The Dutch submarine replacement programme is entering the next, so-called Dialogue phase. According to Marnix Krikke of Netherlands Maritime Technology, the project offers opportunities for Dutch maritime suppliers, so long as the Ministry of Defence makes sure they get a fair chance next to the often closed chain of foreign suppliers.

The four Dutch Walrus class submarines are nearing the end of their lifetime. The Dutch government has decided submarines are a capability they want to retain and plans to replace them with four new ones. In an online webinar organised by the Netherlands Enterprise Agency and the Ministry of Defence on 9 March, the project status was discussed as well as the timeline and possible opportunities for Dutch suppliers.

Submarine replacement project timeline

The Dutch submarine replacement programme has entered the Dialogue phase, meaning the government will sit down with the three shipyard combinations still in the race for the at least 2.5-billion euro contract (German ThyssenKrupp, Swedish Saab together with Dutch Damen Shipyards and French Naval Group together with Dutch Royal IHC). The government will discuss their plans and ultimately select one of the three. These discussions will continue until January 2022.

Also read: Dutch Court of Auditors: Submarines require hundreds of millions more

The winning yard will be announced in quarter 3 or 4 of 2022 with the contract to be signed by the end of that year. The first new submarine is to undertake sea trials by the end of 2028. The Walrus class will be phased out from then. In 2031, all four new submarines are to be in operation.

Also read: State Secretary: Speeding up tender for Dutch submarines not an option

Role for suppliers in the Dialogue phase

In addition to the shipyards, the Dialogue phase is also important for Dutch suppliers. The Commissariat for Military Production (CMP) and the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy want to retain strategic knowledge of naval shipbuilding in the Netherlands both because of national security interests and economic interests. They seek to optimise and stimulate industrial cooperation within the current phase.

Erik Janssen, coordinator special projects at CMP: ‘This is the phase to act. CMP is aiming for the greatest possible strategic involvement of the Dutch naval architecture cluster and is asking the shipyards about this. We are also available to facilitate the establishment of contacts. Within the dialogue, we want to ensure that there is a level playing field for all companies and that everyone has access to the same information.’

CMP is aiming for the greatest possible strategic involvement of the Dutch naval architecture cluster

He points out the advantages of participating in such a project. It ensures ‘long-term cooperation with major European yards with a large portfolio in (naval) shipbuilding and with Defence’. There are export opportunities and knowledge and experience is gained about working on a large, complex and international project (‘the Champions League of naval construction’).

Marnix Krikke, Innovation & Human Capital Director at Netherlands Maritime Technology, also says that the project offers many opportunities. In addition to the advantages Janssen mentioned, he points out that companies that participate in the construction often also play a role during the rest of the life cycle, for example in maintenance.

Must be prepared for a long haul

But there are more things to consider. Maarten Lutje Schipholt, Deputy Director of the Netherlands Industries for  Defence and Security Foundation (NIDV) points out that companies must be prepared for a long haul. ‘It involves many systems with a long construction period and a lot of capacity has to be deployed.’ He also emphasises that the State Secretary has already indicated that the desired time frame is under pressure. ‘In addition, we are suffering from corona and it is difficult to talk to each other in depth.’

Janssen adds to that that ‘working in a national security environment also places special demands on security’.

No minimum percentage for Dutch contribution

When asked, Jan Christiaan Dicke, Commissioner of the CMP, stated that no minimum or maximum percentage will be set for Dutch contribution to the project. ‘It is important that the requirements set in relation to national security interests are met by industrial cooperation. And that is to follow logically from the national security interests. But what we are aiming for is optimum involvement of the Dutch naval construction sector.’

The question whether this means that the submarines can also be built in Germany, for example, is answered by Dicke in the affirmative: ‘Optimal involvement means that all mixes are possible. So construction can take place in Germany, France or the Netherlands, but it can also be a mix. Optimal means within the options available.’

Construction can take place in Germany, France or the Netherlands, but it can also be a mix

Is the involvement of Dutch companies included as a criterion? Dicke: ‘No, there are essential national security interests and measures have been defined for these. These measures are now being tested in the Dialogue phase. Depending on how many of those measures will actually become a requirement, the degree of industrial participation will also be determined. So the dialogue phase now is very important.’

When asked how Dutch contribution will be ensured, Dicke answers: ‘It is not about securing. This is a defensive view. We have to think more in terms of: How are we going to create this optimal cooperation? That is now in the Dialogue phase. By properly defining those essential national security interests, a good dialogue phase and by also indicating in that dialogue phase where the Dutch naval architecture cluster can be strengthened. And that is what we will have to challenge the involved shipyards on together and that is what we will do.’

Sector must show what it has to offer

Finally, Krikke makes a plea for the Dutch maritime suppliers and asks Defence to take a position in their selection. ‘Dutch knowledge and expertise still belongs to the top, but it is under pressure’.

Marnix Krikke during the webinar.

He also points out that spin-off and spin-in can lead to a win-win situation. ‘Besides suppliers being able to benefit from Defence knowledge as spin-off, for example in the field of noise mitigation, technology developed by suppliers can also be used in the submarines, the so-called spin-in.’ He mentions sensors and automation as examples.

Perhaps we are too modest as a sector

For Defence, there are also advantages in choosing Dutch suppliers. ‘It is a sizeable pool that can and wants to deliver. They deliver high-quality products and services, are close by and readily available. They can contribute to the strategic autonomy of Defence.’

‘Perhaps we are too modest as a sector. We have much more to offer than is being recognised and we have to show it,’ concludes Krikke. ‘On the other hand, Defence must have an eye for our sector and provide good conditions and prospects. Our suppliers must be given a fair chance alongside the often closed chain of foreign suppliers.’