We Have The First Official Report On Norway's Sunken Frigate And It Isn't Pretty
The investigation into the accident is still ongoing, but it has already uncovered confusion on the bridge and design flaws in the ship.
Norwegian authorities have released a preliminary report regarding the collision of Royal Norwegian Navy frigate Helge Ingstad and the Malta-flagged oil tanker Sola on Nov. 8, 2019. The initial findings detail a series of confused missteps on the part of warship’s crew leading up to the accident, but also describe potentially serious defects in the ship’s basic design, which could have far-reaching ramifications.
The Accident Investigation Board of Norway (AIBN), together with the Defense Accident Investigation Board Norway (DAIBN), publicly posted the first major review of the mishap online on Nov. 29, 2018. Helge Ingstad has been slowly sinking in the water outside of the Sture Oil and Gas Terminal outside of the city of Bergen since the accident occured, but the Norwegian Armed Forces, or Forsvaret, are continuing their efforts to salvage the vessel. The Sola only suffered minor damage.
“This report is a preliminary presentation of the AIBN's investigations relating to the accident and does not provide a full picture,” the report warns up front. “The report may contain errors and inaccuracies.”
Based on what the investigators have determined so far, Helge Ingstad entered the fjord heading south and checked in with the Fedje Maritime Traffic Center, or Fedje VTS, at around 2:40 AM local time. Any ship over 80 feet long has to alert this control center before entering due to the narrow nature of the waterway.
The ship was traveling at approximately 20 miles per hour and had its navigation lights on. The ship’s Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponder was set to “receive only” mode, meaning that it was not transmitting its own position and other information to ships in the area.
At 3:40 AM, personnel on Helge Ingstad’s bridge began to turn control of the ship over the next watch. At that time, the ship’s crew was aware of three northbound ships on its radar screen and had also visually observed “an object with many lights was observed lying still just outside the Sture terminal,” according to the report.
Sola did not leave the terminal until 3:45 AM. Less than 15 minutes later, the tanker’s crew radioed the Fedje VTS to inquire about a contract on their radar that was sailing with its AIS transponder apparently off.
At 4:00 AM, Fedje VTS identified the ship in question as probably Helge Ingstad and the tanker and the frigate began communicating directly. Approximately one minute later, the two ships collided.
At present, investigators say the most likely cause of the accident was the frigate’s crew mistaking the lights they saw in the distance for a static object rather than a moving ship. The watchstanders on Helge Ingstad also appeared to believe, at least at the beginning, that they were communicating with one of the three other vessels they had previously identified on their radar.
This determination is based in no small part on the response from Helge Ingstad to Sola’s demand at that the warship immediately turn hard to starboard to avoid a collision. The frigate’s crew indicated that they couldn’t turn in that direction because they would hit the “lighted object” along the shore, which turned out to be the tanker in motion well away from the actual shoreline.
The warship’s crew had told their counterparts onboard Sola that they planned to pass this object before turning, which could explain why they made no attempt to maneuver until right before the collision. This doesn’t explain why Helge Ingstad was unaware that there was a fourth ship heading north in the fjord, since Sola’s AIS transponder was on and transmitting. Publicly available radar tracks, seen below, show the tanker, as well, meaning it should also have been visible to the frigate’s own radars, too.
There also appears to have been a lapse in good judgment in crew's decision to change the watch on the bridge while they were in the middle of a congested shipping lane. The preliminary report also raises questions regarding training and procedures for positively identifying ships and other potential hazards, especially in the dark.
A final report on the incident should contain more thorough explanations of exactly how the final moments of the collision played out and recommendations for the Norwegian Navy to try and prevent these sorts of accidents in the future. “So far, the AIBN has not seen any indication of technical systems not working as intended up until the time of the collision,” the report notes.
