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Never a Dull Moment for the Captain of FGS Sachsen

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Having the responsibility for an $845 million warship is a challenging job says Hardy Hübener, commanding officer of the Federal German Ship (FGS) Sachsen, the first of three modern Type 124 air defense frigates of the German Navy. Since October 2005 Hübener has been in command of this 143 m long, 17.44 m wide frigate that took commission on November 4, 2004 as the first of her class.  The Wilhelmshaven, Germany-based FGS Sachsen is one of the warships, assigned to SNMG-1, sailing in Caribbean Waters for the first time for NATO operations. While the flotilla was on its way to the second Caribbean port of Fort de France in Martinique, Hübener disclosed some aspects of his job on board:

“Every day is different” states Hübener at the point that one might expect a certain pattern in the job of a commander. “It’s difficult to describe a day at sea because there is absolutely no standard. There are days that we are just in transit and the XO (executive officer or first officer) is doing all the work, but there are also times that I don’t have even two hours of sleep a day. So there is no standard day at sea at all.

“Presently we have developed some routines. When there is nothing major going on I usually say goodbye to the bridge at midnight and start the new day at six, again on the bridge, where I read and sign the ship’s dairy before I go down to the CIC (Combat Information Center) which is considered the brain of the ship. The officer in charge there reports everything of importance, whether the system is working properly and whether we have stable communications and link-connectivity to the other ships of the force. He informs me about important messages received and short-notice change of plans.

“During the early morning hours we presently have the routine to exchange personnel between units of the force, nearly on a daily basis, the so called cross-polling. All ships come in close formation, get the speedboats in the water, and exchange crew. My presence on the bridge is required during this process. After cross-polling we start different exercises and procedures. Replenishment at sea (RAS) is an example of a recurring and inevitable procedure during our passages that last more than just a few days.”

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Replenishment at Sea:

“When we refuel on the open sea we start preparations an hour before, briefing all personnel, setting up the stations, and doing several safety briefings. First on the bridge for the key personnel and, at the same time, on the station for those handling the many lines that connect our ship to the tanker.  I focus on the activities on the bridge; the chief boatswain and the XO handle the personnel on deck. Such replenishments take a while and require strict safety measures.

First we take a stand-by position behind the tanker; ready to go. When the tanker is ready we run the red and yellow Romeo flag and approach directly alongside. During the refueling we keep such a close distance to the tanker we would never do to another ship. It is risky at this close, so we have to be very alert not to collide with the tanker. The maximum working distance is 50 to 60 meters, but normally we don’t want to be further away than 40 meters. It’s essential to keep very precise station alongside the tanker, not only in distance but also in height, directly opposite to the tanker. When all lines are in place the workers on the replenishment station have to connect the hose. That’s a lot of manual work. The XO is watching this action while I concentrate on the conning officer’s action on the bridge.

“Replenishment can last up to one and a half hours. It happens as often as possible. Because we never know what is going to happen at sea, it’s better to keep the tanks filled. Normally in operation we’ll refuel about two or three times a week, depending on how much we spend. If it’s just a transit at low speed we are able to travel more then ten days without refueling. At the moment we’re happy having a tanker in our force. Otherwise we would have to hop from one tanker availability to another.  In the NATO squadron this is organized by the NATO staff.

Under NATO command

“Sailing as part of a NATO Group makes an interesting difference."

The force commander, Admiral Mahon, is getting the commanding officers of all elements in the squadron together on a regular basis for a briefing about what’s going on and what his intentions are. As we put in at a harbor every seven to fourteen days we try to do this before leaving the port, but sometimes it’s organized at sea.

“The admiral has his own staff of seven international officers, and ten American chief petty officers and petty officers. They stay on the flagship and work for him. There is always one of the officers on duty so our CIC is in communication with the admiral’s staff at all times. In meetings we discuss the NATO exercises. These exercises are mostly planned and known far ahead, however they can change daily!  The large-scale exercise ‘Noble Mariner’ that’s going to take place in May is fixed since a year. We’re currently preparing for this exercise.

About the Caribbean

“It’s not the first time a NATO group is here. Actually NATO was quite often in the Caribbean, but the set up of the standing forces has changed, and since we have the Standing NATO Maritime Groups (SNMG) and rapid response forces (NRF)  it is the first visit to the Caribbean in this configuration. NRF’s are immediately ready to act in case of a crisis anywhere in the world. The NRF is the cornerstone of NATO’s post-Cold War transformation, providing capability for the current strategic environment. Our task here is observing and doing exercises so NATO can meet requirements for a wide range of missions including non combatant evacuations, consequent management, counter terrorism, crisis response, embargo operations and initial entry operations for follow-on forces.

“The Caribbean harbors of Curacao and Martinique have been chosen by NATO. We have no impact on that. All 26 affiliate countries can say yes or no to a port, and each of them can veto a visit, even when the force exists of only two or three nations like in this case. The military committee has to clarify that.  Our crew felt happy with the relaxing visit to Curacao. They are looking forward to explore the island of Martinique.

At the end of the day

“The daily commanders’ conference, where we call events into question through our so called command line, is another regular occurrence while in the Caribbean. The command line is a secure and encrypted line so nobody can understand what we’re saying. The conference is a standing procedure at sea around 19:00, which marks the end of my day when no major events are going on. The admiral can always catch us by surprise for instance with a sudden MOB exercise at sunset…”

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So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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