German Navy's Red Sea Blunder Makes British Navy Look Competent In Comparison

Venu Gopal Narayanan

Mar 01, 2024, 02:08 PM | Updated Mar 02, 2024, 03:54 PM IST

The German and British flags.
The German and British flags.

On 28 February, the Hessen, a missile frigate of the German Navy on combat patrol in the Red Sea, launched two missiles to destroy an enemy drone picked up by its radars.

This was the ship’s job, and as a designated, specialised air defence vessel, tasked to interdict missile strikes on commercial shipping in the area by Yemen-based Houthi insurgents, it was well within its rights to launch those two missiles.

There were only two minor problems. First, the ‘enemy’ drone turned out to be an American MQ-9 Reaper drone on patrol; and, second, both missiles launched at the drone, by the Hessen, malfunctioned and fell into the Red Sea.

That set the defence end of social media on fire, and how. One group very innocently wondered whether German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had abruptly reclassified America from ally to something less favourably disposed towards the North Atlantic alliance.

Another lot wondered, equally innocently, if this was a collective expression of German angst over having had to suffer severe gas shortages and crippling inflation after they were led down the garden path by American President Joe Biden, and into a senseless, horrific, counterproductive proxy war with Russia in Ukraine.

A third set wondered if the Hessen’s bungling would have Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, father of the German Navy, turning in his grave. Those members of the Indian diaspora in Germany who wish to check are directed to the Waldfriedhof cemetery in Munich, Bavaria, where the great man is interred. Any topsoil tremors, no matter how low in intensity, may be reported to Kopernikusstrasse 1, D-18057 Rostock, where the German Navy is headquartered.

The Germans didn’t comment, save to state that there was a ‘drone event’ somewhere in the Red Sea, probably since they took the original patent out on humourlessness. But the rest of the naval world made up for such Teutonic stoicism (it competes with lockjaw on the Stoic Scales) in the face of self-inflicted humiliation, by guffawing uproariously.

If the land of Kant, Goethe and Max Planck survives this episode, it will invariably be attributed by social-anthropologists to a diet of meat and jam (well, berry preserves actually, if we are to reduce our culinary circular error of probability to the diameter of a dinner table).

The infinite irony is that the Hessen had just reported for duty in the Red Sea a few days earlier, yet before the week was up, it had already registered its name in the annals of great naval blunders. That is some achievement.

But that’s not all: fresh reports emerged soon after the ‘drone event’ that German naval depots did not have any more stock of two of the three types of missiles which the Hessen can fire.

In which case, if the Houthis (or any other adversary for that matter) were to pose a threat, the skipper and crew of the Hessen, sans missiles, would have to instead invoke divine providence for the vessel’s delivery from such harm. Well, that might work, since faith conquers all.

Meanwhile, the online jeering continued relentlessly. One wag wanted to know if the German Navy could get a refund from the missile manufacturer by calling customer support?

Another was mercifully more supportive: unlike the British Navy which flubbed two — repeat, two — nuclear missile tests (a Trident missile of the Royal Navy recently failed to fire after launch and nearly fell back on the vessel; luckily, it was a drill, and there was no warhead), at least the Germans had launched two missiles successfully. That is something to be proud of.

And the best part is that the Hessen reportedly carries some of the most advanced sensors and radars in the German Navy. Yet, since Germany is a friendly nation, it is better to highlight the successful launches rather than belabour the more important points, that they were launched at a friendly drone, and, that they fell ineffectually into the sea well before the interception point.

So, rather than contrast the German Navy’s incompetence with a BrahMos missile, which, even when fired by mistake, hit its target in Pakistan without being interdicted, we should instead stand with the German people, and their navy, and reassure them by looking at the bright side: at least the Hessen didn’t sink itself. Tschüss.

Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.

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