The frigates probably will be the first of a new generation of stealthier MEKOs, designated A200s. Outwardly they resemble the new German Type 123 (Brandenburg) class, but with a much taller mainmast (carrying communications and electronic warfare antennas, not a search radar) and without any visible uptakes. Their builder, Blohm + Voss, recently had won a competition to supply Malaysia with offshore patrol vessels (a new MEKO-50 was selected). The East Asian financial crash, however has reduced drastically the value of that success. The South African buy seems to have revived the company's fortunes.
The South African announcement ends a long intense competition. It also reflects the South African government's appreciation of the value of the defense industrial base, Armscor, which the previous Apartheid government had built up. Now that sanctions have been lifted, that defense-industrial base has become a valuable source of potential exports. To make its products salable, however, they must be placed in South African service. Since Armscor never built up the capacity to build entire ships, its products must go on board hulls built elsewhere.
As in the past, the MEKO concept of modular outfitting seems to fit this requirement particularly well. At this year's Euronaval, the major Paris naval show, a South African Corvette Consortium displayed some of the systems likely to arm the ships. There is a new twin 35-mm gun, and for some years Kentron of South Africa has been developing a family of new surface-to-air missiles. The missile, named Umkhonto, will be fired from a vertical launcher. It has inertial mid-course guidance (with a digital up-link) and an infrared seeker. It was developed from the SAHV missile, which was itself conceived as a Crotale replacement. The command system will be a derivative of the locally-developed one now being installed in South African "Minister"-class missile boats and in South African submarines. Presumably the German-supplied submarines also will be fitted with a South African command system. The South Africans also have developed new radars and fire controls, but it is not clear whether the new ships will have them. An A200 drawing published by Blohm + Voss presumably shows the planned configuration, with an Oto-Breda 76-mm gun forward, vertical launchers for 16 Umkhontos, and the 35-mm gun aft atop the helicopter hangar.
The usual eight surface-to-surface missiles are visible amidships. The only air-search radar visible is a small planar array, probably the German TR-3D, atop the foremast. The ship apparently will use the same type of radar director (mounted fore and aft) to control both the Umkhontos and the twin 35mm guns, the two forming an integrated air-defense system. There is a small hull sonar (probably an Atlas type), and there is apparently provision for antisubmarine warfare torpedo tubes (South Africa has developed a highly upgraded version of the old US Mark 44 antisubmarine torpedo). The ASW helicopter probably will be the west land Mark 88 Super Lynx.
The South African economy is in some difficulties, and local critics have denounced the big arms program. The government's answer has been that offsets will provide as many as 65,000 local jobs. Probably much more important, the program is a way of preserving and exploiting the valuable industrial base built up during Apartheid. Offsets may mean that its products will be sold to European countries. Moreover, more than many other countries, South Africa is well equipped to learn from a high technology program like that currently envisaged. It has already, for example, built jet fighters locally. The South African government no doubt wants the country to continue to be the leading power in Africa.
More generally, the naval export market has been extremely tight of late. It now appears that the leaks about problems with the Australian Collins -class submarines are symptomatic more of the market than of any inherent failings in the ships. When the leaks occurred (reported in last month's column), the South Koreans apparently were at the point of ordering Swedish-designed submarines similar to the Collins class. The key leaked document was a 1996 Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center report prepared by the U.S. Navy. Qualifying words apparently had been deleted, so that all of the minor (and often easily remedied) problems were greatly magnified. It is not yet clear whether the claimed problems of the submarines' combat direction system were similarly exaggerated. The system did have a potential problem, in that there was apparently no overall authority in charge of integrating the submarines' French-developed sonar with its U.S.-supplied combat direction system, so that the two may have been somewhat incompatible.
As it happens, Australia has been involved in this sort of industrial warfare before. When the Royal Australian Navy was preparing to buy submarines in the 1980s, it seemed that the British had an inside track. The Navy was already operating British-built Oberons , and relations between the Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy were quite close. The British redesigned their own new diesel-electric submarine, which became the Upholder class, to meet Australian requirements for longer range. Then attacks on the class began to appear in the British naval press, and the Australians lost interest in the design. It was suggested a few years later that the attacks had been instigated by a competitor, the German submarine builder, which, ironically, also lost out in the competition.
Euronaval Developments Emphasize Aiming, Flat-Screen Displays
Some other developments displayed at Euronaval also are worth noting. The French showed their Quick Pointing Device, which an operator simply picks up and points at a target. A lightweight ring-laser gyro and a set of accelerometers in the device measure the target's position and its direction. The information goes into a small computer linked to the device that translates it into appropriate pointing angles for, say, a weapons director. The device weighs very little, and it is far more convenient than the previous alternative, a helmet-mounted sight. It works because modern electronics have become both remarkably compact and quite inexpensive. In the past, quick reaction required a helmet because the helmet could be tracked by surrounding devices. Now it is easy to provide even a device the size of a handgun with what amounts to inertial guidance, on a scale only heavy missiles had two decades ago.
When the frigate USS Stark (FFG-31) was hit about a decade ago, one suggestion was that lookouts needed some means of bringing defensive weapons to bear rapidly. They had target designation sights, but the sights were relatively cumbersome, and the lookout needed time to bring their narrow fields of view to bear on a target. Aircraft-style helmet mounted sights were suggested, but they never entered service. The Quick Pointing Device seems to solve the problem. The lookout still has to point the device directly at the target (using its own small telescope), but can look in the right direction first, then simply bring it up to his eye.
As might have been expected, there was considerable interest in information technology. The U.S. Navy leads the world in the sheer volume of information its ships can transmit and receive. The symbol of that capacity is the relatively new ability to transmit video. At the show, the French used the existing digital data link, Link 16, to transmit video from its new carrier Charles de Gaulle (at Brest) to Paris. That came, of course, at a cost. Video requires an enormous amount of information capacity; the Link 16 being used that way could not have transmitted its usual digital tactical data. The French could reasonably argue, however, that ships do not often need the full link capacity, and that at times video conferencing is extremely valuable.
Another major theme was the growing use of flat-screen displays. In the past, bulky cathode-ray tubes have been the rule. They easily display rapidly changing graphics, and they provide a very crisp image, but they generate considerable heat (and need considerable power), and they can be vulnerable to stray electromagnetic fields, which are common onboard ship. That becomes even more important as designers of displays use color to indicate, for example, whether a target is friendly or enemy. Too, there is a practical limit to the size of a cathoderay tube. The big displays on board ships, like big television screens ashore, are all projection devices, with limited brightness.
Flat liquid-crystal displays are an alternative technology, albeit expensive and rather limited. Ashore, the technology has been limited largely to lap-top computers. Now, however, flat screens (which can actually be curved to follow a bulkhead) have matured. They weigh very little, and they are quite thin; they are easy to mount on bulkheads. They consume little power, and they generate very little heat. Perhaps even more importantly, because they use electric fields to form their images, they are not affected by the magnetic fields that bedevil conventional displays. Now their manufacturers are learning to make them quite large, as large as the projection screens currently in use.