Growing European submarine fleets could offer opportunities to manufacturers. But competition is fierce, and emerging nations may soon compete for contracts.

German submarine. Credit: Thyssen Krupp Marine Systems

By Tom Waldwyn, Research Analyst for Defence and Military Analysis

February’s announcement that Norway had selected ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) submarine design brought some relief to the German shipbuilder, which had recently lost out on the much-coveted Australian submarine competition, SEA 1000 Future Submarine.

The company’s current submarine order portfolio includes a third Tanin-class boat for Israel and a couple of Type-218SGs for Singapore, the first of which is to be delivered in 2020. Whilst a production contract is yet to be signed with Norway, this agreement will see submarine production continue in Emden and Kiel into the late 2020s and early 2030s. Included in the Norwegian announcement was the news that Germany would itself acquire two of the new boats, which will be an improved version of the Type-212A, known as Type-212NG (Next Generation/Norway–Germany).

Like many other NATO countries, the size of Germany’s submarine fleet has shrunk since the 1990s, partly due to a lack of investment and perceived threats. More recently, anti-submarine warfare (ASW) has jumped back up NATO’s agenda as the frequency of Russian submarine patrols has increased and more countries around the world are acquiring advanced submarine technology, particularly in Asia. Whether this renewed enthusiasm for ASW will generate a growth in other European submarine-fleet sizes remains to be seen.

Currently there are five European companies offering conventionally powered submarine (SSK) designs for export:

  • DCNS – France
  • TKMS – Germany
  • Fincantieri – Italy
  • Navantia – Spain
  • Saab – Sweden

Also worth considering in the European context is South Korea’s DSME, which entered the Norwegian competition, albeit unsuccessfully. Meanwhile, the export potential of Japanese designs has yet to be tested beyond the Australian competition and cheaper options are now offered by Russian and Chinese yards. Countries currently license-building submarines for their own fleets include Brazil, India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Turkey, and it is not inconceivable that they may compete in the future.

The available export opportunities are highly contested and just losing one competition has the potential to cause serious problems for a company’s submarine-building division. As can be seen in table below, several NATO Europe countries have bought new boats within the previous 15 years and some others are already in the process of replacing their current fleets. Poland and the Netherlands are the next hosts of a European submarine competition. Poland’s Orka project, begun in 2012, has seen Saab and DCNS sign agreements with Polish conglomerate PGZ concerning submarine manufacturing, while the recent Norwegian–German agreement references the potential for selling to the Poles.

Table of German submarine numbers. Credit: IISS

The Polish requirement includes the ability to fit the boats with a land-attack cruise missile, which might make DCNS’ bid more attractive, although relations between the two countries are reported to be frosty following the cancelling of the H225M helicopter deal in 2016. The Netherlands has yet to issue a formal tender for new submarine designs and is currently in the process of extending the life of its Walrus-class boats out to 2025. However, Saab has stolen a march in the process by signing an agreement with Damen Schelde as far back as January 2015 for the Walrus replacement.

This analysis originally featured on the Military Balance+, the new IISS online database that enables users in government, the armed forces and the private sector, as well as academia and the media, to make faster and better-informed decisions. The Military Balance+ allows users to customise, view, compare and download data instantly, anywhere, anytime.

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