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Naval

Inside Bonn: German engineering meets Canadian requirements

I had a chance to visit the Federal German Navy’s combat support ship Bonn in February while she was in Halifax for a seven-day visit. The invitation was to the usual first-night reception but it also included a ‘seminar and tour’ on the next day. As she is the largest and newest ship in the German navy and Canada has selected the Berlin-class as the replacement for the Protecteur-class replenishment ships, the opportunity to snoop around was a welcome one. What I didn’t anticipate was the very high-level diplomatic and industrial contingent that was also part of the visit.

The presence at the reception of the German Ambassador to Canada, Werner Wnendt, marked this as an unusual event. Very high-profile representatives from German industrial companies in Canada were also participating, including ThyssenKrupp AG, Rheinmetall Canada and Atlas Marine Systems, plus several others.

During the opening remarks by the captain, Fregattenkapitan Bjorn Laue, and the ambassador, the strong strategic and cultural connections between Canada and Germany were lauded and the newness of Bonn to the German navy was emphasised. Indeed, Bonn was commissioned into service in September 2013 and this is her first major deployment outside of home waters.

Still under trials, the immediate purpose of the trip was to test Bonn’s handling and stability in heavy weather. This was done in very stormy seas between Iceland and Newfoundland, after a short visit to Reykjavik. Ship’s officers told me that Bonn handled very well and that with as little as 1,000 cubic metres of fuel in the tanks, from a total capacity of 8,900, she is remarkably stable.

Bonn still had that ‘new car feel and smell’, which is exhilarating in itself, but it also has a decidedly different look for Canadians accustomed to the distinctive curved weather deck of the Protecteur-class, for which we affectionately called them the ‘Banana Boats’. Bonn’s foredeck is comparatively very flat, a characteristic needed to place containers before the main superstructure. This sits on the after third of the hull and has the appearance of towering above the main deck. To shelter the cargo deck, a large and square structure has been placed just aft of the fo’csle, which seems just as angular and box-like as the after part of the superstructure.

These physical differences will look less foreign once painted in Canadian naval colours but Kingston Heights and Chateauguay, as they will be christened once built, will be unmistakable at sea, even from a great distance, because of their overall height, dual cargo cranes, and shape of the superstructure.

Officially, Bonn is the third ship of the Type 702 Berlin-class. However, the presentation made during the second-day’s seminar was focused on the many significant differences between Bonn and her two sisters, Berlin and Fankfurt-am-Mein. The primary one relates to the concept of employment that required significant change to the propulsion system. The ship’s combat officer briefed that the first two ships were envisioned as external support components to a naval task group whereas Bonn is designed as an integral part of the group. This is consistent with the Canadian task group concept.

In total, the changes make Bonn so different that she represents a new class of ship. Thomas Ruckert, vice president for sales with ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (GmbH), has confirmed that, “Bonn is the MOTS baseline for the Canadian JSS developed by TKMS Canada.” This is a key point because the design for Berlin is a significantly less capable ship than Bonn.

The primary change to enable the new concept of employment resulted in the main engines of Bonn being upgraded to two MTU 20V 8000 M41R diesels from the two MAN 12V 32/40s used previously. The original arrangement limited sustained high power usage and placed very significant restrictions on sudden changes or application of astern power, and on ship manoeuvring while at high speed. The new engines provide 35 percent more power and are more robustly connected to the gearing and shaft lines.

This provides complete freedom to use the engines in demanding tactical settings and makes Bonn very capable of keeping station with a group of warships. The manoeuvrability of the ship has also been enhanced by a revised placement of twin rudders directly aft of the screws, which are equipped with controllable-pitch blades.

An added benefit of the new engines is improved fuel economy. According to the briefing, the MTU diesels are “significantly more efficient.” In addition, the new power train allows for the trailing of one screw and this configuration results in 43 percent higher fuel-efficiency than in normal twin-shaft operation. This provision will go a long way to conserving cargo fuel, as Bonn carries significantly less fuel than the Protecteur-class; as much as 35 percent, depending on the source and conversion factors used.

