Ill-fated frigate now at the scrapyard

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Norway’s once-proud frigate, the Helge Ingstad, arrived at its final destination this week. After being towed over the same waters where it collided with a tanker in late 2018 and then sank, the naval vessel that cost NOK 5 billion is ending its days at a scrapyard in Askøy.

Norway’s ill-fated frigate Helge Ingstad, shown here when it was refloated in 2019, will literally be chopped to bits at a Norwegian scrapyard. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Emil Wenaas Larsen

Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported how the vessel, stripped of weapons, sensitive equipment and whatever else could be salvaged, was disconnected from electricity on land early Monday morning. The Helge Ingstad‘s gangway was removed and it was set loose from its moorings at Ågotnes west of Bergen.

From there it was towed across the Hjeltefjord to Hanøytangen at Askøy, where Norscrap West AS has the contract to literally chop up the ship into small pieces of metal. Around 30 people took part in the operation, which Elisabeth Sandberg of the Norwegian defense department’s unit Forsvarsmateriell called “strange and sad.”

“We’re glad we can finally bring an end to the frigate Helge Ingstad‘s tragic destiny and close this chapter,” Sandberg told NRK. “It’s a special day, and it’s strange and sad to see her on this last voyage.”

It took place exactly two years and three months after a Norwegian naval crew returning from a major NATO exercise in Norway slammed the frigate into a fully laden oil tanker leaving a busy terminal. The pilot on board the tanker and its captain frantically radioed the frigate’s crew to change course, but to no avail. The two vessels collided, the frigate’s crew ultimately had to abandon ship and the vessel later sank in shallow local waters not far from its home base in Bergen.

The Helge Yngstad was later salvaged and brought back to Norway’s naval base Haakonsvern in Bergen in the spring of 2019. It didn’t take long for the Navy to conclude that repairs would be more expensive than the frigate initially cost and scrapping was the best alternative. Norway self-insured the military vessel, one of just five in the country’s fleet. The collision thus resulted in a total loss.

No one has yet been held directly accountable for the embarrassing collision, with investigations into it still wrapping up, charges pending and blame widely spread so far. A preliminary report from the country’s accident investigations board attributed the naval disaster to a series of mishaps on the part of the frigate’s crew, the tanker’s use of lighting on deck that the naval crew mistook for the terminal, and slow response by the local maritime control authorities in the area.

Nils Andreas Stensønes was chief of Norway’s naval forces when the frigate collision occurred. Now he’s chief of Norway’s military intelligence agency. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Torbjørn Kjosvold

There’s been lots of finger-pointing over the past two years, with Norwegian Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen consistently supporting the Navy and the frigate’s crew. Bakke-Jensen has bristled at critical questions and both he and Navy chiefs have shielded the frigate’s crew and often praised their quick evacuation of the vessel, stressing that no lives were lost.

Others have been more critical, and local police have pointed to three individuals: the duty officer on the frigate, the pilot on board the tanker and the man in charge of monitoring maritime traffic when the collision occurred. The head of Norway’s naval forces at the time,  meanwhile, ended up winning a promotion to become head of Norway’s military intelligence agency. Vice Admiral Nils Andreas Stensønes was actually presenting his first report on the agency’s evaluation of security threats against Norway as the Helge Ingstad arrived at the scrapyard on Monday.

Debate continues, meanwhile, over whether and how the frigate can or should be replaced. Norway’s naval forces are currently left with just four frigates that also can be called upon by NATO, and they’ve been subject to new inspections lately, too. Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s proposal to dip into Norway’s huge sovereign wealth fund to finance construction of a new frigate won little support in Parliament. That was before both Parliament and the government started pulling money out of the so-called Oil Fund like never before to finance Norway’s response to the Corona  crisis. It remains unclear whether top state politicians will reconsider frigate construction now.

NRK reported that actual scrapping of the Helge Ingstad won’t begin until August, because there’s still some classified equipment on board that must be dismantled, documented and destroyed under defense supervision. Then the frigate will be moved to a dock for the scrapping that’s due to be completed by the end of the year. That job alone is costing NOK 60 million, offset by sale of the scrap metal afterwards, but Sandberg wouldn’t detail how much income that may generate.

See NRK’s video report on the frigate under tow to the scrapyard here. (external link, with Norwegian text).

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund