There is general acknowledgment in global naval circles that many future operations are going to involve shallow littoral chokepoints for maritime trade, operations in and around failed states like Somalia, and expeditionary stabilization operations. That realization has driven a number of approaches to naval construction. In the Netherlands, Royal Schelde’s Sigma Ships are designed in block modules, which can be added or subtracted to build anything from an offshore patrol vessel to a large frigate. Denmark is already building its Flyverfisken Class and Absalon Class ships, which pioneered the mission module concept and can be used in roles ranging ranging from mine or sub hunting, to anti-ship warfare/ land attack, to carrying troops. Sweden’s Visby Class stealth corvettes are attracting renewed American attention, and helped to inspire the American concept of the Littoral Combat Ship – which has been criticized both for its cost, and for packing less punch and having less high-end armament flexibility than any competitor.
Germany’s response has been the F125 frigate, which might best be described as an “expeditionary frigate” design. It does not use the Danish or American mission module concept. Instead, it includes a number of features aimed at making it a strong contributor to long international deployments in littoral environments, and to naval support for stabilization operations.One of the F125’s most challenging demands was the benchmark of a ship that can deploy for up to 2 years away from home ports, while maintaining an average time at sea of more than 5,000 hours per year (almost 60%). Meeting such challenging targets affects a number of design decisions, but it is certain that these targets cannot be met unless they are used to pick the propulsion system.
The new ships will use a CODAG (COmbined Diesel-electric And Gas) system that offers more distributed power generation, as well as quieter operation. On each F125 vessel, 4 MTU 20V 4000 M53B diesel engines and generators offer 3,015kW /4,100 hp each, producing a total of 12,060kW/ 16,400 hp for the ship’s on-board power supply system, and/or provide diesel-electric propulsion power for cruising speeds of up to 20 knots. Equivalent power output is about power output of 14,500kVA. These engines only require major overhaul after 24,000 operating hours. For high cruising speeds, GE’s popular LM 2500 gas turbine with a power output of 20MW can be activated to take the frigates F 125 up to a speed of 26 knots/ 48km per hour). MTU is the overall integrator, with Siemens handling related control systems.
Another contributor to availability is the dual redundancy/ “two island” principle, ensuring that key items are present in at least 2 different locations in case of breakdown or battle damage. The superstructure itself is split into two larger pyramidal deckhouses, as a partial reflection of this principle.
In order to maintain on-station time without returning to home ports, German doctrine aims to take a leaf from the US Navy by leaving the ship in place at a friendly foreign, port and bringing new crews to the ship. Those operations will require fewer resources than other German ships, however, as the F125 frigates’ small 120-person crew continues a naval trend. The flip side of that trend is the need for greater cross-training, and for higher quality recruits. MTU already plans to train F125 crews to offer broader on-site care for the ship’s propulsion system, and the German government’s availability demands are likely to push other vendors toward similar expectations.
Guidance and surveillance will involve an active phased array radar, which will be divided between the 2 deckhouses. In addition to offering dual-island resiliency, an active array system offers all of its corollary improvements in reliability, sensitivity, and multi-targeting capabilities over passive phased array radars. Various electro-optical systems will be used for passive short range surveillance that cannot be picked up by enemy sensors.
The F125 ships were originally slated to mount naval versions of the Bundeswehr’s M270 MLRS rocket launcher, and PzH-2000 155mm mobile howitzer. The MONARC system solved some of the challenges with recoil management aboard ship by using an intricate shock-absorbing mounting; nevertheless, the amount and cost of work required to modify these Army systems to fit in a frigate sized ship, and to cope with the hostile naval environment, eventually doomed both concepts.
Instead, the F125 frigates’ main armament will be an Oto Melara 127/64 caliber lightweight gun, which has the ability to fire Vulcano [PDF] long-range attack rounds with a range of up to 100 km. For naval gunfire missions, the ATLAS Naval Combat System includes a very advanced onshore tactical picture and artillery weapons control system.
GPS-capable Harpoon Block II missiles will provide the ship’s initial set of longer-range naval and land strike punch, until and unless a successor system is chosen.
On the defensive front, 2 stations can mount the German-American MK44 Rolling Airframe Missile system for for short-range protection against anti-ship missiles, aircraft and helicopters. For very close-in defense, each ship will mount 5 of Mauser’s 27mm MLG remote-controlled cannons, and another 5 of Oto Melara’s 12.7mm/.50 caliber Hitrole-NT RWS. These guns can counter small boats, and other asymmetric threats likely to be encountered on anti-piracy and stabilization operations. A couple of manned 12.7mm machine guns will be used as a last-ditch backup in case of power failure or other issues, and the ARGE consortium is looking at the option of mounting non-lethal weapons such as water cannons, ultra-high intensity lights, etc.
The ships’ most unusual and potent weapon, however, may well be human. The F125 is designed to support up to 50 special forces, along with space for 2 NH90 helicopters and/or 2-4 armed small boats.
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