Work has begun on the construction of Germany’s next class of warships, the F126 project, described by the manufacturer as the “largest shipbuilding project in the history of the German Navy.” These vessels will be physically the biggest surface warships to join the German Navy since World War II and, although there remains a question over whether the German government will ever buy the full fleet of six that the navy wants, or just the four currently under contract.
It was announced this week that the first steel had been cut for the new F126 warships, with a ceremony held at the Peene shipyard in Wolgast, Germany, to mark the start of the construction phase.
The construction contract for the first four F126 frigates was awarded to the prime contractor, the Dutch shipyard Damen Naval, in June 2020, together with subcontractors Blohm+Voss and Thales.
Under a complicated construction program, the ships will be entirely built in Germany, at three different shipyards in Wolgast, Kiel, and Hamburg. The Peene shipyard in Wolgast is responsible for steelwork and pre-assembly for the stern. The foreship will be built in Kiel, where it will be mated with the stern and then towed by sea to the Blohm+Voss shipyards in Hamburg. Here, the warships will receive their various onboard systems, and undergo final outfitting, commissioning, and testing. Delivery of the first ship — so far unnamed — is scheduled for 2028.
“The F126 project is an important contribution to the technological sovereignty of the German, Dutch, and European defense industry,” said Damen Shipyards Group CEO Arnout Damen. “The cooperation with our partners Blohm+Voss and Thales is excellent, and the project is now also recognized worldwide as one of the most exciting frigate construction projects.”
While officially designated as frigates, the F126 warships will be notably large. Each one will be 545 feet long and have a displacement of up to 11,000 tons. This compares with a length of 505 feet and fully loaded displacement of 8,637 tons for the U.S. Navy’s Flight II Arleigh Burke class destroyers.
As originally schemed, the F126 class was known as the Mehrzweckkampfschiff (MKS 180, or Multi-Purpose Combat Ship 180), in which the 180 indicated the planned crew complement, since reduced. The warships are now also primarily intended to replace the German Navy’s current F123 Brandenburg class of frigates, four of which entered service in the mid-1990s.
While the F123 Brandenburg class is starting to show its age, there have been questions, more generally, about the serviceability and overall effectiveness of the German Navy in recent years. The submarine fleet has been especially badly affected by low operational readiness, although the surface fleet has also had its fair share of issues. Modernization, with new warships that are easier to maintain, and which can be operated by smaller crews, is a priority.
Interestingly, at an early stage in the MKS 180 program, this class of vessels was intended to replace the much smaller Type 143A Gepard class missile-armed fast attack craft, as well as the F123 class. This was part of a wider initiative in which the earlier Type 143 Albatros class missile-armed fast attack craft were superseded by the K130 Braunschweig class of ocean-going corvettes.
Regardless, the F126 class has emerged as a far larger and more expensive warship and one that’s intended to be equally suitable for operations in the tropics and in the polar regions.
“With the F126 frigates, the navy has a modern asset that, in the future, can serve as an effective deterrent and defense for our alliances and for our own security in all maritime operations and operational areas around the world,” explained Siemtje Möller, Parliamentary State Secretary at the German Ministry of Defense.
In terms of their design, a small crew complement remains a central component; now each vessel will have a core crew of just 114, which will be rotated at four-month intervals. In this way, and thanks to a highly automated and low-maintenance design, the ship will be able to operate continuously for up to two years. This is a stunningly small number for any major surface combatant, let alone one that displaces nearly 11,000 tons. A Flight IIA Arleigh Burke class destroyer has nearly triple that complement. If will be interesting to see how well this minimally manned concept works in preactice. Considering the vessel's size, adding additional crew, if needed, should be possible.
Using mission modules, the F126 frigates will be able to undertake a wide variety of duties, depending on the specific needs of the German Navy. Damen says that it will be possible to rapidly interchange these modules, “without the need for a lengthy commissioning period,” although, so far, details are only available for the anti-submarine warfare mission module, known as F126 MM ASW, which is being developed by Atlas Elektronik.
Under an initial contract, the German Navy is receiving two F126 MM ASW modules which will be used to “conduct long-range ASW operations and to build up an extensive subsurface picture.” Atlas Elektronik says these modules will include the “latest active and passive sonar technology” although it is unclear if the ship will also be armed with ASW torpedoes, or if it will rely on its embarked helicopter(s) to prosecute underwater targets.
Even in its basic form, however, the warships will be able to perform anti-air warfare (AAW) and anti-surface warfare (ASuW), with the various sensors and weapons being brought together via the Thales Tacticos combat management system.
