International Policy Digest

World News /25 May 2019

Netherlands is Heading Back to High Seas

The end of an era has come, as the Netherlands send their 4 attack submarines off to a well-deserved retirement. With the replacement fleet, the Netherlands will reinforce its leading position, both within Europe and NATO, as one of the few truly sovereign high-sea fleets. But before positioning once again as the submarine experts of the continent, the Netherlands needs new submarines.

There is nothing new about the Netherlands setting standards high in terms of submarine warfare. Despite a small fleet of 4 domestically-built subs, named Walrus-class, the Netherlands has proven a fierce defender of Europe’s underwater borders. The Walrus sub has been, in the eyes of many experts, judged as a remarkable submarine, both reliable and capable. Roger Thompson, Professor of Military Studies at Knightsbridge University, writes: “In 1989, naval analyst Norman Polmar wrote in Naval Forces that during NATO s exercise Northern Star, the Dutch submarine Zwaardvis was the only orange (enemy) submarine to successfully stalk and sink a blue (allied) aircraft carrier Ten years later there were reports that the Dutch submarine Walrus had been even more successful in the exercise JTFEX/TMDI99.” However, its design dates back to the 1980s, making its technology and its build obsolete.

The Netherlands is therefore not trying to build a reputation for a credible underwater defense operator: it already has it. The aim is to renew this position for a few more decades, with the acquisition of a new fleet, presumably comparable in size, but with new equipment. The tender was launched in 2018, and almost concluded in early 2019, but was extended as The Netherlands wanted more time to make the perfect choice of an industrial partner. Defense Aerospace reported: “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.” A wise decision, as stakes are high.

Indeed, the art of submarine warfare has always been tough, and it is about to get a lot tougher, for a variety of factors. The Russians formed the main threat when the Walrus-class submarines first splashed into the water. At the head of a formidable fleet, the Eastern menace was nonetheless already subdued in the 1980s by a plague of maintenance and operational problems which eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, the Russians have recovered economically and militarily, and are pushing back strongly against NATO’s advance. Geopolitical analyst, Torkel Sandberg, writes: “The willful discretion of submarine activity should not fool the bored observer into thinking nothing happens in the depths of the world’s coldest waters: a lively fight is going on, in the underwater canyons and the industrial facilities where the secret boats are created. Russia, after a post-Cold-War slump, has renewed its strategic standing and is once again a major submarine power and a new competitor which European industries are struggling to address.” An increasing amount of submarine spotting has been reported in the Baltic and North seas, indicating that Russian subs are once again at play.

More generally, submarines are re-gaining importance in the new strategic era. Different types of weapons have always competed for center stage during military history, and it seems that it’s the turn of U-boats again. A crucial element of World War II submarines was overshadowed during the cold war, as strategic bombers became the go-to weapon of choice for nuclear deterrence. But times have changed, namely because, modern submarines can fulfill an array of missions, unlike strategic bombers which can only drop bombs. In recent years, submarines have been increasingly resorted to for intelligence gathering, coastal protection, and Special Forces deployment. But the broadening of missions for submarines came at a technological cost.

Early submarines were made of a rather simple technology: a closed hull, an engine, large batteries, and a few torpedoes. Due to this technological simplicity, most countries who wished to develop a submarine fleet were able to do so by simply turning to their national shipyards – something the Dutch did, when they built the Walrus-class. But submarine technology steadily became complex in the field of sonar detection, acoustic stealth, range, air-independent propulsion, nuclear or non-nuclear, etc. As a direct result, submarine programs became extremely difficult to coordinate, bundling together hundreds, sometimes thousands of industrial partners.

The Netherlands dropped out of the technological race a long time ago and will have only a few options to consider – most submarine producers are low-tech or high-risk, as the number of reliable integrators (able to manage an entire subprogram from scratch to end-of-life) has dropped to a handful. The Netherlands is currently considering a partnership between Saab/Kockums and Damen (a national shipyard) and French Naval Group, which would cooperate with Royal IHC, another Dutch shipyard. Other players have thrown their hats in, such as German TKMS and Spanish Navantia, but the most recent productions indicate that those two historical players may have dropped out of the race too. Political reporter Eric Vrijsen writes: “The decision involves at least 2.5 billion euros. Shipbuilders from the Netherlands, France, Germany, and Spain are in the race for this. According to sources in The Hague, it is, in fact, a choice between Damen Shipyards (in combination with the Swedish Saab) or the French Naval Group. The Germans and Spaniards seem hopeless.”

Much has changed since the Netherlands built their excellent submarines, using purely national resources. Submarines are once again the key-players of the strategic landscape, but they now face a strengthened Russian counterpart, and new countries are acquiring modern submarine fleets. If the Netherlands does go to the high end of the market – as it seems it will – it will once again take to the high seas and maintain its role as the indispensable defender of Europe, and one of NATO’s few reliable partners on the old continent.