The Rutte Cabinet has been putting off the decision on four new submarines for weeks, and is avoiding a choice between Dutch or French boats. At the end of last year, the Cabinet decided in the Defense Industry Strategy to prioritize its own industry, just like other European countries do. But when it comes to actual decisions, the ministers don’t dare offend Paris, Elsevier newsweekly reported Saturday.
Apparently, the government is afraid of a new confrontation with the government of President Emmanuel Macron after the earlier dispute about the shares of Air France / KLM. To the anger of the French, CDA Minister of Finance Wopke Hoekstra quietly acquired a 14 percent stake in the airline company six weeks ago, to get as much control over investment decisions as the French government. The minister called this a matter of national importance.
Replacement of current submarines is 2.5 to 3.5 billion euros
The replacement of the Dutch Navy’s current Walrus-class submarines involves big money. "More than 2.5 billion euros," as officially stated. Sources around the Ministry of Defense are talking about 3.5 billion euros, said Elsevier. Prime Minister Mark Rutte (VVD) says that “we will simply buy the best kit for the best price.” But it’s not that simple. National interests also play a role here: technological know-how, the continued existence of national naval construction, and a Dutch Royal Navy that is not dependent on what foreign arms producers are allowed to deliver.
The new submarines do not yet exist, but have yet to be developed. A German and a Spanish shipyard are also competing for the order, but insiders told Elsevier it has come to a contest between France’s Naval Group (in collaboration with the Dutch Royal IHC) and Damen Schelde (jointly with Sweden’s Saab).
The expectation was that VVD State Secretary Barbara Visser would send a so-called B letter to parliament in March, announcing the industrial project and, in particular, the model that the Defense Ministry had chosen. But the case was delayed. In an official porch of the Council of Ministers, defense officials recently pushed for a decision in favor of Damen, but according to sources officials from other ministries were bothered. As a way to lower the price, it was suggested that Damen and Naval could compete with each other for a few more years. And, anyway, it was diplomatically difficult to pass over the French yard, after all the fuss about the Air France / KLM shares.
Eight years for the development and construction of new submarines is very short
The four new submarines must be put into service from 2027. That seems like forever, but eight years is very short for developing and building a new type. With their hundreds of thousands of parts, submarines are extremely complicated.
The four current submarines have been in service for around thirty years. Their sensors have been modernized a few times, but the diesel-electric drive will be worn out in about eight years, and then you cannot call the ANWB while on a secret mission off the coast of Syria or in the Persian Gulf to come and tinker. That is why time is running out, and in naval circles people are waiting for the cabinet to make the decision.
Submarines are by definition secret and so you rarely hear anything about them. This raises the question why the Netherlands should actually have them. But the cabinet has no doubt about it: The four boats of the Walrus class, with their torpedoes, are the most powerful weapon of the armed forces. They can sink an aircraft carrier. But especially as an espionage platform, Zr Ms Walrus, Zeeleeuw, Dolfijn and Bruinvis have proven their worth.
Some NATO allies have large nuclear submarines that they use to navigate the oceans or they have small submarines that only operate in shallow waters close to home. The Walrus class is in between: the four boats can spy unseen and silently in shallow coastal waters at up to 6,000 kilometers from [the main Dutch naval base at] Den Helder. In exchange for this information, in recent years the Netherlands has received information from friendly countries that could protect its own soldiers and population.
"The intelligence world is and remains a barter trade where you only get something if you have something to offer yourself," says a source. In short, with that billion-dollar decision for new submarines, The Hague will be buying safety for the coming decades.
Damen Scheldewerf in Vlissingen is the preferred supplier
In defense circles there is a preference for Damen Scheldewerf in Vlissingen as a supplier. In this way the Netherlands can maintain its own naval shipbuilding. To be able to continue to innovate, the government must act as the “first customer.” Damen also provides export possibilities of the new submarine type in the long term.
The Naval Group builds - compared to Damen – many more submarines, especially for the French navy. It wants to supply the Netherlands with a variant of the Barracuda nuclear-powered submarine. However, this type is larger and, according to insiders, less silent than what Damen could deliver.
Next week the issue will be discussed in a meeting between the ministers that are directly involved: the prime minister and his ministers and state secretaries of Defense, Foreign Affairs, Economic Affairs and Finance.
The signs are that they will not make a definitive choice for Damen de Schelde for the time being, Elsevier concluded.