Norway’s New Nansen Class Frigates: Capabilities and Controversies
Guest Article by Endre Lunde
On June 1st, The Norwegian navy sailed its newest acquisition, the KNM Fridtjof Nansen, into the heart of Oslo. The stealthy 5,100 tonne Spanish-built frigate marks the beginning of its class, named after famous Norwegian explorers of the previous century. It also signals the start of a renewal of the Norwegian Navy, as 4 more ships of this class will be delivered through 2009 in a program valued at more than $2.4 billion. In total, Fridtjof Nansen will be followed by at least 10 more vessels of different designs within the next 5 years.
This article reviews the vessel and the controversy surrounding it – some see it as a revolution, others see it as a relic of the past.
Nansen Class: Pocket AEGIS
The main mission of the frigate is anti-submarine warfare and the ship is equipped to detect, identify, track, engage and attack hostile submarines. The ship is also equipped for anti-air warfare and anti-surface warfare roles and can carry out non-combatant tasks in peacetime. The ship houses a medical facility, and will carry an NH-90 helicopter.
The Fridtjof Nansen Class is developed by Spanish shipbuilder Navantia based on their 5,800t F100 Alvaro de Bazan Class multi-role AEGIS frigate. The Nansen Class also uses the AEGIS combat system, incorporating the smaller SPY-1F radar from the F100 as opposed to the standard SPY-1D for other AEGIS ships. It was chosen as the future frigate of the Norwegian Navy in 2000 after an eight year long competition that included the German firm Blohm + Voss and a group of Norwegian companies called NorEskort.
The 133 meter long Fridtjof Nansen Class will be the smallest AEGIS vessel built to date. They are manned by a crew of only 120, which is considerably less than other vessels of its size. This crew will be composed of about 50 officers, 40 contracted personnel and 30 conscripted sailors.
Though it is based on the F100 design, the Nansen class differs significantly on both design and armament. Modifications made include changes to allow for operations under arctic conditions, enhanced combat management systems from Kongsberg Defence and Aerospace, a powerful ASW sensor suite from Thales, and Kongsberg’s Norwegian Strike Missile (NSM) high-subsonic stealth anti-ship missiles. The ships will also carry BAE Systems’ Stingray Lightweight torpedoes.
The new frigates’ air defense fields a different layout of the Mk 41 VLS system compared to the F100, with 32 launch cells for Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles (ESSM) in 8 vertical launch modules. While the Mk.41 VLS can also accommodate longer-range SM-2 or SM-3 Standard missiles, each Mk.41 cell can hold 4 ESSMs instead of one SM-2. The main gun is also different, using the Oto Melara SuperRapid 76mm gun instead of the BAE Systems Mk 45 Mod 2 used on the Spanish vessels, American Arleigh Burke Class, et. al. It should also be noted that the vessel is not equipped with any sort of dedicated close-in defensive resources like the 20mm Phalanx or 30mm Goalkeeper system, depending on its ESSM missiles and the main gun for its defenses.
It replaces the 1960s-vintage Oslo Class frigates, two of which are still in service.
Nansen Class: The Controversies
The Nansen Class has spawned four broad controversies: its choice of builder, its design, its capabilities, and its operational sustainability.
Choosing Navantia as the preferred bidder for the project met with severe criticism from the beginning. The company has come under scrutiny for being subsidized by the Spanish government, and has been accused by of using cheap labor on temporary contracts to push prices. That criticism grew even more vocal after the May 11, 2005 death of four temporary workers on board the F-311 Roald Amundsen, just prior to delivery. Investigations into the cause of the accident revealed severe breaches of security regulations.
The second controversy refers to the vessels’ design. It has been accused of being built for the wrong purposes, given that the threat of Soviet submarines is long gone. Opponents of the project believe that building such vessels supports a Cold War doctrine, and that Norway would be better served by using the resources on a strengthened Coast Guard instead.
There has also been criticism on the usage of the AEGIS system and the SPY-1F radar, as some fear its interoperability with other AEGIS Class vessels may be used to support the US missile defense, which remains a controversial issue. While its Link-11 capabilities allow basic level integration into US Navy groups, and Co-operative Engagement Capability could be installed quickly if not already present, the SPY-1F differs from the SPY-1D(V) in that it has not been designed to provide ballistic missile defense capability through software and hardware modifications. Such tasks are also beyond the capabilities of the Fridtjof Nansen Class’ ESSM air-defense missiles.
