One of the three criteria for the replacement of the four Walrus-class submarines was that the project would lead to a strengthening of the Dutch defence industry. With no firm commitment on the extent of the role of Dutch companies in the construction of the new submarines and future maintenance during the expected more than 30-year life span, the Cabinet’s choice of Naval Group acts contrary to the Cabinet and House of Representatives’ own principles of the award process.

This article will also appear in Dutch in SWZ|Maritime’s April 2024 issue under the heading of Markets and was written by:

Jaap Huisman, who has held various positions at the Royal Netherlands Navy and the Ministry of Defence and was involved in shipbuilding projects for the Navy, Huisman
Wouter Kruijt, was involved in the development and construction of the Royal Netherlands Navy’s Walrus and M frigate, then worked in the maritime sector at RH Marine, IHC and Huisman Equipment, among others, including on the submarine replacement project, Kruijt

A November 2022 letter to the House of Representatives on the Defence Industry Strategy states that the cabinet will work to strengthen, protect and (internationally) position the Netherlands Defence Technological & Industrial Base (NLDTIB). The NLDTIB should contribute to the transformation of the armed forces into a smarter, more technologically advanced organisation.

The NLDTIB should also be an important added value in strengthening the Netherlands’ strategic autonomy. Therefore, the submarine replacement project should have been an excellent opportunity to realise the strengthening of the NLDTIB and position it internationally. However, the big question is whether the Cabinet’s proposed decision of Friday 15 March to partner Naval Group will support this policy.

Also read: Dutch submarine contract provisionally awarded to Naval

More questions than answers

In the documents now before us from the Secretary of State of Defence Mr C.A. van der Maat, no concrete technical information is provided on the deal with Naval, nor on the main alternative – the Saab/Damen bid – nor on a possible deal with Germany’s ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (tkMS). Nor what the required “Industrial Cooperation Agreement” has to say about these three bids and what standards it sets. That means it is hardly possible to criticise the decision.

However, the letter from the Secretary of State to the House of Representatives does show that the decision was made on the basis of only two green traffic lights; the essential third green traffic light (the Industrial Cooperation Agreement) is not yet in place, which isn’t good news for Dutch industrial involvement.

It also appears that maintenance in the Netherlands by Dutch companies is difficult, if not impossible, and absolutely impossible without French Naval. Announcing Naval as the rightful big winner therefore gives a misleading picture, according to this letter.

To strengthen the NLDTIB and certainly also to enable the expected future maintenance of the submarines in the Netherlands, it remains crucial to ensure transfer of technology. To this end, it is necessary to involve Dutch industry in construction by, among other things, supplying high-tech systems. This is – according to our information – almost certainly guaranteed in the Saab Kockums/Damen bid. While this remains extremely uncertain and shadowy in Naval Group’s proposal.

Dutch industry really does have something to offer

Dutch companies and research institutes with specialist knowledge and skills in the field of underwater technology have united as a knowledge platform in the Dutch Underwater Knowledge Centre (DUKC). The DUKC stands for the preservation, development and positioning of knowledge and skills among the existing underwater industry and related research institutes. DUKC is committed to constant involvement in the maintenance of our submarines and future replacement programmes. IHC was not a member of DUKC until it joined only recently.

Under the project management of the Directorate of Materiel Maintenance (DMI in Den Helder), the companies united in the DUKC have proven to be very capable of carrying out a comprehensive, major capability upkeep of the Walrus class. And that is a comprehensive project. For example, in cooperation with DUKC member companies, a new type of periscope, new platform automation and many other systems have been installed.

Huisman Equipment in Schiedam was recently certified by Saab Kockums to handle the construction of the pressure hull, a critical component for the construction of a submarine. As a result, the company can now also engage Huisman for the construction of new Swedish A-26 submarines. Nevesbu Naval Architects & Platform System Integrators in Alblasserdam designed the complex front bulkhead for the Spanish navy.

With extensive knowledge of automation and electrical installations, RH Marine is perfectly capable of delivering the most advanced automation systems. RH Marine (and its legal predecessors) has been supplying numerous Royal Navy ships with electrical installations since 1889 and still does their maintenance. Research institute MARIN in Wageningen has conducted research for the French Navy on the manoeuvring characteristics of a more generic French boat under a variety of conditions. And also has experience in developing an optimal low-noise propeller design, vital for boat safety.

The complexity of a submarine, however, lies mainly in the integration of all systems into a well-functioning total operational system in a limited space in which all aspects such as the right balance between displacement and weight, shock resistance, underwater noise, fire safety and diving depth are met within the constraints of time and money. And so in this tender, the choice was made to place that final responsibility with an experienced yard in this field.

Saab Kockums/Damen Group’s tender provides for the majority of the outfitting to take place at Damen Naval in Vlissingen. This proposal guarantees the transfer of crucial technology necessary for this and also allows more than fifty per cent of the newbuilding order turnover to end up in the Netherlands. The latter principle is also guaranteed by German tkMS for the delivery of submarines to Italy (U 214) and the submarines the Germans will build for Norway.

Damen itself has also gained great experience in international projects, currently building four frigates for the German navy at a shipyard in Germany as part of the F124 project.

Also read: Saab and Damen offer Dutch submarine design for export

Complete redesign

Naval’s design is obviously not finished. The existing design of the nuclear submarine “Barracuda” still needs to be modified in many ways for the Royal Netherlands Navy, with the propulsion system being the most significant change. According to unconfirmed reports, lithium batteries will be used for this purpose, which will certainly also require changes to the main dimensions.

In any case, this means an almost complete redesign of the boat, as the dimensions (length and diameter) will also be substantially modified. How far Naval Group has progressed with this is unknown, clearly it will be a new design. Besides the unique tasks this class of submarine has to perform, this could lead to uncertainty about engineering, planning and costs.

No level playing field

There are larger strategic interests involved in this project in a Europe in urgent need of consolidation of European naval shipbuilding. However, the choice of French Naval is contrary to the development of the “Northern Naval Shipbuilding Cooperation” previously entered into by the Dutch Ministry of Defence in cooperation with the Nordic countries.

Important in this is that it takes into account the now truly existing differences in culture between different parts of Europe and between individual countries. The new equipment of the Royal Netherlands Navy’s Mine Service is already entirely French-made (without any contribution from Dutch companies). But however real and important cultural differences are, they are not mentioned in the specifications.

It is more important to note, that the state-owned Naval Group undoubtedly enjoyed certain advantages in this tender process due to coordinated action by the French state to pull out all the stops to win this important order. Therefore, unlike the private bidders Saab/Damen and tkMS, there was no level playing field in the tender.

The aforementioned letter to the Parliament indicates that the defence market is characterised by ‘fragmentation, often closed national markets and, above all, lack of a level playing field’. And also that it is important to protect the self-creating defence industries, including Damen Naval. This proposed choice for the French bid will certainly not achieve that.

On the contrary, damage will be done to the NLDTIB, which is considered so important. But perhaps more importantly, as things stand, the choice of French Naval will violate the tender’s requirement of strategic autonomy by being able to maintain the new submarines in the Netherlands; this is abundantly clear from the State Secretary’s letter of 15 March to the House of Representatives. And that is not acceptable.

Cartoon by Hans de Wilde/SWZ|Maritime.

Also read: Damen on submarine contract award: ‘Foundation of Dutch naval construction swept away’