Germany’s naval brass in 2005 dreamed up a warship that could ferry marines into combat anywhere in the world, go up against enemy ships and stay away from home ports for two years with a crew half the size of its predecessor’s.
First delivered for sea trials in 2016 after a series of delays, the 7,000-ton Baden-Württemberg frigate was determined last month to have an unexpected design flaw: It doesn’t really work.
Defense experts cite the warship’s buggy software and ill-considered arsenal—as well as what was until recently its noticeable list to starboard—as symptoms of deeper, more intractable problems: Shrinking military expertise and growing confusion among German leaders about what the country’s armed forces are for.
A litany of bungled infrastructure projects has tarred Germany’s reputation for engineering prowess. There is still no opening date for Berlin’s new €6 billion ($7.2 billion) airport, which is already 10 years behind schedule, and the redesign of Stuttgart’s railway station remains stalled more than a decade after work on the project started. Observers have blamed these mishaps on poor planning and project management, which also figured in major setbacks for several big military projects.
But experts say military efforts have also been hampered by the lack of a strategic vision for Germany’s armed forces, resulting in vague, hard-to-execute briefs. Before the frigate project foundered, a contract to build a new helicopter hit snags, costs for a new rifle overran and an ambitious drone project simply failed to get off the ground.
German military procurement is “one hell of a complete disaster,” said Christian Mölling, a defense-industry expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. “It will take years to sort this problem out.”
The naval fiasco, on a project with a €3 billion price tag, is particularly startling since Europe’s largest exporter relies on open and secure shipping lanes to transport its goods.
The F-125 frigate program was supposed to deliver Germany’s four largest military ships of the postwar era, fitted with cutting-edge software allowing high operability with a skeleton crew.
But after the ship failed sea trials last month, naval officials refused to commission it. The German Navy said the Baden-Württemberg’s central computer system—the design centerpiece allowing it to sail with a smaller crew—didn’t pass necessary tests. The Kieler Nachrichten, a daily in the German Baltic fleet’s home port of Kiel, has reported problems with its radar, electronics and the flameproof coating on its fuel tanks. The vessel was also found to list to the starboard, a flaw a project spokesman says has been corrected. The Baden-Württemberg is now set to return to port next week for an “extended period,” the navy said.
A spokesman for Thyssenkrupp, the lead company on the project, said it still planned to deliver the ship this year. “The frigate-class 125 is a newly designed, technically sophisticated ship with highly complex new developments—including new technologies,” the spokesman said. “Delays can never be completely ruled out.”
A spokesman for the military procurement office said it was levying financial penalties from Thyssenkrupp for late delivery, but he declined to provide further details.
Even if the ship can be fixed, however, some naval experts worry it would struggle to defend itself against terrorist groups supplied with antiship missiles. And in the face of a Russian naval buildup in the Baltic Sea, it lacks its predecessor’s sonar and torpedo tubes, making it a sitting duck for submarines.
Those failings, they say, result from Germany’s military brass never settling on a defined brief for the vessel.
When planning began in 2003, naval staff wanted an all-rounder that could tangle with Russian destroyers in the Baltic and serve as a base for humanitarian missions in tropical waters. Then, in 2005, they decided the ship didn’t need all of its predecessor’s heavy weaponry and should focus more on attacking enemies on land, including by ferrying marines into combat. Given Russia’s aggressive stance in the Baltic Sea, naval experts say that now appears to have been a miscalculation. The ship’s great weight—already almost twice that of the frigate model it is replacing—makes adding further weapons very difficult.
“These problems stem from Germany not having a strategic vision for its military,” said Ronja Kempin, defense-industry expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.
Defense experts say the frigate fiasco also shows the navy, German military engineers and the government’s defense-procurement body, after years without big projects to manage, has lost the expertise to bring these to fruition.
“Too complicated, too ambitious, too badly managed.” Marcel Dickow, a weapons-procurement expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, said of the frigate. “They threw money at the project without thinking it through.”
The spokesman for Germany’s military procurement office said while the ship project posed an “enormous challenge” for the contractors, its design specifications were “unambiguous and precise.” He added that the contractors have to solve outstanding problems with the vessel. “The [German military] will not take over the ship until all acceptance trials have been successfully completed,” he said.
German military spending is now rising rapidly to meet the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s agreed commitment of 2% of gross domestic product. The defense budget is set to climb to €38.5 billion in 2018 from €37 billion in 2017 and €35.1 billion in 2016.
But this growth follows years of fiscal attrition that have degraded the government’s capacity to manage ambitious military projects. And while German firms like Heckler & Koch AG and Rheinmetall are market leaders in rifles, tanks and howitzers, competence in larger, more complex systems has eroded during the lean years.
”There’s a whole generation of German engineers who haven’t worked on a major defense project,” said Mr. Mölling, the defense expert. “It’s not that they lost this skill; they never learned it.”
Engineering graduates shun weapons manufacturers in favor of “sexier” employers like conglomerate Siemens AG or car maker BMW AG, which offer better pay and career prospects, according to Mr. Mölling.
Likewise, defense companies have failed to attract the graduates needed to develop sophisticated new systems that are increasingly centered on software, said Sandro Gaycken, a director at the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin.
Berlin could have bought warships from U.S., U.K. or French shipyards, but the government chose German bidders to buoy employment at German shipyards, according to Ms. Kempin, the defense expert.
Kiel-based naval engineer Lothar Dannenberg, who wasn’t involved directly in the frigate project, blamed its failures largely on what he said was the incompetence of the procurement office. “We were left shaking our heads,” he said.