In focus – the MEKO A-200 Type 31e frigate candidate
The Atlas Elektronik UK bid for the Type 31e frigate programme is based on the MEKO A-200 frigate. Although perhaps seen as the outsider of the 3 candidates, the A-200 design has several unique and innovative features that make it a very credible contender for the Royal Navy’s requirements. Without going into the unknowns of weapon and sensor fit, here we examine the pedigree and design of the A-200 platform.
The Mehrzweck-Kombination (MEKO) warship concept (which translates as ‘multi-purpose-combination’) has a proven track record as one the world’s most successful warship export programmes. More than 50 frigates and corvettes have been built since the 1970s for navies across the world. MEKO was developed by Blohm+Voss, its warship business is now a subsidiary of the giant ThyssenKrupp group. Atlas Elektronik, headquartered in Bremen, was briefly owned by BAE Systems but its naval business was sold to ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) in 2005. Atlas Elektronik UK based in Dorset, is in the lead for the Type 31e frigate bid, but the design and warship construction expertise is coming from TKMS and its shipyards in Hamburg and Kiel.
TKMS have worked with shipbuilders outside of Germany during many of the MEKO construction projects to facilitate the transfer of technology and expertise. Their bid proposes Harland & Wolff and Ferguson Marine would be the shipyards building the Type 31. Both now have a modest number of employees and no recent warship construction experience. These yards would be heavily reliant on help from Germany, at least for the construction of the lead ship. Of course, there is nothing to prevent the winner of the competition then involving UK shipbuilders from the losing consortia, if capacity is not there. Harland & Wolff and Ferguson Marine are already members of two of the three bidding teams.
Building warships is always a demanding business. BAE Systems’ problems with the construction of HMS Forth pale beside TKMS’ recent quality control issues. The first of the giant 7,000-tonne Baden Württemberg class frigates built for the German Navy was supposed to have commissioned in 2014. She was delivered late, so riddled with defects that the navy refused to accept her. She remains in the hands of the builders as the cost of major rectification work spirals. The K130 Braunschweig-class corvettes also suffered major problems with their gearboxes that caused significant delays to the programme. TKMS have now been banned by their government from involvement in the next major German naval project – the MKS-180 warship competition.
Both the A-200 and Arrowhead-140 concepts raise some interesting issues around exportability. If the Type 31e programme is partly intended to stimulate UK warship construction for export, then how is the intellectual property licensed? Will the Danish and German government retain control over the use of their respective designs and will permission be needed every time the British yard wishes to export? From a commercial perspective, it seems unlikely TKMS would allow their design to be used by British shipbuilders, potentially in direct competition for warship orders with their own yards in Germany.
The South African navy placed an order for four A-200-SAN in 1999. The ships were constructed in Germany between 2001-03 and delivered unarmed to S.Africa where the weapons, sensors and combat system were integrated, a process that took 2-3 years per ship. TKMS also provided a comprehensive set of spare parts, documentation and training to support the ships in service. The four ships are known as the ‘Valour’ class and have proven successful, especially in maritime security roles. Their design with high buoyancy forward offers a stable platform in the rough seas encountered around Southern Africa.
Two further A-200-AN were ordered by the Algerian navy in March 2012. Both were built and fully fitted out in Germany before delivery in 2016 – 17. The hulls are almost identical to the South African ships but have been fitted with significantly heavier armament, notably the OTO Melara 127/64 lightweight 127mm naval gun and 16 Saab RBS 15 Mk3 anti-ship missiles. The Algerian navy has an option to purchase two further ships and there were unconfirmed reports late in 2018 that Egypt has signed a $1Bn (not including weapons) deal for two A-200s to be built in Kiel. If the options are taken up and the Egyptian deal is completed, then there will potentially be ten A-200s in service. As will be the case with the Type 26 frigate, a larger class of similar ships not only adds to the design’s credibility but may offer some economies of scale in equipment purchase and logistic support.
The modular frigate
The MEKO concept is based on modular and easily interchangeable or upgradable weapons and sensors. The reduced construction and through-life ownership costs make the MEKO designs particularly attractive to navies with restricted budgets. Until the last decade or so, the modular warship was perceived as a less capable, suited to second-tier navies and would not have been considered by the RN or US Navy. The ballooning costs of exquisite high-end warships such as the Type 26 has been a driving factor in the birth of the Type 31e programme and the search for alternative ways of building warships. Even the mighty US Navy is building the Littoral Combat Ships which have modular mission packages.
The newest MEKO frigates and the Danish Stanflex system are increasingly attracting admirers who recognise the need to reduce costs and the advantages of modularity. While by no means a panacea, by decoupling the payload from the platform, it makes maintenance and upgrades easier and the ship can be reconfigured more quickly for new missions. The trend towards a reduction in hull numbers in most navies and the increasing pace of technological change adds to the attraction of modular systems which help reduce time in port and offer a quicker means for new technology insertion.