Separate from its findings regarding the events leading to the collision, the AIBN has also uncovered a serious technical issue that could have impacts well beyond this particular accident. Norwegian officials have alerted both the country’s navy and Spanish shipbuilder Navantia, which built the Helge Ingstad and Norway’s four other Fridtjof Nansen-class frigates, with concerns they have about the basic “watertight integrity” of the ships.
“The AIBN has found safety critical issues relating to the vessel's watertight compartments,” an annex to the main report explains. “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.”
After the collision, the frigate’s crew identified flooding in three compartments, the aft generator room, a crew quarters, and the stores room. Damage parties were uncertain about whether or not the steering engine room, the ship’s aftmost compartment, was also filling with water.
All of these compartments are all supposed to be watertight, specifically to help contain damage from spreading. Unfortunately, the frigate’s crew found that water was rushing from the generator room into the gear room, which was not otherwise breached, through the hollow propeller shaft tubes. Stuffing boxes in bulkheads in the gear room also failed, leading to flooding in the adjacent aft and fore engine rooms.
“This meant that the flooding became substantially more extensive than indicated by the original damage,” the report explains. “Based on the flooding of the gear room, it was decided to prepare for evacuation.”
Needless to say, this is a major problem. It calls into question the ability of the ships to withstand any serious damage to their aft compartments, something that is pretty important for a surface combatant.
The five Fridtjof Nansen-class ships form the very core of Norway’s naval surface warfare capabilities, too. The loss of Helge Ingstad by itself has forced the Royal Norwegian Navy to reassess its deployment schedule and has prevented it from fulfilling the full scheduled extent of its obligations to Standing NATO Maritime Group One (SNMG1). The Forsvaret continues to hope the frigate will only be temporarily out of commission, though this seems increasingly unlikely given the news about the extent of the damage and flooding.
Even more worryingly, the frigates are derived from Navantia’s F100 design, of which Spain has five in service, known as the Álvaro de Bazán-class. Navantia is also building a class of enlarged F100-derived destroyers, known as the Hobart-class, for Australia.
Beyond that, the Spanish firm had unsuccessfully pitched a derivative of the design to Canada. It is still proposing one, through a partnership with U.S. contractor General Dynamics Bath Iron Works, to the U.S. Navy for that service’s FFG(X) program.
If the watertight integrity issues are present in any of these other ships, it could have serious immediate impacts on the ability of the Norwegian and Spanish navies abilities to conduct operations. If the issues are widespread, and depending on how difficult and labor intensive they might be to fix, it could also delay work on Australia’s future Hobart-class ships.
Even if Navantia worked out a relatively easy solution, that this problem escaped notice for so long – the first Fridtjof Nansen-class frigate entered service in 2006 – could make potential customers reticent to consider F100-derived ships or other designs from the company in the future. All told, the issue potentially opens up the shipbuilder, which is a Spanish-government owned enterprise, to lawsuits and financial losses.
"Navantia has offered, since the very beginning, its collaboration with the [Royal Norwegian Navy] in order to clarify the accident," Esther Benito Lope, a Navantia spokesperson, told Defense News. "Navantia will analyze all the possibilities, considering that some of the mentioned possibilities … are concluded from a very preliminary investigation."
The full extent of the damage and the exact nature of any design flaws won’t be known until Norway raises Helge Ingstad from the seabed and gets her back into port. This salvage process is still underway, but has been significantly delayed since the frigate almost completely sank on the night of Nov. 12-13, 2018.
Bad weather has further hampered the recovery effort. On Nov. 29, 2018, the Forsvaret said that contractors had attached additional chains to help keep the ship in place and prevent it from completely sinking beneath the waves. Ships and other equipment from private maritime company BOA, which is leading the salvage operation, including the floating crane barge Rambiz and diver support ship Risøy, are in the area and waiting for the weather to clear to resume work.
With all the factors at play, there is no firm timeline for when the Norwegian Navy might get Helge Ingstad into a dry dock so inspectors can get a full look at the ship, inside and out. If nothing else, Norway is down at least one frigate and it's already looking to reassess whether the four it has left are truly combat ready.
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