The Dutch MoD will have provided more clarity about which shipyard or shipyards will proceed to the next round. While this article is being written, there is still fierce competition going on.
Four international shipbuilders are competing, and at least one of the contenders will be eliminated in the coming weeks. However, it is also possible that the decision will be postponed again, because even though the replacement of the WALRUS Class is still in its early stages, its course has known many plot twists already.
Replacement of Ageing Submarines
The RNLN has four diesel-electric submarines. They were designed by the Royal Netherlands Navy in collaboration with Nevesbu and built by the Rotterdamsche Droogdok Maatschappij (RDM). Construction started in the late 1970s, with the first commissioned in 1989. That delay was partly due to a major fire aboard the WALRUS during its construction, but was mainly caused by delays due to the high degree of automation and changing demands of the Navy.
In 2013, the much needed replacement of the four submarines was mentioned in public for the first time. Despite the upkeep programme they are currently undergoing, the WALRUS class boats are approaching the end of their service life.
Participating Submarine Builders
The RDM, builder of the three generations of Dutch submarines and builder of the Taiwanese HAI LUNG Class, has gone bankrupt due to the absence of orders from the Dutch Government. For the first time in Dutch history, new Dutch submarines are being developed and built in collaboration with foreign shipyards.
Four shipyards (or combinations of those) have shown interest in the development of new Dutch submarines. These are Naval Group from France, Navantia from Spain, the Swedish-Dutch combination Saab-Damen and tkMS from Germany.
Those four have been involved in the tender since 2016, although Navantia did not publicly announce its participation through a press release until March 2019. Several journalists were surprised, but Navantia’s participation is not a strange move. Despite its great successes with the sale of LHDs and frigates to Australia and an LHD to Turkey, Navantia is not known for its submarine achievements. The new Spanish submarine, the S-80, turned out to be too heavy to submerge without restrictions. That, and problems with the development of the new Air-Independent Propulsion (AIP) system, resulted in a delay of eleven years and a huge increase in costs.
According to Navantia, however, the problems have been resolved and the shipyard says it has learned valuable lessons that will benefit future customers. Participation in the Dutch programme is not surprising, because the S-80 PLUS has similarities to the WALRUS Class in terms of size and range (as far as known). Navantia also claims it is the only shipyard that is already building a submarine that meets the Dutch requirements. Therefore, it offers an S-80 PLUS Batch II, which, although adapted to Dutch requirements, offers many similarities. This allows Spain to quickly offer the Netherlands an affordable submarine and to form a family with a total of eight submarines.
There are also great opportunities for Spain itself, as it turned out during a visit to Navantia in Cartagena in December 2018. Taking advantage of export achievements it might become possible to start the development of the S-90 Class submarines.
The other shipyards offer custom designs, if not new designs. Together with Norway, tkMS is currently developing the Type 212CD for the German and Norwegian navies.
The Type 212CD followed the Type 212NG (Next Generation), a design by tkMS for the German Navy. In turn, the NG was derived from the Type 212A and the Type 214. When Norway joined the programme, the requirements were merged into a new design: Type 212 Common Design. Not much has been disclosed about these submarines, except that their displacement is 2400 tons and their hulls are made of amagnetic steel. However, the Type 212CD does not meet the maximum requirements and tkMS says it is prepared to enlarge the design, so there is more room for fuel and crew members, for example. It is known that the Dutch Submarine Service prefers a submarine with at least two compartments and sufficient comfort for crew members during long deployments. It also wants to take additional crew on board, like special forces and personnel from the operational branch, to analyse information on board.
Saab-Damen has to enlarge an existing design as well. The basis is formed by the A26 submarine, of which Saab Kockums is currently building two for Sweden. Since 2015, the Swedish shipyard has been working on submarines with the Dutch shipyard Damen Schelde Naval Shipbuilding. De Schelde built submarines for the Dutch Navy from 1906 to 1940, but has been focused on surface ships since 1945. In 2000, De Schelde was taken over by the largest shipyard in the Netherlands and when the replacement of the submarines came in sight, founder Kommer Damen said he also wanted to build submarines.
