What’s next for the Belgian-Dutch frigate project?

International arms projects are mainly focused on sharing costs and increasing orders, which translates into a lower unit price of the final product. Things look different in practice and competency disputes and divergent requirements are a regular scourge in such projects. This is also the case with the project of the Belgian-Dutch frigate, which is to replace the units of the type Karel Doorman.

The study work has been carried out since 2013 and has still not yielded any results. Due to the assumed financial constraints, The Hague and Brussels would only order two frigates. Therefore, they must be universal ships, but optimized for anti-submarine warfare. Hence the working name of the project: ASWF (Anti-submarine Warfare Frigate). On the other hand, the frigates will also receive strong medium-range anti-aircraft weapons, including ESSM or SM-2 missiles. The ambitious modernization program of the Dutch fleet, which was adopted in 2018, assumed that the first ship for the Netherlands would fly in 2025.

The delay in the work on the ASWF is in stark contrast to the efficient execution of the joint project of the new minehunters. Belgium is responsible for this project, while frigates are being developed under Dutch leadership. This gives rise to a lot of sharp and malicious comments in the Belgian media. At the same time, delays are a cause for concern in Brussels and have sparked several parliamentary debates in recent weeks.

Their results are not optimistic. According to the information of the magazine The standard project costs were already 700 million euros higher than initial assumptions. Nevertheless, the Dutch side had to guarantee the delivery of both ships by 2030. Peter Buysrogge, MP for the New Flemish Alliance, even claims that the frigates will have stability problems in the current configuration. The Dutch military procurement organization (Defensie Materieel Organisatie, DMO) acknowledges the cost increase, but does not quantify it and rejects accusations of flawed design.

Belgian frigate Leopold I, former Dutch Hr.Ms. Karel Doorman.

Dutch website Navy Shepen points out that the financial issue is particularly difficult on the Belgian side. The budget for the program is set in law and it is difficult to change it now. According to the DMO, Brussels is determined to acquire vessels as equipped as the Dutch one and is working to increase funding for the project. There is bitterness in Belgium that Dutch ships have so far been cheaper than their foreign counterparts.

This is not the end of the accusations. Doubt The standard It also points to the alleged unpreparedness of the logistics and repair facilities, which is expected to have a negative effect on the maintenance and availability of frigates. According to the newspaper, Damen is responsible for them, which in turn causes surprise on the Dutch side. The maintenance of the ships in service, their repair and modernization is not the responsibility of an external entity, but the Material Maintenance Directorate (DMI) located in Den Helder, subordinate to the Ministry of Defence.

Sr.Ms. Van Amstel, one of the last two Karel Doorman frigates in Dutch service.
(Ein Dahmer, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International)

This does not mean that the problems are not real or that they are being blown up by the sensational media. Navy Shepen points out the main original sin of working on the ASWF, which is the desire to cram as many systems as possible into the smallest and therefore cheaper hull. At the beginning of this year, the head of the DMO, Vice Admiral Arie Jan de Waard, openly admitted in an interview with the service that the requirements set by the navy did not fit with the existing project.

De Waard described the 2019 project as “ideal”, but this fell outside the budget, so a scaled-down version was presented the following year. This in turn led to “overload” problems, but not only that. The reduction of the fuselage also forced the reduction of the propulsion system. From the very beginning, a CODLAG engine room was established consisting of diesel generators driving electric motors, the reduction of the engine room translated into a decrease in power. In short, frigates of the “revised” design will not be able to reach the assumed maximum and running speeds.

Frigate Zr.Ms. Evertsen of the De Zeven Provinciën type.
(Ein Dahmer, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International)

The solution would be to apologize to gas turbines. As it shows Navy Shepen, a turbine powertrain, regardless of its combination with diesel and electric engines, would even provide excess power to facilitate retrofits. The problem, of course, is the need to completely rework the design, which in turn will cost time and money.

The ASWF frigate is also a hot political topic in the Netherlands. Last year, the then State Secretary of the Ministry of Defence, Barbara Visser, presented the “Report Deviations in Compared with the Review Defense Projects 2020” to the House of Representatives. The document advised seeking a balance between capabilities, displacement and price. However, the final version of the report from May this year recommends increasing the size of the frigates.

The case of frigates for Belgium and the Netherlands also has a German thread. In 2018, Germany and Norway offered the Netherlands to participate in the 212CD submarine program. An additional incentive from Berlin was the proposal to add the MKS 180 frigates, now known as the F126 type, to the program. However, The Hague postponed the selection of successors of the submarine type Walrus until 2022. Still in 2018 the Dutch de facto rejected the German bid for frigates and decided to entrust the preparation of the project to ASWF to Damen and Thales Nederland without a tender procedure.

At the beginning of 2020, the situation changed when the consortium consisting of Damen and Lürssen was the winner of the competition for the design and construction of the MKS 180. The new frigates for Marine are being built under Dutch management at the Blohm und Voss shipyard in Lürssen in Bremen. After unpleasant experiences with expedition F126 frigates, the Germans decided to build large multi-purpose ships. The assumptions of the project are still general, but there is already talk of a displacement of 10,000 tons. There is no indication that, even with Damen’s leading role in the show, it has influenced The Hague’s position. The MKS 180 will most likely be too large for the Dutch requirements.

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the Ministry of Defense of the Netherlands

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