The reduction in fuel capacity is offset by the gains made in multi-role configuration and additional containerized cargo-carrying capacity. Bonn can carry 78 containers as deck cargo and is capable of self-unloading, which makes her enormously versatile when dockside services are not available. In remote locations or where either conflict or natural disasters have damaged shore facilities, this will be an invaluable function.

Additionally, Bonn can embark a set of 23 pre-outfitted containers that stack three-high before the after deckhouse, forming a medical facility. This augments the ship’s medical capability to what is known in NATO terms as Level 2 ‘plus’. It includes two operating theatres and independent power for complete autonomy and reliability. The ship also has facilities to embark a group commander and staff for the operational control of tactical units. All of these capabilities would have been enormously valuable during Operation Hestia, the Canadian disaster relief effort in Haiti.

In short, there are a lot of different functions packed into this ship.

During an interview, Captain Laue said of Bonn, “It was a originally a kind of merchant design but [was] changed for the military.” In particular, her twin-engine propulsion will provide greater reliability than the single-engine arrangement used in earlier Canadian sustainment ships. The recent fire in HMCS Protecteur has demonstrated the vulnerability of that approach. However, some of the limitations of using a converted merchant vessel for military service are also evident. The bridge, main machinery control room and operations room are all closely co-located on the same deck, which presents a major risk in the event of a fire or other calamity. Also, the magazine spaces are situated quite high in the hull, likely overtop of the fuel tanks. The normal arrangement in Canadian practice would be to place them below the waterline.

Lieutenant-Commander Bruno Tremblay was quoted in a media report as saying Canadian derivatives of Bonn won’t be identical to her. My sources are telling me that the list of changes to the German version is already well over 100 items. Design change is one of the key areas that affect cost increases. Conversion from European-standard power to North American-standard for 120-volt service will make local appliances and equipment usable without the nuisance of converters.

However, if more significant things, like the relocation of the machinery control room and operations room, are contemplated then major increases in cost are almost certain to develop, making the option for a third ship less likely. Because of the reduced fuel capacity and multi-role utility of the ship, accepting less-than-desirable physical arrangements may be necessary to keep the option of getting a third ship viable. This is critically important to ensure the navy has operational sustainment where and when it is needed. Two ships cannot provide this and makes the effect of an accident or operational loss of one of them dramatically worse.

FGS Bonn represents a new chapter in the developmental history of the Royal Canadian Navy. She will bring many new capabilities that will make the navy much more capable and relevant in the wider scope of global maritime security operations. As Thomas Ruckert told me, “The Canadian navy will experience the same quality in German engineering as people in North America have come to know from owning German cars. Once you have had that, you will never want to go back to anything else.”

Ruckert may be right. I can’t compare German ships to cars, never having owned a Mercedes or other type. What concerns me more than anything is the diversity of systems Canada is in the process of collecting through its current shipbuilding and modernization programs: British submarines, Canadian-American hybridized patrol ships, German sustainment ships and an as-yet to be defined new combat ship. Systems commonality seems to have gone ‘out the window’ as a central concept for the maintenance of our fleet.

If the German engineering experience does prove to be as addictive as Ruckert predicts, then the odds of adopting further German technology for the future combat ship would undoubtedly be higher. Competition from other shipbuilders around the world to overcome the German head start will present a very interesting spectacle in the years ahead.

It could be that Canada is simply in too early a stage of development to be able to envision a fleet as more than a collection of projects that produce hulls. If that is the case, then the immaturity of both our shipbuilding and fleet planning processes will impose some heavy logistical burdens on the people that have to operate and maintain it through the coming decades. If this is a stepping-stone toward a mature and stable shipbuilding capability, then it is worth that price. From my perspective, learning from the Germans is an excellent way to start.
Ken Hansen is an adjunct professor of graduate studies with the Department of Political Science at Dalhousie University and a member of the Science Advisory Committee with the Institute for Ocean Research Enterprise in Halifax.

 

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