The concept submarine from Saab-Damen has a displacement of 2900 tons and a length of 73 metres, with room for 34 to 42 crew members.
Naval Group wants to build a submarine based on the new French nuclear submarines of the Barracuda class, a little sister of the Shortfin Barracuda for Australia. Little is known about the plans of the French.
The fact that the Netherlands itself can no longer build submarines does not mean that all submarine expertise in the Netherlands has disappeared. Dutch companies which have worked on submarines are united in the Dutch Underwater Knowledge Center (DUKC). They even have recent experience with designing and testing of foreign submarines.
The Royal Netherlands Navy attaches great value to that knowledge and experience, since the Dutch way of operating is different from that of many countries with diesel-electric submarines. Just like Australia and Canada, the Dutch submarine service often operates far away from home.
As the book In Deepest Secrecy: Dutch Submarine Espionage Operations from 1968 to 1991, made public, Dutch submarines were mainly active in the Norwegian Sea and the Mediterranean Sea during the Cold War. Those patrols often lasted for six weeks.
The experience with long-distance patrols, which arose from the need for submarines in the former Dutch East Indies and later the need for diesel-electric submarines in European waters after the Second World War, is cherished by the RNLN.
Less is known about the deployment of Dutch submarines after the Cold War, but it is certain that the WALRUS Class was deployed quite frequently. Those deployments also took place in areas many thousands of kilometres from the Den Helder home port. For example, a WALRUS Class submarine was tasked with gathering intelligence about the Iranian Navy in the Persian Gulf, another one with intelligence collection about pirates in the Indian Ocean and during another deployment included an intelligence mission about drug transports in the Caribbean.
Despite frequent deployments of WALRUS Class submarines, their replacement was uncertain for a long time. Around the year 2000, several Dutch governments were about to abolish the submarine service, since critics, like the current Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans, thought submarines were a relic from the Cold War.
Considering the submarines’ planned maximum service life of between 25 and 30 years, the Dutch Government should have started the replacement around 2004, but those were times of unprecedented cutbacks. In 2013, for the first time and very carefully, the Government talked openly about replacing the WALRUS Class.
At the time, cooperation with other countries turned out to be necessary. Among other things, the Submarine Service preferred to see a WALRUS 2.0, in other words, a modern variant of the current submarine. Others already talked about a collaboration with Germany, but in 2014, the Minister of Defence Jeanine Hennis excluded that option.
Not much later, it became known that Damen and Saab were going to work together on submarines. That was a big surprise for the Ministry of Defence, which was not amused, since Minister Hennis had planned to link Damen to the most suitable foreign candidate.
The talks with Germany were resumed and behind the scenes the idea of one type of submarine for Germany, Norway and the Netherlands arose. In the meantime, Hennis had been asked by the Lower House to write a vision for the future of the Submarine Service.
The submarine replacement project started very slowly. Nothing was made public about plans to buy submarines together with Germany and Norway. A year after Hennis’ vision for the future of the submarine service, the A-letter from the project was published. That happened at the end of the first phase of the replacement, the A-Phase. The last phase in Dutch military projects is the D-Phase.
The A-Letter was sent in July 2016, but the minister was no longer as clear in that letter as she had been in earlier publications. She introduced four options: a replacement either by similar submarines, drones, systems other than submarines (such as the F-35) ,or smaller submarines. Many were surprised, because the Lower House was already supportive of a replacement by similar submarines.
Nevertheless, Hennis wanted the four options to be examined and so the B-Phase, the research phase, started. RFIs from shipyards were also part of that phase. By the end of 2018, the B-Phase was completed with the B-Letter.
Meanwhile, the talks between Norway, Germany and the Netherlands continued and during that autumn, there were rumours in the Netherlands that the German submarine design was selected: the Type 212CD from tkMS. But, the formal tender was also continued and after the House of Representatives approved the replacement in the spring of 2017, companies were invited for the first time to present themselves.
Behind the scenes there was much discussion between Germany and Norway. The Dutch Type 212CD was almost there, but it was not possible to get all parties on the same wavelength. In March 2018, the negotiations came to a standstill.
