The HNLMS Karel Doorman carried out several missions even before officially being deployed, but the final work on the vessel is now nearing completion. Commanding Officer Captain Peter van den Berg gives a tour of his ship, on which workers are putting the finishing touches.
On the trips to West Africa, we had ambulances, trucks, and containers on board, as well as pallets of food. The last was difficult because it had to be very well secured so that the loads didn’t shift.
Since 1 July 2014, there has often been something eye-catching in the silhouette of the Dutch city of Den Helder. It was on that day that the Royal Netherlands Navy’s Joint Support Ship (JSS) Karel Doorman was moored for the first time in its home port at Nieuwe Diep. Since then, the characteristic pyramid-shaped I-Mast, complete with radar and other sensors, has towered over the city. That summer included an extensive programme of sea trials, drills and simulations, and the fitting and finishing work to ensure that the vessel could handle the most gruelling military duties. But humanitarian duty called first. The Karel Doorman transported two shipments of emergency goods to areas in West Africa hit by outbreaks of the Ebola virus. “Those two voyages proved something we had already noticed during the first sea trial,” says Captain Peter van den Berg in his cabin, tucked away under the bridge, 30 metres above the waters in Den Helder harbour. “During that first sea trial, we were able to tick the tests off rapidly, anchor in good order, steering as well, and, last but not least: propulsion. Even in heavy seas the Doorman’s performance was outstanding. It is a robust vessel in every sense of the word.”
That is a gratifying review for a vessel that, at 28,000 tonnes, is the largest ever built for the Navy, and one whose launch was still hanging by a thread in late 2013, due to plans for deep budget cuts. Had those cuts been implemented, the vessel would have gone to the highest foreign bidder. That would have been a shame, says Captain Van den Berg, “but luckily the funding was found.”
The possible sale of the ship before it had ever been deployed had been prompted by the sale of all of the Royal Netherlands Army’s Leopard 2 main battle tanks, meaning that the vessel’s “strategic transport” function would no longer be required. Captain Van den Berg: “But the need to transport our allies’ heavy equipment means that the Doorman is as crucial as it ever was. Recent history has made that painfully clear.”
The possibility for Chinook helicopters modified for amphibious operations to use the JSS as a flight base was also eliminated. “But we can, for example, support operations involving British Chinooks.” On top of that the Karel Doorman has recently executed interoperability tests with the V22 Osprey, tilt-rotor fixed wing aircraft of the US Marine Corps. These trials went so smoothly that the ship is now cleared for sustainable operations with Osprey detachements in the near future. For the heavy airlift Karel Doorman can rely on the cooperation of the Netherlands’ international partners, who are more than willing to operate from its deck.
High above the aft deck sits a panoramic control centre from which flight operations can be coordinated.
During the tour – and leaving aside the comparison between its tugboat-like silhouette and the more ferry-like silhouettes of the HNLMS Johan de Witt and the HNLMS Rotterdam – the differences between the Karel Doorman and an amphibious transport vessel were immediately obvious. For example, the Karel Doorman can refuel or re-supply other vessels while on the open ocean, the third function of the JSS design.
The vessel has already carried out a re-supply at sea under operating conditions, half way to West Africa. It was an extraordinary manoeuvre, since both vessels could only use their starboard side rigs due to operational circumstances. Captain Van den Berg uses hand gestures to show how the Karel Doorman refuelled the British support vessel RFA Argus with both vessels dead in the water facing in opposite directions. The RFA Argus was anchored to the seabed, after which the Karel Doorman was manoeuvred alongside by using its Dynamic Positioning system. The vessels’ fuel hoses were linked together and the fuel pumps engaged. A tidy 750 tonnes of diesel fuel per hour were purged through the Karel Doorman’s flexible hoses to the receiving vessel. The Dynamic Positioning system ensured that the Karel Doorman was held in exactly the right position, down to the metre. That smart technology is also evident in the comprehensive computerisation of the ship’s operations, allowing it to be operated by a relatively small crew of just over 130.
“We also have a steel beach,” explains Captain Van den Berg, pointing to a metallic incline at the aft of the vehicle deck. Landing vehicles can tie up there so that rolling equipment can embark and disembark. “But it cannot be called a dock.”
