German-Dutch naval projects: no pivotal role for Damen

In an interview published by De Telegraaf,  on the 4th of May, the Chief of the Royal Dutch Navy, Admiral Kramer, had made several comments on issues directly linked to the MKS 180 competition in Germany, and to Damen’s future role.

For Admiral Kramer, the successors of the ‘M’-class (8 frigates commissioned from 1991 to 1995), will be designed and built in the Netherlands (“Ik ga ervan uit dat we dit in Nederland zullen aanbesteden”). The future multi-purpose frigates will be designed by TNO, built by Damen and equipped by Thales Nederland (and certainly, armed with U.S-made naval weapons). He added that the Sate Secretary of Defence, Mrs. Barbara Visser, has conveyed the ‘A’ letter to the Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal, the Dutch Parliament. The ‘A’ letter is the statement of requirement[1], i.e, the basic requirements of the Royal Dutch Navy.

Going further, the Chief of the Navy insists on the importance of the local construction for the Service: ‘De marine is als eerste klant bij innovaties altijd essentieel geweest voor de Nederlandse maritieme sector (…) En dat blijven we. Dat is cruciaal voor het voortbestaan van de Nederlandse militair-maritieme industrie’. (Translation: ‘the Navy has always been the launch customer of any naval innovation of the Dutch industry. We will continue this policy. This is crucial for the future of the Dutch naval industry’).

Putting together, these comments shed new lights on the MKS 180 competition in Germany.

 

No pivotal role for Damen between Germany and the Netherlands

 

First, the naval co-operation with Germany is clearly over. This is not new but fully confirmed now from the Dutch side. The 16th of April, the German MoD stated that it has no intention of searching a G-to-G agreement with the Netherlands for the MKS-180 program (‘Das Ministerium strebe auch kein Government-to-Government-Abkommen » mit den Niederlanden über den Bau des MKS 180 an ‘).

The recent comments of Admiral Kramer thus confirm that both MoDs will follow their own path for the future frigates. The wide cross-purchase (German submarines for the Duch Navy in replacement of the Walrus and Dutch-designed and German-built frigates for the German Navy) which could have been sealed between Berlin and The Hague, has not materialized.

 

Our assumption is that Damen has clearly lost an asset in its German campaign: its pivotal role in these wide cross-purchases. Both Damen and Lürssen in their common letter to German MPs prentended to play this role. This will not happen.

 

No ‘Northern naval axis’ between Damen and Lürssen

 

Secondly, following the guidelines of the White paper published last March which insisted on the protection of the national interests[1], the Dutch Navy has killed the European project of Damen: building a ‘Northern axis’ composed of two family-run shipyards, Damen and Lürssen.

 

In a recent interview[3], Mr. Hein Van Ameijden, CEO of Damen shipyard, publically praised this vision of the naval shipbuilding in Northern Europe under the name « Nordeuropaïsche Variante » as opposed to a ‘Southern axis’ made-up with Naval Group and Fincantieri: « There is a good chance that two European family businesses may work together on the MKS 180 project: DAMEN and LÜRSSEN via B + V [4]. On the other hand it is observed in Europe a strengthening of Governments control over the shipbuilding industry…..According to our analysis, this is a negative trend. Thus we observe two development plans for the consolidation of the European naval industry: the Northern variant with two private shipyards and the Southern variant with a massive State influence based on the taxpayers’ money ».

 

With the breaking of the bilateral co-operation between the two navies, both Berlin and The Hague have also broken the long-term vision of both Damen and Lürssen: with no common ships in Germany and in The Netherlands, the ‘Northern naval axis’ lost its raison d’être.

 

This bilateral co-operation inside the European defence framework (and likely to be extended to Belgium afterwards) was however an important topic highlighted in the famous Damen-Lürssen letter to German MPs (https://www.defencechronicles.eu/exclusive-the-damen-letter-to-the-german-mps-over-the-mks-180/).

 

Damen, back to the start?

 

Thirdly, with no G-to-G agreement to cement a vast Northern alliance which could have prompted a qualitative leap forward for both Damen and Lürssen through the vast flow of RDT&E from both governments (like Berlin and Oslo will do it for their common submarines), Damen will not avoid to face its challenges ahead, which are mainly technical and technological.

 

With an absence of more than 25 years in the building of first-rank vessels for its Navy, Damen has only the experience of the shipbuilding. But, as everybody knows, shipbuilding and naval shipbuilding are two distinct worlds. Shipbuilding produces ships needed by ship-owners to make money by transporting people overseas or carrying the goods of any kind needed by the world economy, or supporting offshore industry, port facilities etc. Although based on up-to-date advanced systems those ships are designed to cost as less as possible and to best meet their particular task, no more. Technically they are transport systems, not combat systems.

 

A modern multipurpose frigate combat system accounts for no less than 60% of the complete ship and the remaining systems and equipment for 25%… which leaves a tiny 15% to the building yard itself. It would be 60% for a civilian service or transport ship.

 

In the Western world, Newport News, Bath Iron Works, BAE Systems’ Clyde or Barrow-in-Furness shipyards, Naval Group, Fincantieri La Spezia, are genuine naval yards, experienced in first-rank combat ships, from aircraft carriers down to frigates, corvettes and submarines of all types. Their design capabilities are partly their own, partly in hands with their Mother Navy customer. Those military yards strictly apply navy standards for combat ships, including: shock resistance, resilience, power redundancy, stealth, radiated noise reduction, IR reduction, weapons delivery systems,  missiles, torpedoes and  ammunition storage, damage control aimed at keeping the fighting capability alive, not at ship evacuation, highly innovative sensors integration with advanced combat management systems, etc. They also have been active at building combat ships since decades or more with no disruption in their order books from their own navy or friendly ones, so that the various typical expertises, skills and experience required by combat ships design and construction are preserved and kept alive.

 

As outlined by Sir John Parker in the UK National Shipbuilding Strategy  (Nov. 2016), « it is only by building ships that we will once again become good at building ships« .  But this « again » means a lot in terms of education, engineering, training, R&D and experience. When too long time passed since the last design file of a real warship is completed and the last of class commissioned, the skilled manpower is gone and the know-how, lost.  If the gap is too wide and sort of restart from scratch necessary, nobody knows how much it will cost to the taxpayer.

 

What Damen tries to put in the minds of the Defence and Navies authorities in Germany,  is that what works for tugs, dredges or sophisticated service boats, transport ships also works for complex naval platforms, but what works in the Netherlands for purely political purposes, could not work in Germany.

 

 

[1]The full-cycle of any procurement case is the following:  the statement of requirements (A letter), the investigation phase (B letter) and any follow up investigation (C letter). Procurement decisions (D letter) will be submitted to the House of Representatives for debate.

[2] We will press for a more open European defence market with a level playing field. » In the case of tendering processes, we will interpret Article 346 of the TFEU (Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union) broadly and thereby take the security interests of the Netherlands into account’ (page 15).

[3] Die Welt 4/03/2018, interview by Olaf Preuss.

[4] Blohm & Voss

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