Defense has only two Walrus submarines in service. Where are those new boats?

What exactly Dutch submarines do in distant waters is a secret. It will resemble operations in the Mediterranean during the Cold War. Then the boats sailed close to the coast of Egypt – quietly, with the diesel engine turned off and the electric drive on. For example, they spied on Soviet naval ships.

“That is a unique quality of Dutch submarines, that they can do such operations,” says Jaime Karremann of the news website.† He wrote a book about submarines† “German and Norwegian submarines are built to operate briefly in shallow waters like those of the Baltic Sea. The British and French – nuclear – submarines can be away from home like the Dutch months, but are too large for operations near enemy ships in coastal waters.”

The deployment of Dutch submarines is only becoming very scarce, according to a letter that State Secretary Christophe van der Maat (Defence, VVD) sent to the House of Representatives at the beginning of this month. The four current Walrus-class boats have long been due for replacement, but the new boats will not arrive until 2034 at the earliest – rather than 2028 as originally planned. In order to allow the Walrus boats to continue “safely and responsibly”, the Defense organization is taking two of the four boats out of service – which costs less maintenance personnel, and there is a shortage of them.

State Secretary Van der Maat gives a certificate of inability to his predecessor and party colleague Barbara Visser

Dick Zandee Defense expert at Clingendael Institute

“That is bad news for the NATO alliance, which likes to call on this Dutch specialism,” says Dick Zandee, defense expert at the Clingendael Institute – certainly because the stormball was raised at NATO after the Russian invasion of Ukraine: „Although you should not exaggerate that. Russian ships may cause a lot of damage with rocket fire in Odessa, the navy of Russia is no match for the NATO navy.”

Certificate of incapacity

The domestic political significance of the letter is probably greater, Zandee thinks. “Van der Maat gives a certificate of inability to his predecessor, also party member.” Under that predecessor, Barbara Visser, “unrealistic lead times were used” in the tender for the submarines, the letter reports, and “communication was not good enough”. Van der Maat now concludes that “the current approach would take too much time to make a choice of shipyard and thus endanger the continuity of the Submarine Service in the long run.”

In the current approach, Defense does not have a submarine developed from the first sketch, because this would be expensive. It would be cheaper to buy four boats “off the shelf” – with some specific adjustments for the Netherlands. The final design and associated price – estimated at one billion euros per boat – will be determined in a multi-yard tender process.

After the loss of a Spanish consortium, three consortia remained in the summer of 2020: the Dutch-Swedish combination Damen-Saab, the French Naval with the Dutch IHC and the German Thyssenkrupp Marine Systems. Instead of making the decision, Visser decided on a ’round of dialogue’ with the three parties. This did not yield any results, partly because the candidate yards were not generous with information.

The latter does not surprise Karremann. “A yard would like to talk to a client about, for example, confidential techniques to make a diesel engine even quieter, but not if that yard is still in competition with other yards.” Subsequently, the defense needed an unexpected amount of time to properly analyze what information did come.

That is why the defense had to announce in October 2021 that the original schedule would not be met. Karremann: “At that time it was not difficult to calculate that the submarines will not be ready until the mid-thirties.” That appears to be somewhere between 2034 and 2037. In order to be able to achieve this at all, Van der Maat wants to request quotes from the yards by the last quarter of this year at the latest.

Van der Maat lets go of the off-the-shelf idea; there will be a unique design for the Dutch submarines. He wants to speed things up by choosing one site. “Fine,” says Karremann. “But I find it shocking that Van der Maat has no future vision for the construction of submarines. We are making the mistake of thirty years ago.”

At that time, Dutch submarine construction disappeared. The yard that built the Walrus submarines, RDM, went bankrupt. In the navy, the design department and with it the knowledge of boat building disappeared. “Now there are no clear guarantees for a role for Dutch industry,” says Karremann. Defense expert Dick Zandee takes this less seriously: “Even if the casing is built abroad, for example, a lot of equipment can be built in in the Netherlands.”

Also missiles

The equipment of the submarine will also include missiles, if it is up to Van de Maat. “For distances of up to 1,000 kilometers, as American submarines have,” says Zandee. “They are mainly intended to target targets on land.”

For the next twelve years, the Dutch Submarine Service will have to make do with two refurbished Walrus boats. Although, two? Because one submarine is standard in maintenance or is used for training, the Submarine Service from now on actually sails with one submarine.