The German Navy's Baden-Wurttemberg class Type 125 (F125) frigate sure doesn't look like a frigate. The vessel displaces a whopping 7,200 tons, making it more destroyer sized, but its mission and armament are far from that of a top-end surface combatant. Even the ship's crew size, concept of operations, and the way sailors interact with the vessel's systems are unique. And depending on who you ask, the whole idea behind the controversial F125 frigate program is either one of genius based in stark reality or a largely illogical, misguided, and wasteful mess of an endeavor.
Four of these 490 foot long vessels have been built to partially replace eight Bremen class F122 frigates of half the F125's displacement, some of which date back to the early 1980s. A consortium including Thyssen Krupp Marine Systems, Lurssen shipyards, and Blohm+Voss shipyards are constructing the ships.
The F125s are unique to say the least. They include a number of fresh technologies, such as a hybrid diesel-electric drive and power system based on a number of smaller diesel generators that drive electric motors. The ship's primary sensor is the very capable multi-role Cassidian TRS-4D/NR multiple AESA array radar system. The ship also features an advanced command and control and communications installation based around an open architecture concept. A 360 degree infrared surveillance and situational awareness system is also installed above the ship's bridge. The list of supposed innovations and attempts at automation featured on these ships goes on and on.
The F125's large silhouette features two pyramid-like superstructures that were designed with survivability in mind. For instance, they both carry components of the ship's primary combat radar system, so if one structure is damaged the ship won't be completely "blinded." The low-observable sensor masts are modular in nature and can be reconfigured with new communications gear and sensors fairly easily.
The overall design is based around a requirement for reduced radar cross-section and acoustic signature. There are also areas for two containerized mission packages amidships as well. This concept has failed America's Littoral Combat Ships, but the F125's modules will likely be less heavily integrated into the ship, and as a result they may be less potent, especially for high-end combat missions. But that's really not what this vessel is all about—a key detail which we will get to in a moment.
For such a large combat vessel, its crew complement is very small. Even though the F125s have twice the displacement of the F122s they replace, they have a core complement of just half the size, or 110-120 sailors. As mentioned earlier, a huge focus of the F125's design has been on automation that will supposedly allow such a tiny crew to safely operate the ship. America's Littoral Combat Ships were also designed around the same idea, but the U.S. Navy has had to add a sizable number of crew to their complements due to the inability for the ship to be operated and sustained by such a small force.
There is room for at least 50 additional personnel on the F125s even after a small air wing component is also added. This extra space is intended for special operations forces, should they be needed, or mission specialists, or other temporarily deployed personnel. But this extra space could end up being used at least partially by additional core crewmen if the current complement can't keep up with the extreme endurance operations the ship is intended for.
The driving operational concept for the ship, which dictated its large design, is based around the idea that the vessel could deploy far from home for two years at a time—yes you read that right—and persist even in taxing hot tropical conditions. A target of 208 days at sea a year, or 5,000 hours, is what the German Navy can supposedly squeeze out of these giant frigates. Eight crews will be spread across a fleet of four ships and would be swapped out every four months, with those the relieving crew meeting the ships wherever they may be forward deployed to around the globe.
The F125 is intended to call on far less ports, far less often, than its predecessor, with long stretches of sea time between pier-side resupply and maintenance. In other words, these vessels are supposed to run very reliably and the crews are need to be highly self sufficient and efficient for the concept to actually pay off.
For its large size, the F125s pack a very soft bite. Originally the vessels were slated to bristle with a version of the German Army's M270 multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) and a PzH-2000 155mm howitzer. These weapons were eventually passed over due to integration costs. Now the ships are armed with eight aging RGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missiles, a 127mm lightweight Otobreda deck gun with guided VULCANO ammunition for shore and land attack. The gun's guided shells can supposedly reach out to about 60 miles. Seven remote-controlled gun stations are also present. Two are 27mm MLG27 auto-cannons, and five are .50 caliber machine guns on Hitrole-NT mounts. Two other .50 caliber machine guns can be setup for force protection needs, but they are manually operated.
Four deployable small boats can be launched via gantries that extend out from bay doors located between the ship's island superstructures. Finally, air defense comes in the form of two 21 cell RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile close-in weapons system (CIWS) turrets. Aside from their ability to knock down incoming missiles, drones, and aircraft at close range, the RIM-116 can also be used against maneuvering surface threats in most conditions. MASS decoy launchers are also installed fore and aft, but we still don't have a clear idea as to what electronic warfare systems the ship has for self protection, if any.
A pair of NH-90 Sea Lion multi-purpose twin-engine helicopters can be carried. Presumably unmanned aircraft can also be deployed and recovered from the F125's flight deck as well.
What's critically lacking here is any sort of area air defense capability. Not to mention any organic anti-submarine weaponry beyond the two potentially embarked helicopters. The ship lacks any type of anti-submarine sonar as well.
For such a large surface combatant, lacking some sort of air defense capability beyond close-in weapon systems seems outright bizarre, especially considering the ship's capable sensor suite. The latest Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) would be especially well suited for this design as they could use the ship's radar and data-links, instead of discreet target illuminators, to engage targets well beyond visual range.
