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Red Sea crisis: How fit is Germany's navy?

March 8, 2024

Germany's navy has deployed to the Red Sea as part of an EU mission against Houthi aggression. Its performance so far has been mixed, which may reflect wider gaps in military readiness.

The „Hessen“ returning to its home port in December 2023 after taking part in missions in the North Sea, Baltic Sea and Atlantic Ocean
The 'Hessen' is Germany's contribution to the international mission against the Houthis in the Red SeaImage: Hauke-Christian Dittrich/dpa/picture alliance

News out of the Red Sea made headlines in Germany last week. The German armed forces confirmed that its frigate "Hessen" successfully engaged Houthi drones. The ship had arrived on the scene just a few days earlier as part of a European Union contribution to an existing multinational mission led by the United States to protect commercial shipping.

Yet a second piece of news tamped down on the congratulatory mood. Before the successful shootdown there was an unsuccessful one — and not against a foe but a friend.

Speaking to German media, navy chief Vice Admiral Jan Christian Kaack pushed back against criticism and unanswered questions, praising the ship's crew for a "textbook" engagement, even if the target was friendly and the missiles missed.

Technology such as Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) equipment on-board ships and aircraft has reduced the risk of friendly fire. In this case, German military officials said no IFF signal was received and that the ship's crew followed the rules of engagement: detecting the object, checking with allies if it was theirs, and, upon receiving no or a negative response, determining it was hostile and opening fire.

Germany sends frigate to help secure Red Sea

Two engagements, many questions

The "Hessen," which is Germany's only ship taking part in the EU mission, has the capability to take down airborne targets from as far as 100 kilometers away, according to Thomas Wiegold, a military affairs analyst 

For the successful shootdown of allegedly Houthi drones, the type of short-range weapons systems used "suggests that the two drones came relatively close to the German ship," Wiegold wrote on his security blog "Augen geradeaus!" (Eyes forward).

It is unclear why potentially hostile objects got so close to the German warship, but no evidence suggests wrongdoing.

"You're operating in an area where a lot of different vessels are approaching, and you need to observe the whole space. And you are still quite close probably to the coastline," Julian Pawlak, a research associate at the University of the Federal Armed Forces Hamburg, told DW. "Then you have to take care of targets approaching and this can be a difficult task."

The friendly drone incident, however, raises further questions. If it were a US Reaper drone, as German media have reported, it would likely be more advanced than the Houthi drones the "Hessen" later took down, but still vulnerable. The Houthis themselves have two confirmed kills of Reapers since November.

The type of allied drone targeted by the "Hessen" has not been confirmed. The US also runs military operations in the region that are unrelated to the multilateral mission known as "Prosperity Guardian."

On Friday, about four days after the incident, the Bundeswehr released details from its initial assessment. The miss was "due to a technical fault on board the frigate. The fault was quickly identified and could be rectified immediately."

The problem, the statement stressed, was not a systemic one.

Soldiers on the Hessen before their dangerous mission in the Red Sea
The Navy faces problems shared by all branches of the Bundeswehr: Equipment defects, technical gaps, and recruitment difficultiesImage: Michael Fischer/dpa/picture alliance

The "Hessen" is a "Sachsen-class" guided-missile frigate that entered service in 2006. It is one of three such ships the German navy sails. Another, the "Hamburg," is set to take over Red Sea operations in April. The German navy has another nearly three-dozen warships and submarines at its disposal, according to Bundeswehr data, plus additional non-combat support vessels.

That is a far cry from the US Navy, which puts to sea hundreds of warships and enjoys an annual budget of around $250 billion (€230 bn). It is also smaller than comparable European allies, such as the French, Italian and British, according to the naval information platform seaforces.org. The navy is the smallest of Germany's military branches.

Ahead of the deployment, Vice Admiral Kaack called the operation the "most serious for a German naval asset in decades." He praised the Sachsen-class warships as the navy's "gold standard."

That gold, however, is due for a polish. The ships are scheduled for a radar upgrade this year, which in 2021 the defense ministry's procurement office said would take until 2028 to complete. It was not until the end of last year that the "Hessen" received a new primary weapons system, which needed replacing after a test-fire mishap in 2019.

That means the guided-missile frigate was without its key arsenal of missiles for about five years.

Germany's armed forces face chronic problems

Supply and production issues

Kaack has been vocal about the need to boost production and stockpiling of weapons, most recently telling German media that many of the munitions that the "Hessen" carries are in short supply.

At the request of the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament, a recent defense ministry report acknowledged that the SM-2 medium-range missile, in particular, was not in regular production. There is also a resupply challenge.

"You basically don't resupply them like that at sea," Pawlak said. "You need to go back to port."

All these factors limit the German navy's role in national defense and NATO missions, which German officials have said they are committed to fulfilling. As much as one-fifth of Germany's €100 billion ($110 billion) special defense fund (Sondervermögen) could go towards building up the maritime force, according to some government reports. 

The defense ministry has said it wants to commission new warships, as the navy faces problems shared by all branches of the armed forces. Equipment defects, technical gaps, and recruitment difficulties have been a nagging problem for years.

"What I noticed in the navy right from the start is that the soldiers are under a lot of pressure, sometimes overworked, due to personnel shortages," Eva Högl, the parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces, told the navy's magazine last year.

To meet its own goals, the navy will have to scale up with more ships and crew and aim to expand its capabilities. A mission like that in the Red Sea is different from defending NATO territory in the Baltic Sea, which is different from projecting power in the Taiwan Strait.

"By numbers, by vessels, it's the smallest in years, and on the other, you have one of the highest numbers of tasks," Pawlak said. "Not only the seas in the near, but also globally."

Edited by Rina Goldenberg

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