The last and maybe largest controversy relates to the vessels’ operational sustainability. One of the main selling points of Navantia was that they were the only bidder that could deliver the 5-6 frigates requested within the financial framework offered. Blohm & Voss’ proposal allegedly believed that there was only room for three. Some critics believe that the Navy’s reach has exceeded its grasp, building more vessels than they can operate.
This together with financial scandals and the general difficulty surrounding Norwegian defense policies as described in my F-35 project coverage has created serious doubt whether Norway will have the ability to operate all of the frigates. In a speech published in the Norwegian Military Journal, the General Inspector for the Norwegian Navy, Rear Admiral Jan Erik Finseth claims that he will have to have an additional NOK 900 million added to his budget by 2008 for the Navy to fully perform its assigned tasks, including operating all five Nansen Class frigates.
The Minister of Defense from the Labor party has pledged to make the required funds available, without fully specifying what the MoD considers “required funds”. This effort undercut, however, by their coalition partners from the Socialistic Left party who encouraged the immediate sale of two of the vessels in early May 2006 on the grounds that they were unsustainable.
The proposal was quickly rejected by both of the party’s coalition partners and by the opposition in parliament. Nevertheless, the final level of operations funding for the class is uncertain at best. The Socialist Left, though defeated on the sales option, still holds the Ministry of Finance and has signaled that they will not support any increase in funding.
Op/Ed: Revolution or Relic?
Norway is currently among the worlds leading exporters of oil and natural gases, all found in the North Sea, and as energy security continues to grow in importance on the global agenda, possessing the resources to protect them will be vital.
Compared to the previous vessels of the Norwegian Navy, the Nansen Class is indeed a minor revolution. Though its weapons suite may not be considered particularly heavy, its sensors suite is impressive, and it offers a vastly enhanced possibility for the Norwegian Navy to provide naval surveillance over Norway’s sea lanes and maritime resources.
As a personal observation, given the challenges facing Norway and Russia in the Barents region, it might be prudent for the Norwegians to operate a vessel such as the KNM Fridtjof Nansen. As a sensor platform first and a weapons platform second, it allows Norway to protect its sovereignty with excellent surveillance and a back-up punch, while avoiding the potential for increasing tensions with Russia.
The vessels may also become an important international resource. The majority of new vessels currently under production, such as the UK’s Daring class and the Franco/Italian Horizon class are dedicated as air-warfare vessels, whilst the threat from submarines remains significant. This is especially true for operations in littoral waters, something which is underscored by the US development of the Littoral Combat Ship and its proposed ASW capabilities.
In several recent NATO exercises, diesel-electric submarines have proven their capabilities by effectively disrupting naval operations, particularly in littoral waters. The Fridtjof Nansen with its dedicated ASW capabilities could prove a valuable resource for any international force operating under such conditions.
While this hardly amounts to the storming of the Bastille, the new frigates may carry a revolution in their own way. The Norwegian Navy has set itself a goal to become Europe’s best navy by 2010; whatever that actually means, the Fridtjof Nansen Class will be an important part of this ambition. What remains to be seen is whether they are able to fully take advantage of its capabilities, or if political controversy will permanently anchor the new frigates at port alongside their ambitions of excellence.
- DID (Sept 18/06) – Continuing Controversies: Disputes with Navantia Over Norway’s Fridtjof Nansen Destroyers. Norway and shipbuilder Navantia are working to resolve a number of issues with the new ships.
Additional Readings and Sources:
- Naval Technology – Nansen Class Anti-Submarine Warfare Frigates, Norway
- Globalsecurity.org – Fridtjof Nansen (F85) class PROJECT 6088 NEW FRIGATE. See also AN/SPY-1 Radar.
- Norwegian Forsvarsnett – New Frigates
- eDefense Online (May 4/06, Google cache) – Forward … from the Fjords: HNoMS Fridtjof Nansen Enters Service.
- Norwegian Military Journal, 12/2005
- Norwegian State Broadcasting
- MNC – Fridtjof Nansen biography