Facing the inevitable prospect of escalating costs and difficulties in sourcing spare parts for its six ageing and unique Ula-class vessels, the Norwegian Ministry of Defence (MoD) undertook a study to determine whether the country would still have a need for a submarine capability beyond 2020.
It ran between 2007 and 2011, and came down heavily in favour of retaining Norway's underwater presence, concluding that no alternative system could replace the strategic advantage it provides. That led to a comprehensive evaluation of the possible options - extending the existing vessels' service-life, replacing them entirely, or a combination of both - and in 2014, the decision was made to embark on a replacement programme.
New submarine procurement is, however, an expensive enterprise, and to try to reduce the costs, the Norwegian MoD announced at the start of September this year that it had been having discussions with a number of nations - notably Poland - over potential cooperation on acquisition, operation and maintenance.
The Ula class
The acquisition of the Ula class already had a something of an international flavour. The hull sections were produced in Norway and assembled in Germany by Thyssen Nordseewerke, the attack sonar and torpedoes are German, the flank sonar is French and the integrating combat system is Norwegian.
First commissioned between 1989 and 1992, the submarines have undergone a number of upgrades over the last ten years, including improvements to their sonar and periscopes, enhanced communications systems, new electronic warfare support measures and combat system upgrades. Some have also additionally received cooling upgrades for warm-water operation.
At 1,150 tonnes, the Ulas-class submarines are small by comparison with more modern diesel-electric designs, but this renders them difficult to detect by surface vessels, and makes them ideally suited for operations in the coastal waters and narrow fjords of Norway's lengthy shoreline. Widely regarded as one of the quietest and most highly manoeuvrable submarines in the world - as well as the Royal Norwegian Navy's most effective asset - the Ula has proven a reliable platform for information-gathering, most notably on its recent deployments in support of Operation Active Endeavour in the Mediterranean.
Collaborative international procurement: matching requirements and timescales
It would seem reasonable to assume that similar capabilities will be a feature of Ula's replacement too, although the Norwegian MoD is, understandably, playing its cards close to its chest on the question of the requirements for is new sub. As special adviser Birgitte Frisch explains, "this project is in its early stages and therefore we cannot comment on the details", but the earlier press release from the ministry announcing the possible collaboration did note that Poland's new sub specifications are "quite similar."
According to a spokesperson from the Public Affairs Department of the Republic of Poland's Ministry of National Defence (MoND), the key elements of those requirements also remain classified, but the vessels will "have to meet all criteria to be suitable for operations on the Baltic Sea area."
But collaborative international procurement is not just about a match in specifications. Timing can also have a huge bearing on this kind of venture, requiring the potential partners to share close synchronicity in both the decision-making processes and the eventual expected commissioning timeframe.
Poland had intended to launch the $2bn tender for replacements for its four Kobben-class and one Kilo-class submarine at the start of 2015. That was postponed to allow a variation to be entered into the requirements which, as was announced in May, will see the country's new fleet equipped with cruise missiles to bolster its land attack capabilities.
The MoND spokesperson says that Poland is now "planning to acquire three conventional submarines with torpedo and missile systems" with delivery scheduled for 2025 - which dovetails well with Norway's own replacement programme. Both countries are also reported to be at much the same stage in their project definition phases, with recommendations to their respective governments expected in 2016.
Finding other development partners
Both countries have mentioned the possibility of working with other nations, with the Netherlands appearing as a potential partner in discussions with Norway and Poland alike.
The Netherlands shares the requirement to update its submarine fleet, with an urgent need to replace its ageing Walrus vessels which, according to a report by the Dutch audit committee in June 2015, already suffer from significant spare parts shortages. Although the aim is also to have the first of their new subs in service by 2024-5, there are differences in the Royal Netherlands Navy's needs which make it less suitable as a partner.
The Walrus is a much larger and very different kind of platform from the vessels Poland and Norway are seeking to buy. Said to be the only submarine in NATO capable of operating in both coastal waters and on long-range ocean patrols - a role arising largely as a legacy of Dutch interests in the Caribbean - the Walrus will almost certainly have to be replaced with another 2,500 tonne sub able to perform the same role.
According to the Dutch MoD, there has been some discussion with other nations over the replacement, but no concrete decision on the way forward is expected until at least the end of the year.
Choosing shipyards and designs
While the question of collaboration may be hanging in the air for the moment, Norway is very clear on how its acquisition programme in general will move forward. The replacement submarines will be based on an existing design to circumvent an extensive development process with all its attendant cost and technical uncertainties, and they will be built by an experienced shipyard.
In September 2012, the MoD sent a request for information to a number of yards, including DCNS, Fincantieri, Navantia, ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems and Daewoo to examine the investment and life cycle costs, production times and performance for new submarines.
There has been much discussion about the possible candidate designs to meet both Norwegian and Polish needs, including DCNS' Scorpène and Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft's Type 214, both of which would seem to match the known requirements. However, perhaps the A26 - a late entrant to the contest from Saab - provides the most intriguing possibility.
Sweden's role in the project
The A26 is currently under development for the Swedish Navy, under an order for two of these newly revitalised designs announced by Sweden at the end of June 2015. The country appears to be highly supportive of Saab's intention to build up a competitive presence in the submarine sector based around the recently acquired Saab Kockums' underwater division.
With the possibility of a small version of the A26 for Norway and Poland and a larger version for the Netherlands coupled with Saab's industrial teaming arrangement with the Dutch Damen Shipyard, and the reports of 'unofficial' Swedish dialogue with Norway over greater defence links, the door seems open for cooperation on a pan-European scale. At the moment, of course, this is mere speculation, but the prospect is compelling.
Reaching a consensus over procurement decisions amongst all the interested parties in a single state is difficult enough; getting agreement between nations is very much harder. But at a time of reducing budgets and growing global uncertainty, there are obvious benefits to international collaboration, particularly amongst countries which share close political ties and have strategic interests in common.
It is still early days, but if Norway's joint submarine plan is ultimately successful, European procurement might become much more collaborative - and a lot cheaper, too.