The types of rolling equipment change from mission to mission, but it is immediately clear that the Karel Doorman can offer space to an impressive fleet of vehicles – or any other type of cargo. “On the trips to West Africa, we had ambulances, trucks, and containers on board, as well as pallets of food. The latter was difficult because they had to be very well secured so that the loads didn’t shift.” The vehicle deck is also equipped with a special forklift which, according to the large white letters across its rear end, answers to the name of Big Pim. The vehicle is part of the standard equipment on the JSS, and “Pim is the first name of the operator in charge of it.” There are still containers on board, but these are being used by men in overalls lugging around heavy tools or sending crackling sparks in the air with welding equipment.
Big Pim is not the only equipment that can move cargo. Halfway down the deck, we also see “the most important ‘weapon’ a vessel that does these operations can have,” states the Captain – a 40-tonne crane that can lift heavy objects, whether from the quay or from a landing vehicle on the open sea.
In other words, the vessel passed its trial of fire transporting equipment and other cargo and re-supplying other vessels on the open ocean with flying colours. But that does not mean that the Karel Doorman is immediately ready for duties that “score high on the combat scale”. “The humanitarian missions meant we had to interrupt the installation of several systems. And that installation is still underway.” Parts of SEWACO, the Sensors, Weapons and Communications systems, which are complex on any navy vessel, still have to be installed. As a result, some areas of the Karel Doorman look like typical construction sites. “Hundreds of kilometres of cables,” says Captain Van den Berg, pointing to the ceiling during our tour of the vessel, “and hundreds of thousands of connections.”
After the final building work and assembly of additional equipment, such as the famous Dutch Goalkeeper system and Marlin guns is resumed, minor adjustments will also have to be made based on the vessel’s first months of operation. For example, in some situations there are diesel fumes on the upper decks, which means slightly adjusting the upper air inlets.
The Karel Doorman was commissioned on 24 April and is now HNLMS Karel Doorman. The vessel is on her way from the Netherlands via Canada to the Caribbean for, amongst other things, hot weather trials. On her way, the vessel made a port visit in Norfolk, Virginia.
The Royal Netherlands Navy
has received a beautiful ship.
Last October, when the Ebola virus was dominating ever more alarming headlines, Captain Van den Berg received a telephone call. “They asked whether the Karel Doorman was available to serve as a strategic platform for a humanitarian mission to West Africa.” That call came right after a three-week sea trial. “There was a great deal of scepticism about whether the vessel could do the job.” But having in mind the exceeded expectations on her initial sea trials, the Captain firmly believed that she could. “Many of the systems had not been installed, but they were systems that we didn’t need for the assignment.” The crew got the green light “after we installed the communication equipment in record time.” Ultimately, there were two missions.
The first began on 6 November, with a stop in Southampton in the UK before going on to Freetown, Sierra Leone, where more than 150 ambulances and trucks – along with containers of protective clothing and other medical goods – had to be unloaded.
The first round-trip to the Ebola-plagued area went so well that the decision was made to send the Karel Doorman on a second mission. On 12 December, the vessel left the Netherlands from Vlissingen and set course for West Africa, this time via La Rochelle and Gibraltar with a large cargo of food packages. “Even the
munitions storage areas were full of emergency provisions.”
RAS/FAS, sea basing, strategic transport, disaster relief.
Length overall 204.7 metres
Beam mld 30.4 metres
Draught design 7.8 metres
Depth to F-deck 18.6 metres
Displacement full load approximately 28,000 tonnes
RoRo space approximately 2,350 m2
Lane metres approximately 2000 m2
Ammunition store 730 m2
Store 1000 m2
F76 (diesel fuel) 7700 m3
F44 (aviation fuel) 1000 m3
FW (fresh water) 400 m3
• Flight deck with 2 spots for a Chinook helicopter
• Night vision compatible helicopter landing aids
• Ground power units (helicopter start and service power)
• Hangar space for 2 Chinook size helicopters in the fully spread condition, space for 6 Chinook size with blades folded
Air-conditioned spaces for 300 crew and special personnel consisting of cabins, stores, galley, mess rooms and sanitary spaces.
A fully equipped role 3 hospital.