Navantia: from Saudi Arabia with love

Spain & Saudi Arabia: first, a story of kings and money


The recent Saudi contract of Navantia did not fall from the sky: it is only part of a larger story featuring the Spanish and the Saudi kings.

Here is the background to understand the €1.8Bn contract of Navantia in Saudi Arabia.

The current disclosure of confessions in 2015 by a Danish-German countess, formerly very close to the king of Spain, only recalled the conditions in which in 2011 a major contract for the supply of a high-speed train line between the port of Jeddah and the holy mosques of Medina and Mecca had been executed by the king of Saudi Arabia, custodian of the Holy Mosques, and a Spanish-led consortium (Renfe, Adiz, Talgo).

To clinch such a deal and discard ALSTOM plus SNCF, the technical champions leading the race, the contract was said to have been biased in favor of the Spanish by the royal connection between the two kings and the private interests of their respective close staff.

A recent article published by the French daily La Tribune [1] explained the role behind the stages plaid by the official translator of the kings and businessman, Mohamed Eyad Kayali, and the Spanish ambassador, Mr. Pablo Bravo, to help the Spanish team and later Navantia to clinch juicy contracts.

But long before this article, in 2015, the jet-set countess, Corinna Zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, a close friend to the-then Spanish king, disclosed the royal retribution gained from the lobbying around the deal: around €80m, i.e, a rough 5% of the Talgo contract amount (€1.6Bn out of the €6.736Bn granted to the Al-Shoula consortium to complete the Haramain project).

The Spanish team never exported its national high-speed-train before: the delays and defaults were so numerous that the Saudis threatened to block the naval deal. No wonder that, after this Saudi deal, the Spanish AVE has never been exported elsewhere.


From rails to corvettes: the kings behind the stages


Five years later, facing a disastrous financial situation of its naval shipyards, the fresh young king of Spain flew off to Riyadh, guided and supported by the same political network which had so well served his father. He came and begged his dear Saudi-Arabian royal friends to help him fill the gap of the painful losses[2] made by his Shipbuilding group Navantia, a part of the Spain Defense State Holding Sepi, with a risk of 5,500 job-losses in the shipyards of Ferrol, Cadiz and Cartagena.

This was the start in 2016 of mutual agreement negotiation for the sale by Navantia to the Saudi-Arabian MODA of a batch of corvettes to be designed and built in Spain. A letter of intention signed in April 2018 was turned by July into a contract for the supply of 5 corvettes. The contract amount is around €1.8Bn.

Those future Saudi ships called Avante 2200 displace 2,200t, with a speed of 25 kts. There is no similar, neither equivalent, corvette or frigate of that sort, in the Spanish Navy. They have no other reference than 4 similar units sold to Venezuela in 2011. Their electronical equipment and combat systems will not be supplied by Thales Nederland as it is the case with the Venezuelan ones but to be delivered by Spanish houses of limited experience in the navies.

The Saudi AVANTE will not be first rank vessels, neither at the edge of naval technology but with a valuable gun-power, including an Oto-Melara 76 mm Super-rapid and a 35 mm Contraves Oerlikon guns.

They should be fitted with surface to surface and surface to air missiles still not chosen, either French (Exocet MM 40 and vertical-launched Mica) or from the U.S (Harpoon and Evolved Sea-Sparrow). Very likely they would be U.S in the current political background, also for commonality with those missiles on-board the LCS Freedom frigates recently ordered from Lockheed Martin[3].

Actually, no combat ship of Spanish source being in the current inventory of the Royal Saudi Naval Forces, there is also no strong argument to be found, either technical or operational, or pricewise in favor of the Spanish selection for this corvettes deal. Except maybe an easy green light from the U.S who would supply at least the missiles systems and who control Navantia since decades through Lockheed Martin and Bath Iron Works.


Navantia, a U.S naval shipbuilder on the European coast line ?


Since the early 1980, Navantia built no other combat naval vessels than those designed and supervised by U.S shipyards and fitted with the U.S Navy updated Aegis combat systems and missiles.

Particularly Bath Iron Works, a U.S shipyard controlled by General Dynamics, had transferred to them the Oliver Hazard Perry FFG design which was to become the 6 Spanish frigates Santa Maria.

