Now, we see the Helge Ingstad sinking demonstrating another of ComNavOps’ recurring themes – that we’ve forgotten how to design ships for combat. The initial report from the Accident Investigation Board Norway (AIBN) has been released and pins the cause of the flooding and sinking on flawed watertight design features and construction. The cause of the collision, itself, is another subject.
The initial damage and immediate flooding was not enough to sink the ship but the flawed design allowed adjoining, undamaged compartments to quickly flood resulting in the ship rapidly sinking. From the report,
The AIBN has found safety critical issues relating to the vessel's watertight compartments. This must be assumed to also apply to the other four Nansen-class frigates. It cannot be excluded that the same applies to vessels of a similar design delivered by Navantia, or that the design concept continues to be used for similar vessel models. The AIBN assumes that its findings are not in conformity with the required damage stability standard for the Nansen class frigates.
To start with, flooding occurred in three watertight compartments on board 'KNM Helge Ingstad': the aft generator room, the orlob deck's crew quarters and the stores room. There was some uncertainty as to whether the steering engine room, the aftmost compartment, was also filling up with water. Based on this damage, the crew, supported by the vessel's stability documents, assessed the vessel as having 'poor stability' status, but that it could be kept afloat. If more compartments were flooded, the status would be assessed as 'vessel lost' on account of further loss of stability.
Next, the crew found that water from the aft generator room was running into the gear room via the hollow propeller shafts and that the gear room was filling up fast. From the gear room, the water then ran into and was flooding the aft and fore engine rooms via the stuffing boxes in the bulkheads. This meant that the flooding became substantially more extensive than indicated by the original damage. Based on the flooding of the gear room, it was decided to prepare for evacuation.
The AIBN considers the vessel's lack of watertight integrity to be a safety issue relating to Nansen-class frigates … (1)
So, what lessons can we learn from this incident?
Combat Design. Providing water tight seals for propeller shafts and machinery is something that has been known and mastered for many decades. Let’s face it, this is basic watertight integrity 101. This is the kind of thing that should have been locked in around the end of day-one of the ship’s design effort. I have no idea how Norway goes about designing its ships but, clearly, no one with sufficient expertise reviewed the design. In the US Navy, I’ve stated that we need to reconstitute our lost in-house design expertise to prevent exactly this kind of occurrence. Whether it’s carrier weapon elevators that don’t work, LCS bridge wings that were overlooked, LCS galvanic corrosion prevention that was omitted, or electromagnetic catapults that act as giant locating beacons for the enemy, we utterly lack the ability to critically, thoroughly, and correctly evaluate ship designs. We must regain our in-house design expertise and reclaim the design responsibility from industry.
Testing. This incident also illustrates another of ComNavOps pet themes and that is inadequate testing. Someone, somehow, some way, should have been able to identify this weakness during the ship’s various tests and trials prior to acceptance. Clearly, if testing is inadequate to identify a fatal design flaw then the testing is flawed and worthless. The Navy’s NavSea (Naval Sea Systems Command) has been accepting incomplete and non-functional ships for far too long. NavSea needs to be disbanded and replaced with an independent testing group like Director, Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E). The evidence is overwhelming that NavSea, being in the chain of command, cannot be counted on to perform its duties correctly and with integrity.
Awareness and Technology. This is yet another in a string of incidents that prove, conclusively, that technology is not the answer to situational awareness. The Helge Ingstad had an impressive list of sensors and yet ran into a giant, slow moving tanker.
Foreign Myth. There is a large and vocal school of US Navy (and US military, in general) observers who believe, without any proof other than manufacturer’s claims, that all foreign ships and equipment are superior to their US counterparts. The Millenium gun reputation, for example, has taken on near-mythical proportions despite zero evidence of its performance in any meaningful test scenario or actual combat experience. The mere fact that it’s foreign seems to be its only claim to fame.
This also exposes the related claims that the US military-industrial complex is corrupt and incompetent. Well, let’s be fair – they are! However, foreign companies are, as a group, no better. Navantia is not an American company and yet appear to be incompetent naval designers along with whatever other problems they may have. I know nothing about the workings of Navantia so I can’t comment further.
In short, while the grass may always seem greener in foreign countries … it’s not.
Risk. The entire Norwegian surface combat navy consisted of five Nansen class frigates. Each was a modern and, on paper, impressively capable ship for a frigate. Exactly the kind of frigate so many US Navy observers (and the Navy, itself!) desperately want. Any now, with a single incident, the Norwegian Navy has lost 20% of its entire surface combat fleet. Had their fleet been broken up into smaller, cheaper, numerically greater, more specialized ships, the impact would have proportionally much less. I’m pretty sure that Norway is not rushing to replace this ship and, likely, never will. This is the personification of why concentration of capability in a single platform is a mistake. Yes, the temptation to cram as much capability as possible into every ship is strong, especially for smaller navies, but it is a mistake.
US Frigate. Ominously, the AIBN issued a safety warning strongly suggesting that the entire Navantia ship line may suffer from the same watertight integrity design flaws. Navantia is the parent design company for the General Dynamics Bath Iron Works frigate offering in the US Navy frigate competition. The parent design is the F100 Bazan class. The US Navy needs to look very closely at the design to ensure that the flaws are not repeated for the Navy’s frigate offering. Unfortunately, given the complete absence of in-house expertise, I don’t know how the Navy can evaluate the Navantia design.
Western Trends. Warships were once built to be as rugged and tough as possible. WWII history is replete with examples of warships that absorbed immense amounts of damage and kept fighting – often surviving the encounter. Today, the West has forgotten those lessons and bought into the myth of sensors, networks, and data in place of firepower and toughness. We need to abandon our current direction and recommit to designing warships that can laugh at damage and keep fighting.
To those who would counter that nothing could survive a collision with a giant tanker, WWII would beg to differ. Ships were hit with multiple torpedoes and bombs, struck mines, and, indeed, suffered some huge collisions and yet stayed afloat and kept fighting.
As with the US Navy’s McCain and Fitzgerald collisions and various groundings, the Norwegian Helge Ingstad incident offers a wealth of lessons if only we’re willing to learn from them.
(1)Accident Investigation Board Norway,