DAMEN Schelde: still a Naval shipbuilder?

The Dutch DAMEN group is one of the wealthiest heirs of the European shipbuilding industry. One of the rare survivors also…

32 yards worldwide, 9 000 employees, and 2bn € annual turnover: the survivor, a 90-year-old-man looks quite healthy and by the way is! (1).

His secret, except a high professional skill in ships engineering, could be just to stand where the others are not. which over the past decades of a mobile maritime world required a touch of flexibility.

The rewarding DAMEN niche is any new building except merchant carriers, cruise liners…and naval combat vessels. By the way, going through the record of the DAMEN orders or deliveries in second half of 2017 requires a fair knowledge in ‘poetical’ maritime terminology, e.g (2):

  •  one sand replenishment vessel,
  • several dredges,
  • thirteen tugs,
  • one ice-breaker,
  • four crew boats,
  • one landing craft,
  • one fisheries research vessel,
  • two rescue boats,
  • multicast, stan pontoons,
  • pusher tugs,
  • side-floaters for a gas processing plant,
  • one cable ship,
  • trawlers,
  •  two yachts,
  • one sail training ship,
  • several barges ,
  • service boats,
  • one military offshore-patrol-vessel (OPV)…..so-called ‘frigate’.

 

The genius of DAMEN…

 

The genius of the DAMEN managers was first a technical breakthrough: the modular building concept, enabling to best meet the customer wishes at reasonable cost; particularly suited to all kinds of service boats, it made a widening gap with more traditional competitors.

Another talent of DAMEN was to purchase all over the world those number of yards gone broke by the Asian newcomers or served by the cheapest  workforce  ever; then to turn them into repair or service yards governed by the Dutch mother- house engineering.

None of them was active however in the area of combat vessels except the Dutch Navy traditional naval yard ROYAL SCHELDE purchased by DAMEN in the year 2001.

By doing so the DAMEN tactics was to put its foot in the profitable market of naval military vessels, with at least the prospect of the Dutch Navy taken hostage…

Probably the wrong time to do it!

 

DAMEN: A shipyard, yes, but a real Naval one?

 

The Dutch Navy like other European ones was then starting a long run of budget restrictions, MOD directed, following the post cold war European politics, as defined by a former European Foreign Affairs Minister: “Let us collect the dividends of peace”.

In the Netherlands Navy, the result was clear cut as regard combat ships: no order since the commissioning of the 4 x type “De Zeven Provincien” frigates in 2002, following the 8 x M frigates of 1993. Total 6 frigates remain now operational (3), to be replaced in the next 10 years.

A likely major  problem for the Dutch MOD and Admiralty, is now where to find in the Netherlands the credible Prime Contractor capable to achieve a new design meeting the operational specifications, then  to build , test, try and deliver the ships in due time and for a fixed price.

A combat ship achievement requires quite specific capacities, engineering and experience. They deal with naval ships architecture and combat system integration. The platform needs shock resistance, light and flexible hull, silent propulsion system, typical damage control, compactness, stealth including radiated noise reduction with advanced flexible mountings, minimized cross radar section, reduced thermal and IR emission etc.

As regard combat system, there is more to perform than simply add modern sensors, CMS and weapons, plus ammunition storage. Their functional integration and above all integration with the platform, particularly the complex achievement of electromagnetic compatibility (EMC), are key issues, out of the scope of commercial projects far from the blue water navies problems.

Obviously, DAMEN SCHELDE is not qualified for first rank combat vessels: design of the yard last frigate dates back to 25 years (4), delivery of the lead ship 15 years. They must team up with an experienced foreign naval yard to produce navy standards combat ships.

Yet DAMEN would claim that since the purchase of Royal Schelde, they have produced a certain number of military ships to several navies:

  • 4 offshore patrol ships (PSO) ordered in 2007 by the Netherlands. ‘The role of the ships is to conduct low-intensity military operations including maritime interdiction, counter-terrorism, and humanitarian assistance‘ (5);
  • 3 OPV, so-called ‘corvettes’, ordered in 2008 ‘to extend the patrol capabilities of the Moroccan Navy‘ (6);
  • 4 OPV, so-called ‘corvette’s, ordered in 2004 and 2007 by the Indonesian Navy. ‘The role of the ships is to conduct coastal security operations‘ (7);
  • 2 OPV, so-called ‘frigates’, ordered in 2012 by the Indonesian Navy. ‘At the moment, platforms are armed only with the main gun, while other weapon systems are ‘fitted for but not with’ ‘ (8);
  • 1 OPV, same as previous one ordered by the Mexican Navy in 2017. ‘Similar to Indonesia’s Martadinata-class frigates‘ (9)

 All those patrol vessels, built basically on commercial standards, are of great interest for navies and coast-guards in charge of police missions in peace-time (the ‘low intensity military operations identified by Jane’s). They also are quite valuable for training duties. Designed and produced on commercial purpose, primarily to be cheap, and not for war naval operations, they probably brought appreciable cash to DAMEN; but in no way the capacity to design and build a new combat ship for a first rank NATO Navy.

It is thus not a coincidence if demanding navies such as Egypt or the UAE have recently preferred Naval Group’s Gowind corvettes after Malaysia. 

 

European Navies tomorrow 

 

ASuW, ASW and AAW missions will certainly be essential capabilities for the next generation of Dutch frigates. They should be produced by shipyards from those countries where blue-water naval forces have been maintained operational since WW2, even after the fall of the Berlin wall. There only, can be found the necessary naval engineering excellence required by naval warfare.

A number of the European navies, mastering the waves in the past, have been brought back into port by short- sighted politicians. They presently face the fading out of their shipbuilding industry or at least a significant loss of naval capacity.

Now, when the need of building new warships legitimately arises in Europe, navies should turn to those few shipyards which have been forced by their mother-navies and helped by export programs, never to halt production of real warships for tomorrow.

Such is the case for the future frigates program shared by Belgium and the Netherlands. It may explain why DAMEN is teaming up with the German Blohm &Voss, now Lürssen, in the German MKS 180 contest.

It may also account for the rumour that the MKS 180 could be not only the German Navy future frigates but also the Belgian and Netherlands ones. 

 

TKMS and Naval Group, the last true Naval yards in Europe

 

To be fair, most of the shipyards in Europe are in the same situation:

  1. the British BAE SYSTEMS being in the same position as DAMEN (last Type 23 frigate designed 34 years ago and first of class commissioned 27 years ago) (10),
  2. the Spanish  NAVANTIA being a cheap U.S. Naval yard,
  3. the Italian Fincantieri under the French and/or US flag.

 

At the end of the day, TKMS (Germany) and the  NAVAL GROUP (France) remain the latest mandatory European partners for the DAMEN challenge to provide the Netherland Navy with its next frigates…

 

 


(1): DAMEN SHIPYARDS GROUP Facts and figures. colophon© 08-2015 Damen shipyard.

(2): French collection, ‘Mer & Marine’, articles from 20-06-2017 to 22-01-2018.

(3): Jane’s Fighting Ships 09-June-2017. 

(4): Ibid.

(5): Jane’s Fighting Ships 19-Jan-2018.

(6): Ibid, 14-Nov-2017.

(7): Ibid, 8-Feb-2017. 

(8): Ibid , 19-Jan-2018. 

(9): Ibid , 13-Nov-2017. 

(10): Jane’s Fighting Ships 10-Jan-2018. 

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