Monday, April 28, 2008


On April 2, 2008 the Belgian Navy officially acquired a new frigate, which it purchased from the Dutch Navy. The latter, for a small country like The Netherlands actually a very fine force, is currently building some smaller corvettes to replace several of the (relatively) unwieldy vessels. The frigate, formerly Hr.Ms. Willem Van Der Zaan (Hr.Ms. = Hare Majesteit, Her Majesty, the Dutch have a Queen. Note by MFBB), was christened F931 Louise Marie, after the first Belgian Queen. It sister ship, the F930 Leopold I, named after Belgium's first king, was commissioned in 2007 already. Both frigates belong to the so-called Karel Doorman Class, named after Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman who died in the Battle of the Java Sea, February 27, 1942, one of those early naval battles which went so disastrously wrong for the Allies. Although he could have saved himself Doorman preferred to go down with his flagship, the light cruiser Hr.Ms. De Ruyter. Rear Admiral Shoji Nishimura's fleet suffered only negligible losses, the combined American-British-Dutch-Australian force was about decimated. Among the victims was the British heavy cruiser HMS Exeter, veteran of the 1939 Battle of the Rio de la Plata.

Both the Leopold I and the Louise-Marie (I know, especially the latter name sucks, but unlike the Dutch we Belgians are a bit short on famous admirals) are so-called M (Multipurpose) frigates, which means that they were specifically designed to deal with a variety of combat situations, be it surface warfare, aerial defense, or fighting submarines. To some degree stealth techniques were used in the design, and a great deal of the machinery is fully automated, e.g. under normal circumstances the engine room is unmanned, with only one technician monitoring everything via a number of displays.

Never having had a great naval tradition, Belgium's Navy has always been a neglected service. The heaviest "fighting" vessels Belgium had were an old cruiser bought from the French, the D'Entrecasteaux, which saw briefly service in the interbellum, and the gunboat Artevelde, which the Kriegsmarine actually equipped as such when the almost completed ship was captured in 1940 on the Cockerill shipyard in Antwerp. After literally decades of negligence, the commissioning of today's frigates is therefore something of an anticlimax since we never had anything remotely comparable. Overall measures are still modest, with a total length of 123.72 metres and a width of 14.37 meters. The draught is 6.2 meters, and water displacement is 3.328 tonnes. But it's the armament which is pretty impressive. Surface targets are engaged with RGM-84 Harpoon missiles, torpedoes, or the OTO Melara fast-firing 76mm gun. Aerial targets are dealt with using NATO Sea Sparrow missiles or also the OTO Melara gun. The machinery consists of two Stork-Werkspoor diesels developing 9.790 HP together, and two Rolls Royce Spey 1A gas turbines of 33.800 HP (also combined). Maximum speed is 30 knots, using the turbines. When the diesels are engaged, speed is limited to 21 knots. The F-930 and F-931 each have a crew of 145, consisting of 15 officers, 70 NCO's and 60 sailors.

The Leopold I and the Louise-Marie replace the last two remaining Wielingen class frigates, designed and built (with Dutch advice) at the Boelwerf in Temse, now defunct, and the Cockerill shipyard in Antwerp. At the height of the Cold War the Belgian Navy had four of them, namely the F-910 Wielingen, the F-911 Westdiep, the F-912 Wandelaar and the F-913 Westhinder. The latter was scrapped in 1993 following defense cuts. The remaining three were one after another sold to Bulgaria, which in this manner acquired its first NATO compliant warships. The F-912 in 2004, and the F-910 and F-911 last year (naval buffs may be interested to know that the Bulgarian Navy is the in the process of modernization, and will rely both on our secondhand frigates as on newly to be built state of the art French Gowind corvettes, for which Bulgaria cut a deal with France last fall). Somehow I will miss the old ships, which I had the occasion to view in person on a naval show in Zeebrugge some years back. Despite their size they packed a respectable firepower. The gun up front, a 100mm Creusot-Loire, was actually heavier than the gun equipping the new frigates. Instead of Harpoons they relied on MM38 Exocets, which the Argentine Air Force used in its air-to-surface variant to such devastating effects in the 1982 Falklands War.

The F-911 Westdiep, a Wielingen class frigate - now in Bulgarian service

Below yet another pic of a Wielingen class frigate, the F-910. It's kind of an historical photo since taken during the Gulf War, either in the fall of 1990 or the spring of 1991. Belgium had dispatched a minesweeper flotilla escorted first by the F-912, then by the F-910. Just behind the gun turret, you see the six-barreled 375mm rocket launcher for use against submarines. The Exocet missiles for defense against enemy ships are on the aft deck. At the extreme end, barely visible, are the Sea Sparrows. Full armament details here.

F-910 during Operation Southern Breeze, 1990-1991

The mainstay of the small Belgian Navy are its minehunters/minesweepers, however. Ever since World War II, when an all-Belgian minehunter flotilla, the 118th, operated within the British Royal Navy, this particular branch of service has received most attention. However, defense cuts have now cut down the force to just six minehunters, of which the M915 Aster is shown below. It's a so-called tripartite mine hunter, with a glass reinforced polyester (GRP) hull because of the low magnetic signature. This kind of vessels acquitted itself fairly well during the Gulf War: in 1990-1991 the Belgian minesweeper/hunter flotilla accounted for just under one third of the close to 1,000 destroyed mines in the Persian Gulf. Vessels like this, also in use in the Dutch and French navies, use remotely operated vehicles to eliminate mines if the risks for divers are too great. The two types ROV in use are the so-called PAP (Poisson Auto-Propulsé) and the Seafox. The finer techniques are taught in EGUERMIN, the Naval Mine Warfare School in Oostende which Belgium and The Netherlands operate together.

To conclude, below a picture from the old box: the troop transport ship AP957 Kamina en route for Korea with on board the Belgian contribution to the fighting there, one infantry battalion (one platoon came from the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg). In Korea, the battalion was subordinated to various British and American units, namely the British 29th Infantry Brigade (during the Battle of the Imjin River) and the US 3rd Infantry Division "Rock of the Marne".

Troop transport vessel Kamina during the Korean War

Photos via the Belgian Navy site.