The A-200 design is an evolution of the MEKO 200 series frigates built for the Turkish, Australian and New Zealand navies. Blohm+Voss completed the 36-knot superyacht ‘Eco’ in 1991 and the experience gained optimising weight distribution, trim, low noise and manoeuvrability also helped inform the A-200 design. The frigate’s designers, focussing on budget-conscious customers, sought to keep the crew compliment low, provide comfortable accommodation, allow plenty of space for future upgrades and have a high payload to displacement ratio.
A propulsion oddity
The A-200 has a propulsion system that is unique amongst warships. Using a CODAG-WARP arrangement (Combined Diesel And Gas turbine – Waterjet and Refined Propellers) Two controllable pitch propellers and driven by cross-connectable diesel engines. In the diesel-only mode, this is very fuel-efficient, as a single engine can drive both shafts for speeds of up to 18 knots. An independent centre-line, gas turbine drives a water jet coupled by a small reduction gear, eliminating the need for another combining gearbox. The water jet can be used alone or combined with the diesel to achieve the maximum speed of over 27 knots. There is also a reverse-thrust bucket fitted that can be raised to redirect the water jet forward. This gives the A-200 the shortest stopping distance of any ship in its class.
This propulsion arrangement a very flexible and offers redundancy and survivability. The A-200 vessels constructed so far use the ubiquitous GE LM2500 Gas Turbine engine but potentially the RN could select the Rolls Royce MT-30 which is of similar size to retain commonality with the propulsion of the QEC aircraft carriers and Type 26 frigates.
What no funnel?
The A-200 makes a valuable space saving by channelling the engine exhaust to an outlet in the stern of the ship. The lack of funnel and uptakes in the centre of the ship frees up space for more above-deck weapons and accommodation. The entire propulsion system can be sited further aft than in most conventional warship designs and this allows for unbroken areas for useful payload that extend over 66% of the of ship’s length. The ships are exceptionally quiet and vibration-free as a result of the lack of a vertical funnel and uptakes amidships, which is a significant noise source in conventional layouts.
The hull and superstructure are built from steel with extensive use of high tensile material, there is no use of composites or aluminium. The hull was subject to extensive tank tests to ensure for low resistance over the whole speed range. There is a sharp-edged, bulbous bow which reduces resistance and noise through the water and maximises the performance of the hull-mounted sonar. Using active fin stabilizers, the ship can sustain up to 24 knots, engage weapons and operate helicopters up to sea state 6.
Of the three Type 31e contenders, the A-200 has the smallest flexible mission bay with space for just two ISO containers and a single recessed boat bay on each side of the ship. However, the lack of funnels makes it is probable that the design could be modified quite easily to expand the mission bay space, if it were a requirement. Maintenance, upgrades and stores replenishment is aided by wide passageways and the main RAS position amidships is serviced by a lift to the storerooms below. The hull is designed to survive action damage and is divided into zones with independent fire fighting, electrical, and HVAC systems. Developed especially for the A-200, a Low Weight Splinter Protection Panel System consist of kevlar/ceramic panels bolted to the inner side of the ship’s shell that provide ballistic protection for vital compartments. After being fitted out with weapons and sensors, the South African vessels still retained 200-tonne margin for future growth, 20% spare electrical generation and 37% spare cooling capacity. Despite their bulky appearance, the A-200 actually has slightly smaller displacement than a Type 23 frigate but has greater enclosed hull and superstructure volume.
Signatures and stealth
For a low-end warship design, the A-200 has especially low infrared signature and Radar cross section. The clean superstructure and totally enclosed forecastle and quarterdeck are typical of modern combatants. The less familiar ‘X shape’ of the superstructure maximises internal volume while reducing RCS and even the anchor pockets are enclosed by doors to reduce radar reflections.
Although not in the same class as a high-end frigate like the Type 26, there A-200’s hull is designed to minimise acoustic signature. The three engines and the four generators are raft-mounted to reduce radiated noise and improve shock resistance. (BAE System’s Leander does not have raft-mounted machinery). While propelled just by the gas turbine and water jet, the ship’s acoustic signature is said to be low, with little propellor cavitation noise. In this mode the ship can reach up to 23 knots, considerably faster than CODLAG or CODLOG propelled vessels when running on their electric motors. Although the RN’s Type 31e specification is for a ‘general purpose combatant’, a hull that is sufficiently quiet to be an effective submarine hunter is a major selling point for the A-200, given the obvious need to increase UK ASW capability.
A real contender?
If the reports are correct that Egypt is paying 1 Billion in US Dollars for two ships (to be built at experienced German shipyards) not including armament, this would give an A-200 an approximate UK price tag of £380M per ship. (This may include some spares and through-life support) This is considerably above the £250M per ship Type 31e budget and raises questions about affordability or what corners would have to be cut.
As a platform, the A-200 is a similar size to the Leander but is already proven in service and has some innovative features. If it is felt the Arrowhead-140 is too big or Leander is too basic, the A-200 could provide the RN a middle way. In a future article, we will examine the Danish Iver Huitfeldt class which is the basis for Arrowhead-140 candidate.
(Main image: Second of the Algerian ships, El-Moudamir. Photo by Norbert Möller)