How Brisbane learns from Schneizlreuth

15. August 2023

The navies of 16 nations now place their trust in Rheinmetall’s MASS ship protection technology. Australia is the latest customer. The inventors of this naval countermeasures system are based in Schneizlreuth, an idyllic little town in Bavaria: a transglobal transfer of knowledge.

About MASS

  • The MASS ship protection system protects ships and boats from a wide array of threats from anti-ship missiles and laser-guided missiles.
  • The system consists of three main components: the decoy munitions, the lightweight carbon fibre launcher, and the tactical operations software.
  • The munitions contain millions of extremely thin glass fibers, their most important feature, which act in the air as antennae. They must be carefully arrayed in the cartridge to ensure subsequent equal distribution in the air. The glass fibers pick up a missile’s radar echo and trick it with ship-like signals.
  • MASS cartridges also contain built-in heat plates. When these ignite, they produce more heat than the ship, helping to deflect the missile. Smoke/obscurant adds to the confusion by interrupting the laser beam.
  • Depending on the type of approaching projectile, the system generates a specific pattern. A “decoy curtain” for an infrared-guided missile, for example, looks different than one for a radar-guided missile. Even when a missile realizes it has failed to hit its target and takes aim at the ship again, MASS’s tactical software takes account of this and reacts immediately.
  • MASS can be installed on ships of all sizes. It can be readily integrated into existing command and weapon engagement systems or operate as a standalone system. In the standard version, MASS consists of one to six trainable launchers, each of which can fire 32 “Omni Trap” decoy munitions.
  • In addition to MASS, Rheinmetall also makes the ROSY multifunctional self-defence system for armoured vehicles, and BIRDIE, a self-defence and false target system for aircraft.
  • In total, 379 MASS launchers (including Australia) are now in operation on 42 different classes of ship.

An enemy cruise missile is flying toward a frigate on the high seas. If it reaches its target, it is certain to cost many sailors their lives. Yet right before impact, something strange happens: the frigate vanishes behind a curtain of smoke and flashing lights – almost like fireworks. By the time the fog has lifted, the ship has disappeared, and the missile has fallen harmlessly into the sea.

These spectacular scenes, which recall a magic trick by David Copperfield, are from a demonstration video for MASS, short for Multi Ammunition Softkill System, a highly effective naval countermeasures system. In the meantime, 16 nations use the decoy munition to protect their surface combatants. Australia is the latest member of the global MASS community.

Made in Schneizlreuth-Fronau

Of course, MASS has very little to do with magic, and everything to do with expert knowledge and precision – and unsurpassed stamina. Nobody knows this better than Martin Fegg, the system’s spiritual father. A physicist by background, he has been working on MASS for thirty years, initially on behalf of Buck Fronau, a company Rheinmetall took over in 1998. The plant, in the picturesque little town of Schneizlreuth-Fronau near Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps, is one of the Group’s smallest locations, with around 70 employees. Small but highly successful: MASS is the world market leader. “The Fronau spirit is famous throughout the Group”, laughs Fegg.

Most countries that use Rheinmetall’s softkill system import the munitions and launchers from Germany. Australia is taking a different tact: the latest order will go hand in hand with a technology transfer. Headquartered in Redbank near Brisbane, Rheinmetall Defence Australia will produce MASS under licence, supplying the Royal Australian Navy on location with the decoy systems. “The order is Rheinmetall’s first naval contract of this kind in Australia and marks an important milestone in the expansion of the Group’s industrial presence here,” notes Nathan Poyner, managing director of Rheinmetall Defence Australia.

Martin Fegg in the training centre at Schneizlreuth next to his invention. A trained physicist, he has been working on MASS for 30 years. (Image: Robert Wagner)

Step by Step

“The technology transfer is a gradual, step-by-step process”, says Martin Fegg. The first MASS systems earmarked for Down Under will be produced in Schneizlreuth. “Our Australian colleagues come here for training in our factory. Of course, we’re also busy preparing documentation for Australia. Next, we’ll be setting up a production line in Brisbane, once again with staff from Germany taking part in the commissioning process,” explains Fegg. “But even during this phase, the components for the launchers and munitions kit will come from Germany.” Once production is going smoothly, local Australian subcontractors will come into play.

Australia isn’t the first country to opt for local production. Canada and South Korea also produce MASS under licence. But Australia is the Rheinmetall Softkill Protection Systems unit’s biggest single order to date, with volume potentially totalling a billion Australian dollars, roughly EUR 610 million. MASS will initially be installed on the Royal Australian Navy’s Hobart-class destroyers and ANZAC-class frigates, with an option for equipping the entire fleet.

Rheinmetall Waffe Munition won this major order from the Royal Australian Navy thanks to the excellent work of the entire team in Schneizlreuth. (Image: Robert Wagner)

An Impressive Demonstration

Before the Australian ministry of defence opted for MASS, the system was put to the test on location – in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, no less. For Martin Fegg and his team, this meant a two-week “bonus” stay in a quarantine hotel at the other end on the world before the tests could get underway.

To demonstrate the effectiveness of the system, the New Zealand Navy made an ANZAC-class frigate available that was already equipped with MASS. As a result, the test campaign took place under real world conditions, enabling the decoy system to display its full effectiveness in the finest David Copperfield tradition. MASS passed every test with flying colours: the procurement order was soon a done deal.

MASS is the world market leader in maritime decoy systems. No fewer than 16 nations protect their surface combatants with decoy munitions from Rheinmetall.

The Last Line of Defence

Test campaigns like the one in Australia help to explain why MASS is the world market leader in maritime decoy systems. “We continuously put MASS to the test”, says Martin Fegg. Primarily with the German Navy but also with those of other user nations, regular attack simulations are conducted under realistic operating conditions. After all, advances in missile technology are relentless. “Every missile has its own signature that MASS has to be able to recognize,” adds Fegg. “We’ve been carrying out tests ever since 1995. As you can imagine, we’ve accumulated quite a lot of expertise.”

The final stage of the technology transfer with Australia is slated to be complete in 2027. That this or that problem is likely to arise in the meantime “is due to the nature and complexity of the project”, says Fegg. Yet he remains optimistic that everything will function properly in the end, noting that the teams on both sides of the globe are highly motivated and eager to overcome whatever obstacles they encounter along the way. “One thing we never forget in our work is that MASS is the last line of defence”, insists Martin Fegg. “We’re responsible for people’s lives, and that’s how we operate.”

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