TechEU launches Operation Aspides with German frigate to secure Red Sea trade routes

EU launches Operation Aspides with German frigate to secure Red Sea trade routes

Frigate Hessen. The numerous radar antennas are clearly visible.
Frigate Hessen. The numerous radar antennas are clearly visible.
Images source: © US Navy | MC2 Bobby Siens
7:11 AM EDT, March 29, 2024

Due to the ongoing threat to global maritime trade posed by drones, anti-ship missiles, and ballistic missiles launched by the Houthi militia from Yemen towards the Red Sea, the European Union has launched Operation Aspides to bolster the protection of shipping lanes. This operation is supported primarily by the US Navy and vessels from various other countries. The German frigate Hessen, one of our western neighbor's most technologically advanced warships, has been chosen for this mission.

The frigate departed from the port of Wilhelmshaven in early February, heading for the Mediterranean Sea. With the official start of Operation Aspides on February 19, the frigate will proceed to its designated operational area, which includes the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. There, it will help protect civilian vessels from aerial attacks by the Huthis, backed by Iran. Attacks on navigation in this region started towards the end of 2023. The Huthis claim their actions are in response to an Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip and target only ships from countries supporting Israel, though this has proven to be false. Despite American and British retaliatory strikes on land targets, attacks on ships continued unabated, suggesting the Hessen frigate might be drawn into combat operations.

The mission of the German ship is anticipated to span several months. Whether Germany will dispatch another warship to this area in the latter half of the year remains uncertain, depending on whether the need persists or if attacks subside. Moreover, the commander of the German Navy, Vice Admiral Jan Christian Kaack, has expressed that the Bundesmarine, being relatively small, cannot afford to allocate a ship to the Middle East permanently. This is especially challenging given that its vessels are also engaged in multiple operations elsewhere, particularly in the North and Baltic Seas.

While participation in standing NATO naval groups generally entails flag showing and patrol tasks, the mission in the Red Sea will likely necessitate the use of armaments. The commanding officer of the British destroyer HMS Diamond, operating in this region, has indicated that the ship engages aerial targets almost daily. This assignment will thus represent a significant undertaking for the German force. Historically, Germany has been very careful about deploying its armed forces on foreign missions, often restricting itself to support roles and applying stringent rules of engagement. However, Operation Aspide presents a somewhat more straightforward scenario since the adversaries are drones and anti-ship missiles, minimizing the risk of confrontation with manned opposition.

Type F124 Frigates

Hessen is one of three Type F124 Sachsen-class frigates designed for anti-aircraft defense. They were developed and constructed by the industrial consortium ARGE F124, which includes the shipyards Blohm + Voss, Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft, and Thyssen Nordseewerke. The first series vessel, Sachsen, was commissioned in November 2004, followed by Hamburg in December 2004 and Hessen in April 2006.

The frigates’ primary anti-aircraft armament comprises a 32-cell vertical launch system Mk 41 VLS, deploying Evolved Sea Sparrow (ESSM) and SM-2 missiles. The arsenal includes 24 SM-2MR missiles and 32 ESSM missiles, quadruple-loaded into each cell. The SM-2MR can engage targets up to 62 miles away and at altitudes of up to 82,000 feet, guided by semi-active radar. The ESSM missile, derived from the AIM-7 Sparrow air-to-air missile, uses semi-active radar guidance to engage targets approximately 31 miles away.

Hessen is a ship specialized in conducting air defense.
Hessen is a ship specialized in conducting air defense.© US Navy | Mass Communication Specialist...

Additionally, a universal Oto-Melara super rapid gun caliber 76mm with a firing rate of 85 rounds per minute is available for aerial target engagement. This gun can use various types of ammunition, including classic shrapnel, blast fragmentation, pre-formed fragmentation (PFF) for creating a fragment cloud against incoming missiles, and DART (Driven Ammunition Reduced Time of flight) rounds, which are radio-command guided with scatter charges and proximity fuzes. Depending on the ammunition, the gun can target opponents up to about 5 miles away.

The ship also features two close-in weapon systems, RIM-116 RAM, which employs modified Sidewinder family missiles. Initially guided by radar and later by infrared homing, these missiles have a range of 6.2 miles and are fitted with fragmentation warheads. Intended as a last resort for ship defense, a similar system, the Mk15 Phalanx, was recently reported to be actively used by the British in the Red Sea.

German ships often form part of international naval groups. Here, Hessen alongside the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman.
German ships often form part of international naval groups. Here, Hessen alongside the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman.© US Navy | MC2 Thomas Gooley

Moreover, the frigate harbors 8 anti-ship Harpoon missiles, two triple torpedo launchers caliber 12.75 inches, and two machine guns caliber 1.06 inches. Additionally, it accommodates two helicopters, either Sea Lynx or NH90.

Its reconnaissance equipment features a long-range radar, Thales Nederland SMART-L operating in the L band and a fire control radar, Thales Nederland APAR, in the X band, complemented by two multifunction radars STN Atlas 9600-M, an electro-optical fire control system STN Atlas MSP 500, an under-keel sonar STN Atlas DSQS-24B, and an electronic warfare system FL 1800S II ECM. The SMART-L and APAR radars work together to simultaneously detect and guide missiles at multiple targets.

The basic armament of the frigate Hessen is clearly visible. Looking from the bow: the Oto-Melara 76/62 Super Rapid universal gun, the RIM-116 RAM close-in defense system, and the covers of 32 anti-aircraft missile launchers.
The basic armament of the frigate Hessen is clearly visible. Looking from the bow: the Oto-Melara 76/62 Super Rapid universal gun, the RIM-116 RAM close-in defense system, and the covers of 32 anti-aircraft missile launchers.© US Navy | MC3 Victoria Granado
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