The new Dutch anti-aircraft frigate, an opportunity for France?

That's done ! The Dutch Parliament approved, on June 11, the acquisition of four Blacksword Barracuda type submarines from the French Naval Group, to replace the Walrus class submarines currently in service in the Dutch Navy. The last obstacle for the official order is now the legal appeal brought by TKMS before the court in The Hague, and which must be judged on June 26.

If the Batavian parliamentarians mainly trust the French offer, it remains true that some of the questions that emerged during the debates deserve proactive consideration on the part of Paris, and the French industrialist. .

In particular, the question of sharing industrial activity with the Dutch naval industry, and more specifically with Damen, represents a particularly sensitive and divisive point, which should be addressed before the new government in The Hague takes the controllers of the country.

On this subject, the Dutch Navy recently launched the preliminary study of a new heavy anti-aircraft frigate, on a schedule close to that which will be imposed on the French Navy to replace the Horizon frigates of the Forbin class.

In this context, would it be relevant, and effective, for France, as for Naval Group, to join the Dutch program entrusted to Damen, to reduce the costs of developing a new French air defense frigate, and to give the Dutch authorities, relevant cooperation guarantees for its naval industry, in the medium and long term?

Dutch Parliament Officially Approves Acquisition of Blacksword Barracuda from Naval Group

A little over a week ago, the ORKA program to replace the Walrus-class submarines of the Koninklijke Marine, the Royal Netherlands Navy, reached a decisive milestone.

Blacksword barracuda Naval Group
Naval Group's Blacksword Barracuda is closer than ever to finding its way to the Koninklijke Marine.

After the outgoing government announced the victory of Naval Group, with the Blacksword Barracuda model, during the competition which pitted it against the German TKMS, and the Saab-Damen couple, the program had, in fact, to receive the approval of the new Dutch Parliament, with a nationalist majority since the elections legislative elections in fall 2023.

Far from being a formality, the outgoing Minister of Defense, Christophe Van der Maat, had to respond to numerous questions and attacks that had emerged in the Dutch press in the weeks preceding the parliamentary hearing, in particularly concerning the guarantees regarding the price offered by the French industrialist, 25% cheaper than its other competitors, and regarding the investment commitments of Naval group in the local industry.

The answers provided by the Minister of Defense and his teams to the questions of parliamentarians had apparently hit the mark, since at the end of this session, the majority parties announced that they supported the program. However, it was necessary for a series of motions tabled by Chris Stoffer of the Reformed Political Party (SPG), representing only 3 of the 150 seats in the new chamber, to be voted on to continue.

It is now done. Indeed, the three motions filed by Mr. Stoffer were rejected, paving the way for the official signing of the order, which must take place before the end of July 2024. However, we will have to wait for the complaint filed by the German TKMS, regarding the call for tenders itself , be ruled by Dutch justice, the subject being presented on June 26 before the court of justice in The Hague.

2 of the 3 major Dutch Navy programs awarded to Naval Group

Knowing that since June 4, and the unofficial conclusions of the parliamentary debate, Damen and Saab, although particularly vehement before that, have, it seems, thrown in the towel to turn to other more promising fights, we may think that the chances that the appeal initiated by TKMS has little chance of succeeding, and that it serves above all to cast a certain doubt on the validity of the price proposed by Naval group, in future competitions .

rMCM mine warfare program
The six large Dutch mine warfare vessels will have been designed and manufactured by Naval Group and ECA.

In any case, with this parliamentary decision, and anticipating a court decision favorable to Dutch government arbitration, it appears that the Koninklijke Marine will have entrusted two of the three major naval programs of the moment, to the French Naval Group, which either directly, with the Blacksword Barracuda submarines of the ORKA program, or indirectly, with the large mine warships of the rMCM program.

Under these conditions, we can understand the various opinions published in the Batavian specialist press, regarding the compensation that France could make to the Dutch defense industry. This is especially true since The Hague's confidence in French equipment has seen a new lease of life in recent months, as the order for 14 H225M Caracal maneuvering helicopters for special forces in October 2023.

However, this seems easier said than done. Indeed, the Dutch defense industry particularly excels in two areas. The first is that of naval radars and sensors, with Thales Nederland.

In 1990, the Dutch radar specialist Signaal was bought by the French Thomson-CSF, which has since become Thales. The company produces some of the most effective naval radars and IR systems widely used in global navies, such as the SMART-S series and the NS-100. It is difficult to touch this already well-established and mutually beneficial cooperation within the Thales group.

Air defense frigate Forbin
The S1850 radar of the Horizon frigates of the Forbin class is an evolution of the SMART-L from Thales Nederland.

The second area of ​​excellence of the Dutch BITD is that of shipbuilding, with the shipyards of the Damen group. The one achieves, every year, a turnover of €2 to €2,5 billion, and has 32 shipyards. It has recently achieved significant successes in the military field with the SIGMA family corvettes, acquired by the Indonesian, Moroccan, Mexican and Colombian navies.

The group also won, in January 2020, the design of the F126 frigates of the German Bundesmarine, with the shipyards Blohm&Voss and Lurssen, increased from 4 to 6 ships in April 2024, after the Ministry of Defense exercised the option attached to the contract. Finally, Damen designs and manufactures the major surface units of the Dutch Navy, and in particular the new M-fregates co-developed with Belgium.

However, Damen having bet on the joint offer with Saab within the framework of the ORKA program, Naval Group has not, and understandably, integrated advanced cooperation with this group in its proposal and, in particular, in the budget envelope attached to it, the very one which was decisive in this matter.