Until that time, tkMS had been the preferred contender, supported by the desire of German and Dutch politicians to operate submarines together. After negotiations came to a standstill, it was Saab-Damen that became number one on the list, especially after the Defence Industry Strategy was published in November, which stated that the Ministry of Defence would from now on prefer Dutch industry.
The shipyard or shipyards shortlisted by the MoD were to be announced in the B-Letter. However, the publication of that letter was postponed a few times. First, the letter was expected at the end of 2018, then mid-February, then March and now April.
As time went on, the contenders increased pressure on Saab-Damen. Only Navantia was still convinced of its participation in the next round at the end of 2018. Naval Group and tkMS made themselves heard.
The German shipyard tkMS did so by announcing that it wanted to fully adapt the Type 212CD to Dutch requirements, at the expense of the commonality with the German and Norwegian submarines. It also offered to build the submarines at the maintenance site of the Royal Netherlands Navy in Den Helder and to fully transfer the intellectual property for the Dutch submarines.
Naval Group publicly announced a collaboration with Royal IHC, a Dutch shipyard that specializes in dredging vessels.
Saab-Damen Winning Edge Over tkMS
In the meantime, the MoD really took its time to make the choice for the B-Letter. The objective was not to compare the contenders from a technical perspective, since it is expected that the Dutch Defence Material Organization (DMO) already had a preference on technical grounds back in the autumn of 2018. Rather, it was mainly a political issue, the result of the political and diplomatic pressure on The Hague.
This became even more difficult after the Netherlands had bought shares from Air France – KLM, unannounced. Since the Dutch airline had been taken over by Air France, France had more shares than the Netherlands. However, for a while, there had been a disagreement between the Netherlands and France about the airline and when the Netherlands bought shares, so it would have the same number as France, Paris was not pleased. According to sources, the resulting diplomatic pressure benefited Naval Group in this phase of the WALRUS replacement.
Although it is expected that the Dutch MoD has a preference for Saab-Damen’s offer, such events may still have an effect on the outcome. After all, none of the parties has the perfect offer.
As the contenders often point out, Saab-Damen is the least experienced candidate. Kockums built the COLLINS class for Australia in the 90s, but was only involved in modernisation projects until the construction of the new A26 started. Damen has no recent submarine experience at all.
The problems with the COLLINS class are not a good advertisement for Saab Kockums, either. A big advantage of this combination, though, is that Damen is well acquainted with the Dutch Navy, its culture and its way of operating. Damen has brought in many experienced Dutch submariners and Saab and Damen have already had four years to get to know each other.
Submarines are continually built by tkMS, either in Germany or in the customer’s country. Nevertheless, without the support of the German-Norwegian-Dutch deal, it is very difficult for tkMS to win. The Dutch submarine service does not want the 212CD, and tkMS does not have much experience with what the Dutch actually want. Insiders know that tkMS builds decent submarines, but they fear their bureaucracy and their sometimes rigid attitude during the design phase.
Also, the German Navy itself is not experienced in operating at a great distance from its home port; the German submarine service operates the Type 212A, which is designed for the Baltic. The fact that the new submarines of the German Navy recently faced problems is not in support of tkMS’ bid, either.
The collaboration with the large Naval Group is feared as well, certainly because the Dutch submarines are much less important to Naval Group than to the other parties. The expectation is that the small Dutch DMO will not be able to leave its mark on the design. Nobody worries about the quality of the submarines, but people do worry about the price.
A cooperation between Spanish Navantia and the Netherlands would work just fine. In the 1990s, both countries jointly designed an LPD and a replenishment ship, after which the ships were built in Spain and the Netherlands. The design of the S-80 PLUS, however, seems to be limiting and not fitting with the way the Netherlands operates its submarines.
Yet, a strong cooperation is important, because none of the shipbuilders have a submarine design which is ready to be used without modification. Eventually, a new design will have to be made.
This also leads to criticism from the shipyards. Although the Netherlands has apparently abandoned its past demand for a military off-the-shelf submarine and has accepted new designs, more information about the requirements has not yet been released.
Still, the Netherlands already wants a new submarine to replace the Walrus class in 2027. That seems unfeasible. In any case, it starts with the B-Letter, which hopefully will have been published by the time this issue has.
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