The first of the German Navy's F125 frigates could be mission-ready by early 2017 and is unlike anything commissioned by the country's naval forces before. Not only will this new class of ship have the capability to be deployed worldwide for up to two years before returning to its home base in Wilhelmshaven, it will also be able to carry out an enormous variety of national and international assignments - everything from surveillance and scouting to gunfire support for ground operations.
Consequently, the versatile vessel differs from its predecessors in several ways: significantly reduced crew numbers and a different crew structure; increased minimal maintenance requirements; weapon and sensor systems suited to close-range, rather than long-distance, combat; and improved support capabilities for special forces teams.
Breaking with tradition
Traditionally, ships of this kind have operated a 'one ship, one crew' policy, allowing naval soldiers to quickly become familiar with their specific vessel's systems and procedures, as well as cultivating a strong team spirit. With the F125 frigate, the German Navy has broken with this long-time tradition in order to increase deployment time and make better use of its expensive equipment.
"Limits of deployment times of current ships are mostly imposed by personnel issues and only secondarily by technical implication," explains Commander Andreas Jedlicka, project officer at the German Navy for the 125 frigate.
"A frigate F122, for example, could stay one year in deployment, except for the fact that a crew would never accept such a long absence from home."
On the F125 frigate, however, this will no longer be a problem; there will be eight crews for four frigates and crews will be changed every four months in theatre. So, how has this culture shift impacted the design of the German Navy's latest frigate?
"First and foremost, the regular changes of crews in theatre have a significant impact on standardisation and information flow requirements for regular workflow onboard, and linked to necessary home-based support," Jedlicka notes.
In other words, everything needs to be exactly the same on each of the four frigates to ensure that every F125 crew member feels equally comfortable, no matter which ship they are working on.
"In addition, to avoid an increase of overall personnel required, the ship's crew is limited to 120," Jedlicka adds. "This has led to specific design requirements for information support systems, satellite communications and a significantly higher degree of automation on board."
Training procedures will also have to evolve significantly to accommodate this change in naval culture and ensure that each sailor identifies strongly with the F125 frigate.
"This is the most difficult part of this new way of making use of ships," Jedlicka believes. "The ship-to-crew link has traditionally been one principal element of identification for a sailor, so in future we intend to create this identification with regard to the type of ship you are serving for - in this case the F125 - and new identification features linked to the crew you belong to for two to four years."
This feeling of identification with the ship itself will largely be achieved through simulation (the German Navy will have a replica of both the operations centre and the technical part of the ship in Wilhelmshaven, where training will take place), while identification with the crew will be fostered through working closely together for months, even years, at a time.
"You will always work with the same people and this will give you a similar identification that you would get now on a ship," Jedlicka remarks. "Crews will even have their own office and housing areas where they live and train together in Wilhelmshaven when they are not on the ship."
Close combat: equipped for modern naval warfare
It's not only the F125's impressive deployment time that sets it apart from its predecessors; the German Navy's new frigate has also been designed to deal with a huge number of modern scenarios, including asymmetric threats, which are different in nature to those that older ships tended to encounter. Therefore, dual redundancy has lost some of its importance when compared with the F123 and F124 frigates.
"Operational requirements for the F125 state only that it should, up to a certain degree of damage, be able to complete the actual engagement in support of its own mission and then be able to return to a support base in theatre," Jedlicka explains.
While traditional scenarios at sea could have involved fighting that lasted for months on end, that situation simply isn't likely today.
"Asymmetric threats are more common in this environment," says Jedlicka. "So you might have an attack on the ship, but it's not going to go on for months. Moreover, if you are opposing non-regular naval forces, they are also unable to stay at sea for long periods of time."
So, the ship will be fitted with the necessary redundancy to ensure it can fulfil its current task, but it would then be expected to return to a support base for repairs.
"We have redundancy on board for the command post and the communications systems because it is essential to be able to communicate with everyone and have your internal procedures working," Jedlicka notes. "But we don't have redundancy for weaponry and sensors."
The F125 weapon system, too, is tailored to counter modern asymmetric threats. While the vessel will house long-range weapons such as a 127mm/64 lightweight naval gun, which can fire up to 35 rounds a minute and hit targets over 100km away, the majority of its weapons are ideal for much closer combat.
"This ship is not about using the most modern technology; the idea was to use what we have and focus more on close-in weapon systems and the protection of the ship," Jedlicka notes. "That's why you find lots of small gun calibres that give you a real advantage against small boats. These are perfect for the scenarios we have now in Africa with pirates."
But it's the four combat boats that will also be found onboard the F125 that Jedlicka is most excited about.
"This is a really new thing, which changes a lot," he emphasises. "If you have pirates in a small boat with hand-held weapons systems, they can inflict a lot of damage to a very expensive ship. So we decided that if we needed to investigate contacts, we should do so in a small ship."
The German Navy has therefore designed a small combat ship to carry out four roles: rescue and transport, boarding, escort and special forces use.
"You put a team of 16-20 highly trained personnel equipped with small weapons in these boats and you can fulfil your task without having an asymmetric threat to the frigate," Jedlicka explains.
Moreover, the F125 vessel is designed to support up to 50 members of the special forces, as well as their equipment onboard.
"This naval platform provides a unique facility to offer support in transport, logistics, communications and command facilities to special forces deployment," Jedlicka confirms.
Of course, there is much work still to be done to ensure the F125 frigate meets its planned deployment date of Spring 2017. Not only do new training procedures need to be established and tested at the vessel's future home base in Wilhelmshaven, but the ship itself, which should be ready by early 2016, must go on a year-long test run to ensure everything operates as it is designed to do.
If all goes to plan, however, the day the F125 frigate sets sail on its first deployment will mark the beginning of a new era for the German Navy.