Standard sensors and mission equipment will include a Hensoldt TRS-4D C-band air and surface surveillance radar, while Thales will provide its APAR Block 2 X-band multifunction radar, Gatekeeper infrared/TV observation system, Mirador Mk 2 electro-optical tracking and observation system, and a satellite communications system. German electronics company Rohde & Schwarz will provide its Radar Electronic Support Measures (R-ESM) and Communication ESM (C-ESM) systems, to detect, identify, and locate communication and radar emissions.
Weapons that have been selected for the F126 frigates will include a 16-cell Mk 41 vertical launch system (VLS) for up to 64 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) Block 2 missiles, although there is currently no confirmation that SM-2 Standard Missiles will be included for an expanded anti-air warfare role. Currently, the air-defense-optimized F124 Sachsen class is armed with a combination of ESSM and SM-2 Block IIIA missiles.
The F126 design also includes launchers for eight Kongsberg Naval Strike Missiles (NSM), a pair of Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) launchers for close-in defense, a 127mm main gun firing Vulcano extended-range precision-guided projectiles, and two 27mm Rheinmetall MLG27-4.0 secondary guns. Rheinmetall MASS decoy launchers will be fitted for self-defense.
A hangar is provided for two helicopters, likely to be the Airbus Helicopters Sea Tiger, a German shipborne multi-mission version of the NH90 that made its maiden flight last month. The Saab Skeldar rotary-wing drone is another option and has also been procured for use aboard the Braunschweig class corvettes.
While the NSM and 127mm gun can be used for land attacks, the lack of a long-range cruise missile capability, like the Tomahawk, is somewhat surprising for a NATO warship of this size. However, Germany has never operated a weapon in this class and has no plans, at present, to do so. However, should the decision be taken in the future to add Tomahawk or a similar cruise missile, there would appear to be capacity. Damen also says that the power-generation system is intended to “give the German Navy the option to integrate new technologies over the course of the vessels’ lifecycle.”
One future missile option could be the SuperSonic Strike Missile (3SM), which is now under development by Germany and Norway, as a high-speed successor to the NSM. This weapon, which you can read more about here, could potentially be used against targets ashore and at sea.
At this stage, however, at least some of the same criticisms about armament that The War Zone previously leveled at the F125 Baden-Württemberg class frigate can be directed at the F126 class. Even larger than the F125, which was already closer in size to a destroyer, the new warship does at least have a more effective anti-air capability thanks to ESSM, while (when fitted), the mission module brings an ASW capability that is almost entirely lacking from the F125.
As well as the details of additional mission modules and potential future armament additions, there remains the question of how many of these warships Germany will eventually procure.
In June 2022, the German Navy had suggested that it wanted to eventually see the options for two additional F126 frigates taken out, for a total of six. Then, in October last year, German Minister of Defense Christine Lambrecht said that those plans would be put on hold — indefinitely.
As it stands, the F126 contract should provide four ships for the German Navy between 2028 and 2031, with the possibility of a political decision that will add the other two at a later date. However, even with a financial boost for the German Ministry of Defense in response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, there will likely still be a squabble for funds, with other high-priority programs to manage, too.
There had also been plans to procure another new class of frigates, known as the F127 class, of which the German Navy also wanted to buy six examples, optimized for air defense. The same budget decision that saw plans to buy the additional two F126 frigates shelved also took away all funding for the F127 class, which was slated to replace the Braunschweig class.
Other German Navy programs that took a hit included the IDAS submarine self-protection system, designed to defend submarines against threats from aircraft, helicopters, and other ships. While development will continue, there will be no orders placed for the time being.
While the war in Ukraine may have provided the German Armed Forces with much-needed additional funds, it seems that the German Navy will not benefit from them as much as it might have hoped. The German Army, too, has a reason to be disappointed, with plans to develop a successor to the Fuchs armored personnel carrier put on hold and the budget for a planned new short-range air defense system being halved.
The big beneficiary, therefore, appears to be the Luftwaffe. The German Air Force certainly needs funds, with a requirement to pay for the acquisition of a likely 35 F-35A stealth fighters, 15 Typhoon EK jets configured for electronic warfare, plus 38 additional EF2000 Typhoons to replace earlier versions of this same aircraft. On top of all these is the procurement of the Israeli-made Arrow 3 missile defense system.
While the changing defense and security landscape in Europe is leading to some major decisions being made around the future of the German Armed Forces, the German Navy will have to wait a little longer to see if it gets the six-strong fleet of F126 frigates that it wants, not to mention the six follow-on F127 warships that are also part of its modernization plans.
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