This is especially concerning because non-state actors are increasingly getting their hands on anti-ship missiles. Even a top-of-the-line U.S. destroyer fired two SM-2s and an ESSM, as well as launching decoys and activating its very capable electronic warfare suite, at an incoming missile fired from Yemeni shores and they still don't know if these systems took it down or if it crashed on its own accord. And this occurred in a relatively a low-threat combat environment. In the case of the F125, just watching a missile approach before it can be engaged just a couple miles away at best by a RIM-116 seems almost reckless, especially for such a prominent target.
Once again, the F125's lack of area air defense is a similar controversy that plagued the Littoral Combat Ship, and they are half the size and roughly half the cost of the F125. They are also far more nimble. Its predecessor, the F122 class, had an eight cell RIM-7 Sea Sparrow missile launcher for medium-range air defense, as well as multiple torpedo tubes and sonar for anti-submarine warfare.
In addition to its traditional weaponry, special emphasis was put on equipping these ships with "less-than-lethal" defensive systems, such as diver detection sensors, powerful water cannons, blinding spot lights, acoustic access denial devices and other systems.
So you are probably asking yourself by now "what the hell is this ship intended for?" You wouldn't be the first wonder. The German Navy has a somewhat controversial mission set defined for these vessels. The Baden-Wurttemberg class is supposed to be used to countering "asymmetric" threats and to perform "stabilization, crisis management, conflict prevention, and international intervention" operations.
In other words, these ships are meant to be used in low-threat environments against enemies with rudimentary combat capabilities at best. Disaster relief and emergency aid are also at the center of their intended uses. So think special operations support nearby very poor countries or counter-terror and counter-piracy operations in remote regions of the world. The ships could be integrated into a coalition flotilla in higher-threat combat arenas, but that's not its primary operational format and what use they could be such instances is debatable.
Although those missions do matter, does building destroyer-sized ships to focus on them alone really make sense, especially considering these ships are replacing more plentiful and more traditional multi-role surface combatants?
And that's the multi-billion dollar question here. On one hand Germany could be seen as just being realistic about the low-end missions they will need to fulfill for decades to come. On the other hand they sure went above and beyond to satisfy those limited mission sets. And does building four of these large but limited capability ships even make sense for a navy that has only roughly a dozen major surface combatants (and about a half dozen corvettes) in all?
Additionally, the whole automation and minimally manned crew concept is a risky one, especially for a ship that is supposed to operate so far from home for such long stretches of time. If anything, the latest incidents aboard America's top-of-the-line Arleigh Burke class destroyers underlines the personnel and readiness issues that can exist even on constantly deployed ships that are traditionally staffed and have extensive support infrastructure in their operating region.
Keeping a ship up while also operating it with a skeleton crew on a daily basis far from home, even if all the automation works as advertised, is a highly challenging if not questionable proposition. And if the F125 frigates require more in-port time to sustain their high-operations tempo, either abroad or at home, this will degrade the reasoning behind the entire design.
What's even more concerning is that there are already issues with this class of ships that could have massive impact on their ability to carry out their mission and to evolve over time. A chronic list of 1.3 degrees to starboard has been documented, but another issue with these vessels will likely have a much larger impact on their relevance over time—they are severely over weight.
A Reuters report from May of 2017 details how the ships are heavy by 178 tonnes—or 356,000 pounds. Not only will this impact the vessel's performance and increase its operating costs, but it will also severely limit future upgrades, and may even impact its ability to field containerized mission modules as it was originally designed to do. Above all else, this issue could preclude the ship from ever receiving enhancements that will add to its lethality and survivability—namely the addition of an area air defense capability.
But that may not even be possible as it currently stands. There doesn't seem to be enough internal volume to add a vertical launch system in back of the ship's main gun. Some sort of containerized version could possibly be used where the mission modules are intended to be placed, but it isn't clear if doing so would be complicated by the ship's structure and menagerie of antennas and masts.
A Mk48 or Mk56 modular vertical launch system installation is another option in this area, but once again, with little reserve mass left, this may not be feasible without other major alternations that would sacrifice established capabilities. And this would likely mean at least one mission module would be eliminated.
With the Baden-Wurttemberg class being the largest surface combatant in the German Navy, even dwarfing the far more capable F124 Sachsen class, of which only three of the planned four ships were procured, it can be argued that the funds used on the F125s could have been better suited procuring more F124s which aren't all that much more expensive.
Then again, the fact that Germany is dedicating roughly one third of its surface combatant fleet to a low-end and even non-combative mission says a lot as to what the country sees as to their future role on the high seas and on the national security world stage. But still, it seems like the size of these vessels may be a mismatch to that need. And if it turns out they cannot deploy for the huge stretches of time, a key factor that dictated their unique design, and their crew size ends up being too small to actually sustain its intended operational concept, than the expenditure to buy and the operating costs of these vessels may be tough to justify.
So what do you think? Are the F125s visionary ships designed around the realities of our times, or are they oversized and toothless vessels with a questionable mission set? Let us known in the comments below.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com