglers in the Caribbean and pirates in the Pacific.
The F125 is the size of a large frigate – just under 150m long and displacing upwards of 7,000 tonnes. It is big and warlike enough to deploy into the heaviest seas for long periods and scare off or destroy small opponents, yet it is only lightly armed. It is also specially designed to stay put for up to two years at a time while multiple crews carry out tours of duty on rotation. (Germany’s Brandenburg-class frigates took 14 days in transit in each direction when they were deployed to Djibouti for Operation Enduring Freedom, effectively losing a month en route for every four-month attachment.)
The new ships will also be much leaner with only 110 sailors – under half the complement of the Navy’s smaller Bremen- and Sachsen-class frigates. The smaller crews will have more space to move around and wi-fi throughout the ship. But there will be extra duties some may not be thrilled about. There will be no galley staff, meaning each sailor and officer will make his or her own meals.
The Deutsche Marine plans to send each F125 to sea with sufficient frozen supplies to make three meals a day for 190 people for 21 days – that’s nearly 12,000 meals – before needing to restock. If all goes according to plan, the first ship should be delivered to the Navy in March 2016.
- Main gun
The F125 was originally to have a modified version of the German army’s huge 155mm howitzer to bombard shore targets, but this has been downsized to the surprisingly long-range Oto Melara Alleggerito gun.
The ship’s bridge is a techno tour de force, designed to be operated with a very small team who can even help protect the ship with robotised machine guns.
- Sensor mast
The class will be fitted with new search and tracking radars which, although not cutting-edge, will far outrange anything that pirates or low-intensity enemies are likely to have.
Each ship has two cargo spots for containers on deck. These are expected to provide space for containerised hospitals, offices or reefer containers for frozen food to help in humanitarian operations.
- Boat hangars
Each F125 will sail with four boats – double the number carried by many similar sized warships. The boats will be used by special forces to tackle pirates and smugglers.
One of the few concessions to warfare, the F125s will be launched with eight Harpoon anti-ship missiles.
The F125 is an “electric-ship” using efficient, low-emission diesel generators (as well as a power-dense but fuel-hungry gas turbine as back-up) to produce electricity rather than mechanical power. This is not only very efficient but also only needs limited maintenance with up to 24,000 operating hours between overhauls.
The other missile on board is the self-defence RAM system designed to knock down incoming missile threats and aircraft.
- Flight deck
The F125 is designed to serve as a base for other assets. As such it has a big flight deck which can accommodate two helicopters.
- Happy meals
F125 crews will have to adjust to long diets living on frozen meals. Particular attention has also been paid to suitably capable sewerage management.
Each sailor will carry a transponder linked to the ship’s wireless network to track their location and possibly feed back health data in future, which could prove vital in a damage control situation.
During the Cold War, electronic spy planes were the preserve of the big players but the last decade’s technology revolution has opened up the market.
Just as the size and cost of commercial camcorders and computers has fallen, so the defence industry has shrunk infrared electro-optical cameras and radars while increasing computer processing power immeasurably. This situation has underpinned the proliferation of what the world’s military forces call “non-traditional Istar” (Intelligence, Surveillance, Targeting Acquisition and Reconnaissance) aircraft, by fitting relatively cheap civil and in-service aircraft with staggeringly sophisticated sensor packages.
For example, Iraq is rearming with propeller-driven planes fitted with communications interception systems, infrared cameras, advanced radars and target-designating lasers and Afghanistan has similar plans. This enables humble aircraft such as Iraq’s Cessna Grand Caravans to listen into insurgent phone calls, track enemy movements and target vehicles for other aircraft or forces on the ground to engage. In fact, Iraq’s Grand Caravans have taken this a stage further and carry Hellfire missiles under the aircraft’s wings.
It’s not just the small players taking advantage of this revolution. One of the biggest adopters is the US, which has deployed a fleet of Beechcraft King Air variants in Iraq as Task Force ODIN, using advanced radars to find and disrupt attacks from improvised explosive devices.
ODIN proved so successful that it was awarded a special unit commendation and the technology is now being adapted for operations in Afghanistan.
- Radar To seek out buried mines, the advanced SRI International PenRad has been slung onto the belly of Task Force ODIN King Airs.
- Communications A giveaway feature of Istar aircraft is the odd antennas. These help detect, intercept and locate communications transmissions.
- Cameras High fidelity electro-optic sensors enable the aircraft to watch potential targets around the clock.
- Engines Propeller-driven piston aircraft are cheaper and more efficient than jets at low altitude, making them perfect for loitering patrols.
In coming years, the US and others will be looking at more and more ways to develop unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) to minimise casualties in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
One of the main growth areas now for UGVs is logistics. In 2003, our TV screens were filled with footage of vast army logistics chains snaking into Iraq and the same thing is happening now in Afghanistan with trucks hauling cargos up through ambush-prone mountain passes. Running logistics is a long, boring and dangerous process. It is an ideal task for UGVs.
In the United States, technicians are inching towards creating autonomous technologies to increase vehicles’ awareness of their surroundings and develop anti-collision sensors. Add in GPS and you’re not far off having a truck able to drive itself.
However, this raises myriad challenges. After all, these trucks would not be driving through a permissive environment, so they would need logic that could tell the difference between a group of insurgents surrounding it on foot and getting it to stop so they could plunder and destroy the vehicle, from a group of school children who are simply playing in the street.
An interim measure that the United States is currently investigating is having a manned convoy leader, followed by semi-autonomous drones. But questions remain there too. For example, US Army lawyers are wrangling as to whether the convoy leader could be held responsible if a child were to step out in front of a follow-on truck. Nevertheless, autonomy is coming. When the Pentagon reviewed its hugely ambitious Future Combat Systems programme last year, it shelved the manned portion but retained the UGVs. This will see the continued development of Lockheed Martin’s impressive Multifunction Utility Logistics and Equipment (Mule) which is currently due to be deployed around 2013.
In the meantime, the US Army is planning to trial a smaller version known as the Squad Mission Support System (SMSS) in Afghanistan next year. SMSS shares many of the design features of the Mule, but is designed to follow small platoons of foot soldiers, carrying their gear and lightening the load.
Lockheed Martin has designed a route-clearance version that could roll at the front of a convoy, detecting and destroying mines.
Trials have proven exceptional cross-country mobility afforded by Mule’s unusual 6x6 drivetrain. There is an electric motor in each wheel hub providing masses of instant torque. Additionally, each wheel is on an articulated arm providing huge wheel travel to clamber over obstacles.
Mule’s primary job is to haul military stores. It can carry about a tonne on its rear cargo deck and strapped to its sides, a substantial load for a 2,500kg vehicle.
Mule will be fitted with sensors to “see” its surroundings and avoid obstacles, but it will also carry an infrared reconnaissance turret and a LIDAR package for high-definition imaging at long ranges.
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