The Guest Blog

Guest post by Robert Moore, business analyst and project manager.

The Netherlands’ Royal Navy is getting ready for the replacement of its fleet of submarines. Outdated and having run through its entire potential, the Walrus subs are no longer able to face the growing Russian threat, as Moscow once again flexes its muscles in Northern waters. Initially considering buying off-the-shelf, Amsterdam has slowed things down to consider further options.

A self-evident and simple task

Until now, the Walrus-replacement program appeared somewhat of a no-brainer. The 4 subs have served for 40 years and are ripe for retirement. As for who would replace them, that was just as simple. As many other countries do, the Netherlands expressed the wish to kick back as much of the expense as possible to domestic companies. Dutch shipyards do exist, and are quite active on the naval market, but lack the capacity to address an entire submarine program, one of the most complex industrial challenges in the world. All in all, Dutch industrial companies are eager to be included on the deal, as reported by MarineSchepen Kaime Karreman: “In recent years, extra money has been earmarked for Defense, and the navy will replace many billions of new ships and submarines in the coming ten years. You would, therefore, expect that many Dutch companies in the naval industry will sign, build and invoice for Defense projects.” So, along with Swedish Saab-Kockum allied with Dutch Damen, Amsterdam has therefore been considering alternate offers, such as the partnership between Royal IHC (Dutch) and French Naval Group. Germany and TKMS intend also to make efforts towards the Dutch market, one of its historical clients, and should, therefore, be considered.

If it’s simple, then you’re doing it wrong

However, Amsterdam has realized that such a complex challenge could not be addressed so easily. Submarine programs reach levels of complexity and depth of ramifications which are unequalled in the industrial world. The density of technology which compresses tens of men and tons of high-tech resources into a small hull turns the shipyard into a house of cards, which must be managed with extreme care and expertise. The number of involved industrial partners makes internal communication and program coordination paramount, lest the suppliers block and impact each other. Future challenges must be assessed properly before the design phase, so as to avoid building the right ship for the wrong task. In other words, a technological command is key, but not even enough to guarantee the successful outcome of a program. As a sad illustration, Spanish shipyards Navantia, which invested very heavily into sub technology, suffered a catastrophic launch in 2013, due to lack of program coordination which resulted in inadequate mass of the ship. Defence reporter Fiona Govan wrote: “Miscalculations at the engineering stage have been blamed for a two-year delay in delivery of the first of four submarines commissioned from Spain’s state-owned shipbuilder Navantia. Last month it emerged that the Isaac Peral sub […] was at least 75 tons overweight, an excess that could compromise its ability to surface after submerging.” Navantia possessed the technology, but not the program management expertise – as such, it is one among many shipyards who may not be able to undertake the program single-handedly, but who may have something valuable to contribute to it.

The historical German supplier, inventor of the U-Boot

Since the Second World War, Germany has been a major supplier of submarines, including to the Netherlands, as early command of submarine technology and continued investments into the sector heaved it to global leadership. In fact, most submarines roaming the world’s waters today are issued from German shipyards. German engineering has acquired such a reputation over the past century that it no longer needs to be proven. In fact, it could be argued that Germany has always stayed ahead of the submarine technological race, from its invention to modern times. Additionally, the Netherlands has often acquired military equipment from Germany, making the German neighbour the European expert on Dutch military matters. Recent industrial mishaps, therefore, don’t mean that 100 years of technology and partnership should be ignored.

Other options to be considered, in view of the task at hand

The Netherlands have every chance, through this program, to become one of NATO’s super-players in the realm of submarine defence. Underwater warfare is once again taking a central place on the stage, as Russians resume their customary incursions, with their new ships. Who will be NATO’s trusted on-site partner? Spain’s submarines have trouble entering their own docks, England’s defence budget has collapsed and Italy’s fleet is nearing obsolescence and locked into the Mediterranean. The most powerful European submarine fleet is France’s, but Paris has its own defence agenda and participates modestly in NATO operations.

So, considering that the Netherlands may well reach a top position on the geopolitical European scene, with its new defence capacities, Amsterdam has given itself a little more time, to make sure it got the biggest possible bang for its buck. Defense News Sebastian Sprenger writes: “The Dutch government has postponed a supplier decision to replace its four Walrus submarines, telling parliament that further study of the issue is needed until the summer. The development, announced in a letter late last month by State Secretary for Defence Barbara Visser, comes as some expected a decision this spring. Government officials now say they need more time to study the competitors’ latest offers related to domestic industry participation in their proposals.

That matter deserved to be examined in detail. A one-on-one agreement between Dutch shipyards Damen and Amsterdam did make some sense, economically speaking, as submarine programs represent large sums, which domestic economies could benefit in return. It makes far less sense, industrially speaking, as Damen has no experience whatsoever in submarine building – only in surface ships, which uses very different technology. Damen aims to fill the large technological gap with its Swedish partner Saab-Kockums, forgetting that TKMS left Kockums in a dire state, both technologically and industrially. Reducing the sub-replacement program to a financial and industrial affair would be missing the entire point. Submarines supply countries with sovereignty and power – going national for the sake of money would quickly lead Amsterdam to miss the strategic opportunity it is facing. On the contrary, this purchase could be an opportunity to renew strategic and historic ties between partner countries.

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