The opportunity to co-develop with Damen an anti-aircraft frigate to replace the Forbin-class Horizon frigates

The fact remains that cooperation with Damen would certainly constitute the most relevant avenue for implementing reciprocal cooperation with Dutch industry, despite the tensions which have sometimes marred relations between the two groups.

new Dutch navy anti-aircraft frigate
the concept of a new generation anti-aircraft frigate presented in April to the Dutch parliament by the Koninklijke Marine. The ship will be able to carry up to 96 vertical silos, as many as the American DDG(x).

In fact, the Dutch Navy announced, a few weeks ago, the start of design work on anti-aircraft frigates which will replace the De Zeven Provincien class frigates, currently in service.

The four Dutch frigates entered service from 2002 to 2005, and will therefore have to be replaced between 2032 and 2040, depending on whether the lifespan of the ships is 30 or 35 years. However, over this period, the French Navy will also have to replace two of its anti-aircraft frigates, in this case, the Horizon frigates of the Forbin class, which entered service in 2008 and 2009.

For the Ministry of the Armed Forces and the French Navy, the hypothesis of co-developing the replacements for these two ships, with a European country, would certainly prove to be a relevant calculation.

Indeed, bringing the design of these key ships to a fleet of only two ships would result in particularly high additional costs, especially since the export opportunities for these heavy and very expensive ships are obviously low. Moreover, neither France nor Italy have managed to export the Horizon model.

Zeven Provincien Class Frigate
The replacement of the De Zeven Provincien class frigates perhaps represents an opportunity for France, Naval Group and the French Navy.

Conversely, if cooperation with the Netherlands, and Damen, were to be negotiated, this would make the design costs on six hulls, four for the Koninklijke Marine, and two for the French Navy, much more bearable.

Furthermore, Franco-Dutch cooperation on this subject would perhaps encourage the Dutch Navy to turn towards a European surface-to-air missile system, with the Aster missile and its evolution of the Hydis program, in which, precisely, they participate the Netherlands, even if it means agreeing to have the ships built in the Netherlands, which would represent, without the slightest doubt, a gesture of cooperation much appreciated in The Hague.

Designing an overseas assault destroyer class with the Netherlands

Obviously, the hypothesis of having the two most powerful combat surface ships of the French Navy built in the Netherlands risks creating an outcry among Naval group and its subcontractors, even if The aim is to promote the use of French equipment throughout the class.

However, the savings made in terms of design and studies would allow the French Navy and Naval group to launch the design of another class of ship, more innovative, meeting important unmet needs, and having a significantly greater export potential than will be the future Franco-Dutch anti-aircraft frigates, if necessary.

In this case, it would be a question of developing a class of assault destroyers, comparable, in spirit, to the Multi-Role Support Ship, or MRSS, program of the Royal Navy. As a reminder, this is a hybrid ship, having both the firepower of a frigate, whether towards land or for self-defense, and a base and d an aerial platform allowing aero-amphibious projection, but in a more reduced manner than for the Mistral PHAs.

MRSS Fearless Steller Systems Royal Navy
The MRSS Fearless project foreshadows the assault destroyer concept imagined by the Royal Navy.

As mentioned in a previous article, this original configuration would respond very effectively to the needs of the French Navy, and more broadly, of the French Armies, in the overseas zone, particularly in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, even in the South Atlantic.

In fact, the design and construction of such a class of ship would largely make it possible to compensate for the industrial deficit linked to the co-development of replacements for the Forbin frigates, with the Netherlands, both for the Design Offices and for the site. from Lorient. Furthermore, nothing prevents other European partners from joining this program, quite the contrary, as long as the management of the program remains ensured by Naval Group.

Interestingly, moreover, the Dutch Navy could find an interest in this, even if it announced, jointly with the launch of the development of its new anti-aircraft frigates, that of a new class of compact LHDs, to renew its aeronautical capabilities. amphibious.

Indeed, the Koninklijke Marine is one of the rare European navies, along with the Royal Navy and the French Navy, to have overseas deployments, particularly in the Caribbean. And these assault destroyers would bring significant operational added value through the versatility of its capabilities.

Conclusion

We see, although counterintuitive at first glance, the opportunities for Paris, as for Naval group and the French Navy, concerning the deepening of cooperation in military shipbuilding with The Hague, Damen and the Dutch Navy, are numerous .

Naval group Lorient
preserving the industrial skills of the Naval Group Lorient site is a priority issue for the Ministry of the Armed Forces and the DGA.

It is in particular the program of heavy anti-aircraft frigates, announced in April by the Dutch Navy, which represents the most suitable support to simultaneously optimize the resources of the National Navy, while anticipating the legitimate Dutch expectations for direct industrial sharing or induced, especially with Damen, regarding the ORKA program.

However, this opportunity must not be to the detriment of preserving the design and manufacturing skills of the Naval group in terms of large surface combatants, and must be associated with other initiatives, intended to make a initially unfavorable arbitration, an operational advantage for the French Navy, and competitive for the French industrialist.

However, by linking initiatives and needs, for example, by re-injecting the savings from studies made regarding the replacement of the Forbin, towards the design of a class of overseas assault destroyers, it is possible to find a mutually beneficial balance for all six stakeholders involved.

It remains that to give substance to a non-linear vision as developed here, it is necessary to agree to conceive of cooperation in a global manner, and to anticipate both future industrial and political needs, as well as emerging operational needs.

Article from June 13 in full until July 28, 2024

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