Leadership: NATO Becomes More European and Less American


July 7, 2024: NATO is depending more on locally developed weapons and munitions rather than obtaining them from the United States. The war in Ukraine has encouraged this trend because European nations now realize that they have a very real threat next door with Russia. The Americans are concentrating on how to deal with growing Chinese aggression in the Pacific.

The Result is NATO fending for itself more than any time in the past. For example, Germany is currently building the first of six F-126 frigates. These will be the largest warships to serve in the German navy since World War II. The first of the six 10,000-ton F126s will enter service in 2028. Each ship will cost about $1.5 billion. These frigates are 177 meters long and have a top speed of about 50 kilometers an hour. Economical cruising speed is 21 kilometers an hour. Max range is 7,400 kilometers at cruising speed. Endurance is 21 days before refueling and resupply is needed. The crew of 114 can be augmented by 84 additional specialist personnel, including special operations troops. There is a full range of electronics including surface and air search radars as well as fire control radar and sonar for detecting and tracking submarines. Radios include one that uses a satellite link. There are several decoy systems to disrupt the guidance systems on incoming missiles. If that doesn’t work there are several anti-missiles systems using autocannon and missiles. There are also VLS cells for up to 64 anti-aircraft missiles. Eight NSM anti-ship and land attack missiles are carried. There are also two 27mm autocannon and four 12.7 machine-guns. There are also non-lethal water cannon and long range acoustic devices to send warnings to small boats approaching the frigate. Two helicopters and one UAV are carried along with a hangar to hold all of them. The F-126 is designed to be continuously deployed for two years without need for major maintenance. This means a F-126 can operate for 5,000 hours a year, which means 57 percent of 365 days in a year. Warships tend to spend a lot of time idle in port.

While the F126 was built for combat, its predecessor, the F125 frigates, also contained many innovations. 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 quickly addressed the most serious problems, which were all software related. The Baden-Württemberg finally entered service in 2018.

The Baden-Württemberg did not begin a year of sea trials until the end of 2016. This produced a growing list of problems the builders hustled to fix while also dealing with some of the defects. The list of problems was too long and the navy refused to accept, or commission, the Baden-Württemberg into service. While this was embarrassing, it was also the right thing to do because otherwise the problems would have 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 became less 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 problems. 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 seized Crimea and portions of two adjacent provinces from 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 (Anti-submarines warfare) torpedo tubes. The F125s are 149.5 meters 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 long, high speed (74 kilometers an hour) boats for the commandos who could also use the helicopters) and one or two UUVs (unmanned underwater vehicles) for clearing mines. There's also space for two 20 foot shipping containers carrying any special equipment. Electronics includes a phased array air search radar as used on Aegis ships and the usual complement of communications and countermeasures equipment. What is missing is the ASW capabilities the F122s had although these can be added. The helicopters can be equipped with 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 cost nearly a billion dollars. 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 including high explosive, anti-aircraft rounds, or GPS guided. 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 considered buying it. Until 2022 only Italy, Germany and Qatar used Vulcano shells. In 2022 Germany began shipping 155mm Vulcano shells to Ukraine and within a year Ukraine became the largest user of Vulcano shells, using them successfully against Russian targets.




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