ABOARD HDMS NILS JUEL IN THE CHESAPEAKE BAY – It is striking how the now-familiar smooth, angled architecture of today’s warships, intended to reduce visual, heat and other signatures, is also somehow inherently Danish-modern. And the first thing one notices after boarding this ship is how clean and spotless everything is — almost relentlessly clean.
"We clean the ship every day," said Lt. Cmdr. Kenneth Jensen, the ship's operations officer. "It's easier to keep a clean ship clean than to clean a dirty ship."
The Nils Juel is the Danish Navy's newest warship, handed over only in August. It's the third and last of the Iver Huitfeldt class of large frigates which, along with two similar Absalon-class combat support ships, will make up Denmark's primary naval force for the next three decades.
They could also be the last significant naval ships built in Denmark, as the Odense Shipyard that built them closed with the delivery of Nils Juel. But the team that designed the ship — a combination of Maersk Shipping, Odense and the Danish Navy — has established itself as Odense Maritime Technology (OMT), marketing its expertise in producing spacious, logical, efficient designs that can be bought for a fraction of the cost of similar warships built elsewhere.
The Danes claim Nils Juel and its sister ships were built for US $325 million apiece — an impressive accomplishment for a ship displacing more than 6,600 tons, fitted with a sophisticated combat and communications suite, armed with Standard, Evolved Sea Sparrow and Harpoon missiles, 76mm and 35mm guns, torpedoes and a helicopter, able to cut the waters at 30 knots and travel more than 9,000 nautical miles without refueling.
The price tag is often compared with the $440 million per-unit cost of the smaller US Navy littoral combat ship, which rises to well over $600 million apiece when the average cost of the LCS mission modules is factored in. And, proponents point out, the Danish ships carry a far heavier permanently installed armament.
But the Danish approach is quite different from that of the US Navy. To start with, most of the ship's lower decks were designed by Maersk, one of the world's largest shipping companies, with a focus on efficient, robust designs that are easy to maintain.
"The basic design is a Maersk design, with a hull similar to a container ship," said Cmdr. Christian Horsted, the ship's executive officer. "Things are very orderly, very well-arranged. It looks like the people who designed the ships have designed a lot of ships."
Horsted pointed to the bridge and machinery room arrangements, which leave room to add improvements. "Things are really set up right," he said, looking up at half-filled overhead wire ways. "The cabling runs leave lots of room for extra wiring for more sensors whenever they're added."
As an economy measure, the ship also features a number of used items. The 76mm guns, and launchers for Evolved Sea Sparrow and Harpoon missiles, for example, are refurbished fittings from decommissioned ships.
The sophisticated combat suite, however, is all-new, featuring Thales Smart-L and APAR radars, other sensors and fire-control equipment nearly identical to Dutch De Zeven Provincien-class and German Sachsen-class frigates.
Yet while Nils Juel is operational — this reporter's visit took place just after the ship completed several weeks taking part in a major exercise with the US Navy along the eastern seaboard — the ship remains, in some ways, incomplete.
The two 76mm guns, for example, are essentially temporary fittings. The forward mounting is sized to take a US Mark 45 5-inch gun, but no funds have been allocated to purchase the $50 million weapons. The second gun position also is intended to mount another close-in weapon system, yet to be purchased.
Amidships, the 32-cell Mark 41 vertical launch system is unused, awaiting not just operational certification, but also the purchase of additional components and Standard surface-to-air missiles.
Aft, atop the hangar, what appeared to be a 35mm Oerlikon Contraves Millenium gun was actually a dummy. The weapon is still being certified but, to keep the flight deck's air worthiness certifications, a fake gun was installed to maintain wind current features.
The ship also is hiring more crew members. The original crew size of 100 was found to be "too lean," Jensen said, and 17 more slots have opened, about half in the engineering department. But even with 117 crew members, the Danes will have a crew smaller than similar warships.
"We try to do the same things the Dutch and Germans do, but with fewer people," Jensen said, explaining that the ship features a high degree of automation, as well as 50 cameras placed throughout to monitor spaces such as the engine rooms, hangar and missile decks.
The three frigates are manned with two and a half crews, allowing for one ship to be training, another to be deployed, with the half-manned ship undergoing maintenance. About half the crew aboard Nils Juel, including Jensen, returned this year from a deployment aboard the Iver Huitfeldt, and joined this ship a few months before the cruise to the US.
The ships also are being brought up to higher war-fighting standards, Horsted said, and are being certified by the British Royal Navy's Flag Officer Sea Training organization. Among other things, that means improving damage control fittings and adding some internal features.
Improvements also need to be installed in the engineering control center, said Lt. Christian Jens, the ship's electro officer. "We still need a secondary steering control installation and navigational equipment," he said.
Nils Juel left Denmark in mid-October to take part in Exercise Bold Alligator, which ended in early November. The frigate will head home after visits to Baltimore and Halifax, Nova Scotia. ■