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Dutch submarines: ends and means

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The Netherlands are advancing on the replacement program of their Walrus flotilla. Through the choices and care put in the design of the new fleet, the Netherlands are designing the future of their military ranking in the world.

Forty-five years after the launch of the Walrus program, Dutch State Secretary Barbara Visser has decided to send the 4 diesel-electric subs to retirement, after years of good service. Walrus-class subs were a good case study to understand the rising complexity and magnitude of submarine programs. In the general opinion of naval officers, the Walrus-class, which was chosen to replace the Dolphin-class in 1976, was an excellent submarine, with outstanding capacity. But the production phase of the 4 subs occurred at a time when submarines were changing, and the underlying technology was in full growth. Times had changed since the old WW2 days, when subs could be welded together, stuffed with an engine and torpedoes and thrown out to sea.

By the 1970s, technology had evolved so dramatically that the building of submarines was somewhere between a jigsaw and a nightmare. Missions had multiplied, enemy environment was rapidly changing and diversifying, and engineers now had to cram as much power into the smallest space possible, while making it evermore silent and automated. According to Naval Technology, "Walrus-class submarines are solely operated by the Royal Netherlands Navy (RNLN). They are considered as one of the most advanced non-nuclear attack submarines in the world." The results of the Dutch engineering work were excellent, but the production was constantly delayed, and financial control of the program became so crazy that it evolved into a major political crisis. Still, once at sea, they performed beautifully, against the adversary which they were built for: the Russians. Although the cold War ended before the Walrus could be fully deployed, the Dutch submarines have proved extremely valuable defending northern waters against incursions, now that the Russians have rebuilt their naval military power. According to Brookings reporter Stephen Pifer, "Russia is modernizing the three legs of its strategic triad. It is procuring eight Borei-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and is halfway through a ten-year program to build four hundred intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). It is also updating its Tu-160 Blackjack bombers, and officials have reportedly considered reopening the Blackjack production line."

In a repeat of the last submarine program, the Dutch are choosing to go diesel-electric, and not nuclear. However, the choice of conventional power for the Walrus was driven by the simple lack of option: the Dutch didn't have nuclear power and couldn't afford it. For the new subs, the choice is once again to go conventional, but because diesel electric technology has caught up dramatically with nuclear capacities in recent years. Whatever choice is made, should be made carefully: the Dutch know that they are gambling their military future, and their international credibility on this deal.

If a submarine program is properly mastered on all aspects (technological, implementation, finances, production, etc), it grants many options to the country under whose flag it is sailing. Strategy specialist David Szondy writes : "The submarine is the single most powerful piece of military hardware ever devised. Inside the hull of a single nuclear ballistic missile boat is more firepower than was unleashed by all the armed forces of the world during the Second World War." With the evolution in submarine capacities, nations with high-powered subs now have the ability to monitor underwater communications, gather intelligence , badger large ships , and deploy small diver teams through "multi-mission locks" - whereas their former role was limited to sinking other ships and enemy subs. The Dutch, with their excellent submarines and their skilful navigators, have enjoyed forays into all of these missions and greatlyenriched the operational palette of NATO in Europe - limiting Russian roaming in European waters.

But a submarine program is a house of cards, a conundrum just waiting to collapse and an expense prone to soaring out of control. The most successful submarine builders in the world have built their success precisely on their overall capacity the control the whole program, and not simply focus on the design and building. Germany has, sadly, provided a perfect counter-example of program control for the past few years. The immensely complex subs which were fielded in the German navy were plagued with manufacturing defects, and maintenance was sub-par, which meant the subs were very often in drydocks, undergoing repairs and glitch-fixing. The situation quickly spiralled, with operational availability dropping every year, until the German navy hit the ever-low score of no ships available , causing major embarrassment for the German defence department, and leading the national shipyards to be banned from selling to its own country . Few armament programs respond better to Murphy's law than submarines: poorly-mastered technology, production hiccups, untested partnerships, etc: the list of possible sources of collapse is so great that only a handful of countries are able to produce proper warships, while most producers are falling behind and running themselves out of business.

The evolution of submarine technology has made underwater warships crucial pieces on the strategic chessboard, cranking even smaller countries like the Netherlands up to highly-influential nations, necessary to inter-ally operations and vital to continental defence. Poorly designed submarines, however, will cost much to taxpayers and do little for the country in return. The Netherlands have, so far, done very well in inter-ally operations and provided valuable service in the underwater coastal defence of Europe, namely against Russian incursions. The upcoming choices of Dutch Defense Minister Ank Bijleveld will have strategic consequences for decades.


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