The once-proud Norwegian frigate KNM Helge Ingstad is finally back at home port in Bergen, severely gashed and rusting after four months underwater. Raising the sunken frigate, which collided with an oil tanker in early November, has already cost taxpayers dearly and now government officials want to repair it so it can sail again.
Naval officers were already claiming on Monday that the frigate could be refloated within six weeks. “The goal is get KNM Helge Ingstad down on the water and afloat on its own,” Flag Commander Thomas Wedervang told reporters on Monday, just after the frigate arrived back at the Haakonsvern naval base Sunday night.
Crews have already been on board the vessel since it was raised, then chained to heavy-lift barges and ultimately loaded onto a barge that towed it back to Bergen. The salvage operation itself proceeded relatively quickly, following numerous delays since the frigate sank off coastal islands northwest of Bergen after its collision with a tanker that its crew mistook for part of the oil terminal at Sture. Once the frigate was raised, it took just over a week to bring it to home port.
“Now our focus is on salvaging as much as possible” off the frigate, Wedervang said. Naval crews have already removed “much of value” from the wreckage, he said, including 1,400 unspecified “components” from a list of 2,500 on board. The last of the frigate’s weapons and ammunition will be removed, then the hull and the rest of the frigate’s condition will be evaluated.
Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen told Norwegian Broadcasting Monday evening that the government wants to make the frigate operable again. “The work to clarify how KNM Helge Ingstad can be repaired starts now,” Bakke-Jensen wrote in an email to NRK. “The government wants to re-establish the frigate’s operative capability.”
He said the salvage operation so far has already cost “at least NOK 640 million” (USD 75 million). If the badly damaged vessel can’t be repaired, or if that option becomes too expensive, the minister said other alternatives will be evaluated, from replacing the frigate with a new one or investing instead in smaller vessels, submarines or maritime patrol flights.
The government will put forth a new long-term plan for the defense department in 2020. The work on that plan will likely determine the ultimate fate of the frigate.
There’s been little talk about the fate of the crew members on the bridge of the frigate since they collided in the early morning hours of November 8 with the fully laden tanker sailing from the Sture terminal. The tanker had a pilot on board and an escort vessel, and its crew frantically tried to get the Helge Ingstad’s crew to slow down and change course to avoid the collision, to no avail.
Both Naval officials and Bakke-Jensen himself have seemed keen to gloss over blame for the collision, opting instead to praise how well the vessel’s evacuation went and how well the salvage operation went this past week, despite its delayed start. The frigate’s captain has also defended his crew, while a preliminary report from Norway’s state accident investigation board merely claimed that a string of events led to the collision, while other maritime experts suggest the frigate’s crew was at fault. Bakke-Jensen and the Norwegian Navy seem most intent now on simply moving on, and learning how to deal with the loss of 20 percent of the fleet and a huge blow to Norway’s defense capacity.