A tribune by Ulf Dahl (of the local newspaper ‘Kieler Nachrichten’) on the MKS-180 project of the Navy, has attracted our attention. Why? Simply because we have read the usual clichés on the German naval sector, its competitors and what we call in Germany the ‘Zeitgeist’, the current atmosphere around this mega-project.
Review of clichés and facts.
Cliché n°1: the mismanagement of all naval projects in Germany.
Having written some articles on this topic in the past in these columns, we will not put in question the remarks of Mr. Dahl, but simply put them into a perspective he did not see.
- First perspective: a Naval project is a team-work.
Whatever the project, it is always designed, managed and controlled by a special dedicated team. The Navy specifies the requirement and the industry translates it into a proposal which is accepted or not. The German Naval shipyards are not the only ones to design, produce and launch a ship. The Navy along with the BAAiNBw is also responsible from the very beginning of the design, the specifications and the controls of quality. She intervenes in all the steps of the project and has never hesitated in the past to change some capabilities, systems or sub-systems at the expense of costs, delays and performance.
- Second perspective: an industrial basis needs domestic orders.
The German defence budget has been so strained during decades that the consequences are easy to follow: extinction of technical expertise and rapid aging of infrastructures.
Where all the European navies have launched ambitious naval programs (T-45, heavy frigates, aircraft-carriers and frigates in UK; SSN, SSBN, LPDS and frigates in France; a € 5.4Bn legge Navale in Italy; re-launch of the submarine activities in Sweden…), in Germany, the Navy was unable to launch any ambitious program, has desperately fought to keep her budget alive. The RDT&E budget has not followed either, explaining the technical gaps. The F-124 and the K130 programs (both combining TKMS and Lürssen) have been mismanaged, but the first responsibility is the MoD’s one. If Germany is so little concerned by the fate of its Navy, it is largely because it has no word-wide ambitions. The real source of the problem lies here.
Even France which suffers from chronic budget constraints, both in terms of initial volume and real-time execution, has found the means to maintain its Navy at a very operational tempo, while supporting its industrial naval base, simply because it has a role to play in the world, and because the Navy is a big part of it.
What is Germany’s role? One can notice that when a Navy knows what she wants, she gets it: Take the Algerian, Egyptian and Israeli Navies which ordered ships with special capabilities and systems: all their programs are on track in Germany in German Naval shipyards in Kiel. Does the German Navy really know what she wants to get? The industry has heavily (and on its own initiative) modernize its infrastructures: GNY-K has spent €100m in a decade to update its aging infrastructures, and TKMS has recently announced a €250m program to be at the top of submarine construction in Europe.
Did the Navy undertake such ambitious programs in her technical centers of expertise?
- Third perspective: a naval project is always complex.
Whatever the domain (submarine of surface Fleet), all naval projects are complex because sea is a dangerous playground. So taking time to think about all the specifications in terms of capabilities, systems and sub-systems, is a wasted time and is by no means a sign that this or that Naval shipyards will win or lose. This is the kind of speculation we can read when the competition is hot and stakes are high, but it is a pure and unfounded speculation, essentially designed to advantage one competitor at the expense of the other one.
Cliché n°2: non-German shipyards are better
Mr. Dahl quotes without naming it the Dutch private shipyards, Damen, as being more efficient (both in terms of delay and costs) than any German Naval shipyards. The examples he names seem impressive: Indonesia, Mexico, Morocco, Pakistan…
In some articles (all highly discussed by Dutch newspapers), DefenceChronicles has tried to professionally evaluate the expertise of Damen in highly-complex Naval ships, based not on civilian standards or a mix of commercial and military standards, but on pure hard military specifications.
Truth is that Damen has not this experience, unlike many other European shipyards, not by incompetence but simply by lacking of such domestic and demanding orders so far. The Dutch Navy has not ordered modern and sophisticated ships for nearly two decades. The SIGMA family is a commercial success outside NATO, but it is based on a mix of commercial and military standards: ‘SIGMA vessels are designed in a modular way, using standardised solutions with commercial off-the-shelf equipment where possible, enhanced by military standards where needed. This approach enables customers to compose their own SIGMA design based on proven solution’.
If German Naval shipyards (TKMS and Lürssen) have met difficulties in past programs (F-124 frigates and K-130 corvettes), Damen is also currently in trouble as some Dutch newspapers have recently unveiled it.
Cliché n°3: competition will bring benefits
Mr. Dahl has right in calling for competition in general, but wrong in military projects. What is at stake is not commercial stuff, but highly-sophisticated naval ships that should sail and maybe one day, fight. That is why competition is harmful in military projects: the demanding levels of RTD&E require a monopoly, because it is very expensive and cannot be duplicated in long series.
In Germany, the monopoly in military projects has always been mitigated with the set-up of a consortium of German companies. In the Land and Naval domains, the prime contractor is not alone: here again, this is a team-work, so far, reserved to German companies. The strangest decision that Mrs. Von der Leyen and Mrs. Suder took, was to open the competition to non-European competitors, thus destroying the unity of German naval expertise by dividing it into opposite consortia. This harmful policy, designed only to send a signal to TKMS and Lürssen (to mention them), is currently and fortunately being reversed.
In a previous article (‘German Defence procurement : a radical U-turn‘), DefenceChronicles has analyzed the bill recently introduced by the BMWi and validated by the Cabinet: this bill – that has yet to be discussed by the Bundestag-, will at last integrate the technologies used in Naval surface design & construction in the corpus of strategic technologies, and will exempt from European tenders sensitive and strategic projects needed for German national security.
What all the German Naval shipyards want, is simply that the Cabinet anticipates the future rules of that bill, by favoring the German naval expertise, and not financing competitor’s one.
Time changes fast in Germany: old clichés are outdated. Facts based on common sense should – at last!- prevail in the near future. This is a lesson for all Europe.