The German Navy looks set to purchase new vessels to support signals intelligence gathering.
In late June Germany’s parliamentary defence committee cleared a planned acquisition of several new naval platforms. These include Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) gathering vessels. The new ships will be built by Lürssen. On 23rd June, the company signed a contract with the German government’s Federal Office of Bundeswehr (German armed forces) Equipment, Information Technology and In-Service Support to this end. A total of three vessels will be procured.
They are known as Class 424 Auxiliary, General Intelligence (AGI) ships. They will replace the same number of ‘Oste’ class SIGINT vessels. The first of these was commissioned into the Deutsche Marine (German Navy) in 1988. Three ships, the Oste, Oker and Alster comprise the class.
Details of their precise capabilities are unknown. It is believed they can collect and analyse Electronic and Communications Intelligence (ELINT/COMINT). The ships carry up to 40 mission specialists according to open sources. They remain in international waters while collecting SIGINT. The ‘Oste’ class have reportedly been deployed to international waters off the coast of Syria over the past decade. There, they may have collected tactical and operational SIGINT useful to the US-led international coalition fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria insurgency movement there. They may have also collected strategic SIGINT useful to Germany’s Bundesnachrichtendienst (Federal Intelligence Service). This information may have informed Germany and her allies of the ongoing political situation within the troubled country.
Germany does not possess any SIGINT gathering satellites. The ‘Oste’ class ships are believed to be one of her few means of collecting strategic SIGINT. Much of this information may be shared with German NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) and non-NATO allies like Israel.
Reports state that the Class 424 AGI ships will use civilian shipbuilding standards. This should help reduce their acquisition costs. The first of the ‘Oste’ class will retire in 2027. That same year, the first Class 424 vessels will enter service. This should help a relatively seamless transition from the legacy vessels to the new ships.
No information appears to exist in the public domain regarding the SIGINT capabilities of the new ships. They are expected to collect COMINT and ELINT. It is highly likely the navy will continue to maintain the passive electronic support role of the ‘Oste’ class. Likewise, no details appear to be available on which firm, or group of companies, will supply the SIGINT equipment. That being said, it would be highly surprising if Rohde and Schwarz does not have a major role to play in furnishing these capabilities. The firm already provides significant SIGINT equipment to Germany’s armed forces.
Although the ‘Oste’ class have been operating near Syria, the new ships will have an important role to play supporting NATO SIGINT collection in northern Europe. Russian activity in the Baltic and her Kaliningrad enclave will no doubt be a high priority for the German Navy. Meanwhile, in the absence of German space-based SIGINT collection these ships will be the primary strategic SIGINT platform supporting Germany’s armed forces and her intelligence services.
by Dr. Thomas Withington