The following class: F 100 AEGIS frigate design wasproduced by Navantiawith US support, as a close derivative of the US Navy Arleigh Burke [4] destroyers, designed and first of class produced by Bath Iron Works. The F 100 has a full US AEGIS combat system produced by Lockheed Martin& Raytheon and shared with the US Navy. The class includes the 5 Spanish Alvaro de Bazan [5] commissioned from 2002 to 2012, the almost similar 3 Australian Hobart[6] from 2016 to 2018 and the slightly smaller 6 Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen[7] from 2006 to 2011.

Actually, as regards surface ships,since nearly 4 decades and for the long run, barring any unexpected events, the Spanish Navy and Navantiadepend entirely upon an exclusive relationship with the U.S.Navy and the U.S Naval Defense industry: Lockheed Martin Raytheon and Bath Iron Works particularly. At the moment, Navantia also worked in co-operation with them on the FFG (X) project of the US Navy[8] and on the future and delayed F 110 frigate program[9] for Spain, a modernized variant of the present Arleigh Burke/F 100.


Australian ‘Sea 5000’ project: a major setback for Navantia


This addiction of Navantia to the U.S, coupled to a poor design and TOT capability may well explain its failure, last June, in the Australian Sea 5000 project, the biggest world frigates contest since the Taïwan project of 16 frigates in 1991[9]. Sea 5000 calls for 9 frigates, equipped with U.S missiles and Aegis combat system. The budget amount is €24Bn.

Although in competition with Fincantieri and BAE Systems, the project seemed to be tailored to Navantia which had just finished to complete,in Australia, the 3 Hobart class destroyers, following the 2 Canberra class LHD commissioned in 2014-15. The rejection of Fincantieri, unfamiliar to Australia and poorly rated in ASW warfare, was not a surprise.

But that the BAE Systems paper- boat type 26 may have been preferred against the recently experienced Navantia vessels,locally built,means a lot; It points out atthe negative experience made by the MOD Australia and the RAN of this awkward U.S Spanish connection, probably inadequate to design and technology transfers.


The Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC) issue: an ultimate chance for the U.S-Spanish team?


Here again,Navantia and BAE Systems are fighting each other in the fierce competition launched 2 years ago by Irving Shipbuilding, on account of the Canadian MOD. At stake is the supply of 15 ASW frigates in replacement of the Iroquois and Halifax class. The ships would be basically ASW North Atlantic and Pacific capable. By Government decision, the builder will be the Irving ShipbuildingHalifax shipyard.

Naval experts and professional observers of the international export markets rather inclined in the past year towards the idea of a common winner in Australia and Canada. BAE Systems won in Australia and its lobbying in Canada has been good enough so far to make the authorities, the people and the Canadian industry, including Irving, obviously consider the UK type 26 in Halifax the right ship in the right place.

If BAE systems clinched the deal once again,  then the Spanish would be again the loser… unless the Government of Canada resumes its traditional stance of considering that the Canadian Navy missions and future cannot be separated from those of the powerful U.S neighbor.


So, is Navantia an asset for a European Defence ?


At the end of this analysis, it seems hardly questionable to claim that Navantia is in fact a U.S shipyard under a Spanish flag DefenceChronicles could add that without the U.S technical assistance (Electric Boat), the S80 submarine program would have been the worst nightmare of all the shipbuilding history of Europe. From a pure Spanish perspective, this American umbrella is a pretty good thing. 

But from a European perspective, that’s another pair of sleeves. Could the neeeded consolidation of the European naval domain be done under a U.S umbrella? Could a future European naval consortium be blocked by a U.S embargo on sensitive technologies or export licences? 

In a time where the Trump Administration has chosen the tough way of unilateralism, it seems that Navantia is already out of the game.



[1] €160 M for 2015, €304 M for 2016.

[2] Jane’s Fighting Ships 02-08-2018.

[3] Jane’s Fighting Ships 20-04-2018.

[4] Jane’s Fighting Ships 08-12-2017.

[5] Jane’s Fighting Ships 22-05-2018.

[6] Jane’s Fighting Ships 22-05-2018: Contract signed by Navantia and Lockheed Martin).

[7] IHS Jane’s Defence Industry, Guy Anderson, 23-11-2017.

[8] Jane’s FightingShips 11-06-2018.

[9] Kang Ding Class, 16 ships planned, Jane’sFightingShips 09-03-2017.

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