Dutch shipyards Damen seems to be angling to take the lead on the submarine replacement program which is set to be launched in two years. Inexperienced in submarine building, Damen would subcontract the actual building to Saab-owned Kockums shipyards in Malmö, Sweden. But the partnership may have difficulties fulfilling the Netherlands’ submarine ambitions.
Built with revolutionary steel, the Walrus had a wonderful career, despite development problems linked to the mounting complexity of submarines and the Netherlands relative inexperience in submersible design. Under the command of skilled naval officers, the Walrus submarines quickly built a reputation as fearsome defenders of European coasts and Northern waters, which are regularly infiltrated by Russian subs.
But after 30 years of active service, the Netherlands needs a new fleet to maintain its strategic power in Europe and within NATO. Jane’s reporter Nicholas Fiorenza writes: “The Royal Netherlands Navy (RNLN) […] Walrus-class diesel submarines will also be replaced after the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) concluded that unmanned submarines were not up to the task, as well as being too expensive.”
A number of potential contenders have already shown interest in responding to the request for proposals. Among them, Dutch shipyards Damen hopes to take the lead on the project and be the central coordinator. The only trouble is: Damen has no experience in submarine building, whereas submarine technology has steadily been gaining complexity in past decades.
A project undertaken and run by a rookie on the market, aiming straight away for the most complex type of program, would therefore place the project under considerable risk. To make matters worse, the Dutch Navy has already had a taste of how complex submarine projects can go sideways, when the Walrus submarines accumulated deadline and budget overruns. Once burnt, twice cautious.
Not having the experience or the building capacities to fulfil the contract on its own, Damen has turned to Swedish firm Saab, who recently acquired Kockums after a long partnership with German shipyards TKMS. Navy recognition published: “Saab and Dutch shipbuilder Damen Shipyards Group have joined forces to develop an expeditionary submarine for the Netherland´s Walrus Replacement Programme (WRES), the two companies stated at Euronaval 2018 exhibition in Paris, France.”
The Swedes have a little more experience in submarine building. The current Swede submarine fleet is composed of home-built Gotland, which are considered good ships. However, because these warships were built for the domestic navy, the national shipyards got a blank check and unlimited support from their government.
In the real-world situation, which is to say export sales, the only other submarine built did not amount to much: the sale of Collins-class submarines to the Australian navy was plagued with youth marks and operational problems, leading to the replacement of Australian subs.
Finally, to build subs suitable for the Dutch navy would be for Saab a large jump in the magnitude of the project: Dutch Walrus class subs are almost twice the size of Swedish Gotland class, and the Netherlands are not expected to downsize their navy anytime soon.
In a damning report, the Australian National Audit Office gave a textbook example of submarine management programs going wrong, after the woeful experience of buying and sailing the Collins-class built by Kockums, now owned by Saab, and who will be the shipbuilder if the Damen-Saab is selected.
It published in 2009: “Defence advised the ANAO that additional factors affecting maintenance requirements have included: an inadequate initial maintenance regime; an inadequate Integrated Logistics Support regime; poor systems reliability; the need to rely on Design Authorities and Original Equipment Manufacturers located offshore; that the contemporary technical regulatory frameworks applying to the Collins-class and its systems, which provide confidence that platforms are safe, are significantly more stringent than those that applied to the Oberon Class submarines; and the extensive technical knowledge and comprehension that is required because the RAN is the ‘Parent Navy’ for the Collins-class submarines”.
More importantly, the Dutch need to be careful not to commit a classic mistake in submarine programs: underestimating the need for strong partnerships. Due to the immense complexity of such programs, thousands of suppliers and parts are to be coordinated and integrated.
In addition, the partnership cannot be undone as soon as the ship hits the water: the shipyard’s engineers will need to stick around all through the sub’s career to provide adequate maintenance and guide the program through upgrades. A new two-headed consortium at the head of the wide-scale program, with one partner inexperienced, and the other with ancient and limited experience, would place the lifespan of the future Dutch subs under high jeopardy.
Any observer on the market, despite not knowing the exact figure, can guess that big money will soon be allocated to the submarine replacement program. Damen needs to make sure it doesn’t give in to the temptation of biting off bigger than it can chew.
Given how important submarine capacities are to the Netherlands, it is very likely that the project will be more complex than a rookie engineering firm on the market could ever handle. Even with the help of Saab, undertaking such a project is a gamble. And if the wrong partnership is chosen to build the subs, the Netherlands will be stuck with the consequences for decades.