The German Navy has a lot of problems right now. It has no working submarines, in part because of a chronic repair parts shortage. The Deutsche Marine is still flying helicopters older than their pilots—the Sea Lynx entered service in 1981, and the Sea King in 1969—and has long-delayed their replacement. And now the service is facing problems with its newest ships so severe that the first of the class failed its sea trials and was returned to the shipbuilders in December.
As Christian Mölling, a defense-industry expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, told the Wall Street Journal’s William Wilkes in January, German military procurement is “one hell of a complete disaster. It will take years to sort this problem out.”
The Baden-Wurttemberg class frigates were ordered to replace the 1980s-era Bremen class ships, all but of two which have been already retired. At 149 meters (488 feet) long with a displacement of 7,200 metric tons (about 7900 US tons), the Baden-Wurttembergs are about the size of destroyers and intended to reduce the size of the crew required to operate them (in this way, they are similar to the US Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) classes and the Zumwalt-class destroyers).
Like the LCS ships and the Zumwalt, the Baden-Wurttemberg ships were conceived of in the mid-aughts—the product of lessons allegedly learned from the “asymmetric warfare” of the Gulf and Iraq Wars.
Like the Zumwalt, the frigates are intended to have improved land attack capabilities—a mission capability largely missing from the Deutsche Marine’s other post-unification ships. The new frigate was supposed to be a master of all trades—carrying Marines to deploy to fight ashore, providing gunfire support, hunting enemy ships and submarines, and capable of being deployed on far-flung missions for up to two years away from a home port. As with the US Navy’s LCS ships, the German Navy planned to alternate crews—sending a fresh crew to meet the ship on deployment to relieve the standing crew.
It was to be a wonder ship and evidence of the resurgence of the Deutsche Marine. At least that was the plan.
Instead, the Baden-Wurttemberg now bears the undesirable distinction of being the first ship the German Navy has ever refused to accept after delivery. In fact, the future of the whole class of German frigates is now in doubt because of the huge number of problems experienced with the first ship during sea trials. So the Baden-Wurttemberg won’t be shooting its guns at anything for the foreseeable future (and neither will the Zumwalt for the moment, since the US Navy cancelled orders for their $800,000-per-shot projectiles).
System integration issues are a major chunk of the Baden-Wurrenberg’s problems. About 90 percent of the ship’s systems are so new that they’ve never been deployed on a warship in fact—they’ve never been tested together as part of what the US Navy would call “a system of systems.” And all of that new hardware and software have not played well together—particularly with the ship’s command and control computer system, the Atlas Naval Combat System (ANCS).
Built by Atlas Electronik GmbH of Bremen, ANCS is a brand-new multi-role command and control system for the ship’s weapons and sensors. It is intended to tie radar, sonar, and other sensor data (along with information from the ship’s helicopter and drones and the ship’s weapons fire control systems) into a suite of consoles. The system is supposed to allow a small team of sailors and officers to centrally manage nearly the entire operation of the ship and its weapons from joystick-equipped stations in the ship’s operations room. Atlas has marketed the combat system as “The system for frigates and corvettes of the new generation,” and the F125 class was to be ANCS’s big debut.
But integration of the sensors and weapons hardware with the command and control system has gone poorly, to say the least. The problems weren’t fixed before sea trials began in April of 2016, and Germany’s Federal Office of Bundeswehr Equipment, Information Technology and In-Service Support (BAAINBw), the agency of the German government that oversees procurement of military systems, pushed functional tests of the operations room’s systems back to the end of August of 2017 That’s beyond the ship’s original scheduled commissioning date of July 28. And, as of December, the problems had not yet been addressed to the extent that the BAAINBw would accept as successful.
On top of the information systems issues, there are other problems: the ship leans a little to the right, is overweight, and can’t make top speed with its first-time-deployed combined turbine propulsion system that combines diesel and gas.
None of this should come as a surprise to seasoned military procurement watchers, given the problems the US Navy experienced with the Liberty, Independence, and Zumwalt classes. In the case of the Zumwalt, the vast number of bleeding-edge technologies incorporated increased the development time of the ship accordingly. Cost overruns (and a shift in mission requirements and budget constraints) forced the Navy to cut the order down from an originally planned 32 ships to a mere three. The LCS ships have had their own problems, and new construction orders have been frozen while the Navy looks at building bigger, better-armed, and better-crewed “frigate” versions of the ships.
But for the German military—which has seen a collapse in its funding over the past two decades—these sorts of issues have a much more substantial impact on readiness: they are a symptom of a much larger, long-running problem with Germany’s management of its military. Since the “peace dividend” of reunification and the end of the Cold War, Germany’s military budget has plummeted to just 1.15 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2016—well below the two-percent mark required by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.