European defence industry cooperation is progressing in land and air systems, but naval construction is lagging behind, according to DNV. However, the fact that Germany and the Netherlands now seem to have found each other in this, is a step in the right direction to strengthen the industry as a whole.

This article was submitted to SWZ|Maritime to coincide with the publication of our Navy special magazine later this week. It was written by Christian Freiherr von Oldershausen, Vice President, Segment Director Navy & Government Vessels DNV and Marcel Hendriks Navy Captain and former Naval Attaché in Berlin.

Last summer, the German Ministry of Defence signed a contract with Damen Naval Shipyards, Thales and Lürssen Werft for the construction of four F126 (formerly known as MKS 180) frigates. The fact that a Dutch shipyard was contracted as one of the main contractors caused a great deal of controversy.

Understandable, because in addition to the possible wounded national pride, there was the fear that work and knowledge would be lost in Germany. All the more worrying because naval construction in Germany, like in the Netherlands, is seen as a key technology. Technology that is inherently linked to the ability to equip its own armed forces with the best available military equipment.

Cooperation on frigates

Nevertheless, the Bundesministerium der Verteidigung (German Ministry of Defence) felt that European tendering and the award of the F126 contract to Damen Schelde Naval Shipyards was the best choice to provide the German Navy with the best ships at the lowest price. In addition, it could broaden European naval construction. Already upon signing the contract, the Dutch State Secretary of Defence Mrs Barbara Visser and her German counterpart Benedikt Zimmer agreed on further consultations.

They did not waste any time. On 17 December 2020, both countries signed an agreement for further cooperation. They are going to cooperate on research, development and acquisition for the replacement of the Dutch Air Defence and Command frigates and the German F 124 Sachsen frigates. The countries will also work on joint operational requirements.

Army and operational cooperation

Germany and the Netherlands have already been working together militarily for a long time. This is particularly evident in the cooperation between the German and Dutch armies. There are integrated and composite units such as the joint German/Dutch army corps headquarters in Münster. And the Royal Netherlands Army uses much German or German/Dutch equipment such as the Leopard 2, Panzerhaubitze 2000, Boxer and the Fennek.

The German and Dutch Navy have also strengthened their operational cooperation in recent years. For example, the Seebattaillon and the Marine Corps have been making joint use of the amphibious ships of the Royal Netherlands Navy since 2018.

But the cooperation in the field of equipment is much older. The Bremen class frigates are largely based on the design of the Dutch Kortenaer class. The last ship of the Bremen class, FGS Lübeck, is still operational. The Sachsen class (F124) and the Air Defence and Command frigates have a unique German-Dutch Anti-Air Warfare system. On the basis of the Naval Ship Cooperation MoU, the two ministries have been meeting regularly since 1990 to share knowledge and experience. The German and Dutch Navy often use the same test sites and have a joint knowledge centre: the Centre of Ship Signature Management in Kiel.”

European effort to strengthen Europe’s military power

The European procurement of the F126 frigate, and the new German-Dutch agreements to cooperate in the construction of new frigates, is part of a much broader European effort to strengthen Europe’s military power and make its defence industry more capable. The need is felt by all, but must always compete with the reflex to lend a helping hand to the traditionally nationally oriented defence industry with EU Article 346.

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Where Europe and the individual member states are hesitantly looking for a way to a more effective defence industry, the defence industry itself is often already taking the initiative. Step by step, national companies are already transforming into European defence multinationals. Airbus, MBDA, Nexter, Thales, Rheinmetall/BAE Land Systems have merged many German, French, Italian, British, Spanish and Dutch defence companies. This helps to move from different weapon systems to, for example, one European tank, one fighter jet, one tanker aircraft, etc. And it also helps the European defence industry to become more decisive on the export market.

One type of ship is a bridge too far

Where this development in land and air systems has gained momentum, naval architecture remains nationally oriented and at best limited to occasional collaborations such as in the development of the French-Italian Fremm frigates. With support from the European instrument PESCO, France, Greece, Italy and Spain are currently working on the development of a “European Patrol Corvette”. When cooperation becomes more structural, it is expected that there will be a northern and a southern oriented naval construction effort.

Despite the perceived need for more European cooperation in naval construction, this will not happen quickly for a variety of reasons. In their recent agreement, Germany and the Netherlands do not focus on the construction of one type of ship either. This is a bridge too far, because Germany and the Netherlands have different standards. For example, when it comes to the standards for crew accommodation. These are considerably higher in Germany than in the Netherlands. Partly for that reason, a German frigate will be larger and have a different layout than its Dutch counterpart.

Also read: European naval shipbuilding in search of synergy

Compatible in practice

The combat value of a warship, however, is not determined by standards of accommodation but by its seaworthiness, combat power, propulsion and propulsive power. In this respect, the German Navy and the Royal Netherlands Navy can cooperate perfectly because they know each other and largely follow the same NATO procedures and rules.

The industry in both countries, which is organised in the Stichting Nederlandse Industrie voor Defensie en Veiligheid (NIDV) and the Bundesverband der Deutschen Sicherheits- und Verteidigungsindustrie (BDSV), has also proved to be compatible in practice. The German and Dutch industries are highly complementary and can equip a new frigate almost entirely on their own.

An intelligent German-Dutch selection of SEWACO (sensor, weapon and command) and Platform systems is not easy, but it is possible. And therein lies the big profit for the navies and the industry.

Involving companies organised across borders

Despite the recent agreement between both ministries of Defence and all the good intentions that go with it, cooperation does not come naturally. The countries and their maritime industries are traditionally used to build their own naval vessels. Both have shipyards and knowledge companies with a long tradition of doing things the way they are used to, and in this they usually do not disappoint their clients.

Cooperation can be greatly helped by involving organisations and companies that are already organised across borders. DNV is such an international company. With headquarters in Norway, Germany and the Netherlands, it is a world player when it comes to consultancy and independent verification in the maritime, oil and gas, energy, business-assurance and digital sectors.

A diversity of knowledge and expertise areas that will gain importance in the coming years, partly due to the need to switch from fossil fuels to alternative fuels and technologies, also in the defence sector. It is an enormous challenge in which all available intellectual capacity must be mobilised, both nationally and internationally.

DNV is no stranger to the Royal Netherlands Navy. The patrol vessels of the Holland class and the Joint Support Ship HNLMS Karel Doorman were built under DNV class. The new supply ship, NNLMS Den Helder, is also being built under DNV class. In the German Navy, DNV has been contracted time and again as the class agency for the realisation of major projects, such as the frigates F123, F124, F125, the corvettes K130 (with the second series, the naval construction standard BV1040 for the hull was no longer used, but the DNV Naval Rules applied), the EGVs (naval support vessels) of the Berlin class and now the four frigates of type F126.

Playing a role on the world stage

What is it all about? Europe must continue to have a force that can protect it from those who threaten it and play a role on the world stage that is commensurate with its position as an economic powerhouse. Defence industry cooperation is progressing in land and air systems, but naval construction is lagging behind. The agreement between the Netherlands and Germany to cooperate on the replacement of frigates is therefore of great importance to the maritime and supplying industry.

Picture: The F126 frigate Damen will build for Germany (by Damen).