LONDON — The Royal Netherlands Navy is upgrading its fleet to better handle existing and anticipated threats, with air defense and command frigate De Ruyter recently completing a midlife upgrade that provides the ship with a sophisticated ballistic missile defense radar.
The frigate now sports the Thales SMART-L multi-mission radar that can spot incoming ballistic missiles, Lt. Cmdr. Alex Haasnoot, the ship’s operations officer, told a group of reporters during a tour of the vessel at the DSEI conference, which runs Sept. 12-15. De Ruyter was among a handful of military ships docked outside the ExCeL convention center on the Thames River in London.
Haasnoot said the radar would allow the ship to see and track advanced threats and then pass that targeting data off to a nearby destroyer with the right weaponry to defeat the threat.
Cmdr. Welmer Veenstra, the commanding officer of the frigate, said when the fleet was designed and built — De Ruyter was commissioned in 2004 — “we hardly had ballistic missiles as a threat. And that has increased significantly,” which led to the decision to upgrade the radar.
“Initially, we looked at big ballistic missiles affecting a really big area, like Europe. But now you also have what we call more theater ballistic missile defense, so defense of a naval task group against a [shorter-range] ballistic missile, as we’ve seen them being operated in Ukraine,” Veenstra said, adding that hypersonic missiles are the next step in “a continuous battle between the sensors and the weapon.”
Haasnoot said the previous radar had maxed out its capability and could not accommodate further modifications to address new threats, such as smaller and tougher-to-spot ballistic or hypersonic missiles. With the new Thales radar, he explained, the fleet is only beginning to understand the full capability. The service will continue experimenting with the radar, find new missions and threats for which it’s useful, and work with engineers to make modifications for these additional uses.
One early example is space domain awareness. The radar wasn’t designed to find and track satellites, but it can. Haasnoot and Veenstra said the crew continues to look at what the radar can do now as it relates to satellites, and will consider if that has any role in future missions for their class of frigate.
De Ruyter will also lead an effort to add more offensive punch to the De Zeven Provinciën class of frigates. In a year, it will conduct the Navy’s first-ever Tomahawk missile shot.
The ships already sport the MK 41 vertical launching system, which today holds the Standard Missile 2 and the Evolved SeaSparrow Missile. The Netherlands signed an agreement to buy the Tomahawk missile in April as part of its effort to bolster the fleet’s maritime strike capability. Haasnoot said the war in Ukraine has created more urgency to integrate, test and field this weapon.
In fall 2024, De Ruyter will travel to San Diego, California, where it will fire the very first technical test shot of the missile to a target at San Clemente Island. It will take several more years of tests and trials before the missile is ready for in-theater use.
Additionally, the fleet will transition from the Evolved SeaSparrow Missile to a Block II version, and from the Harpoon anti-ship missile to the longer-range Naval Strike Missile, as part of that maritime strike improvement.
Haasnoot also said De Ruyter is experimenting with drones to increase its safety and its capability.
Much like with video games, he joked, the best view to have in a fight is one from above. That’s not possible on ships, and it’s not always safe to send up a ship’s helicopters. De Ruyter has experimented with several drones, including the Dutch-made multirotor Acecore Neo that can fly in inclement weather and lift up to 9 kilograms (20 pounds).
Veenstra said it looks easy to operate drones from a ship, but the maritime environment is actually quite hostile for small drone operations since wind gusts can easily blow them away. They also need great range since the ship is inherently moving, and because the drone not only needs to keep up but get ahead of the ship.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.