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Going deep in defence cooperation? Conditions for successful Dutch-Norwegian cooperation on the acquisition of new submarines

Image credit: Pixabay

Image credit: Pixabay

In today’s European security environment cross-border defence cooperation is more necessary than ever, in particular for medium-sized and smaller European states like the Netherlands and Norway. In fact both countries will during the 2020’s replace their current submarine capabilities with new submarines that are capable of handling the operational environments of the 21st century. In the Netherlands, the four Walrus-class submarines were introduced in the navy in the time-period 1990-1993, while in Norway the six Ula-class submarines were introduced in the years between 1989 and 1992. At the time these submarines were introduced in the two countries navies’, international cooperation was not on the agenda.

At present, however, to develop a submarine capability seems more urgent than ever before. Through their ability to operate covertly and to create a condition of insecurity for the opponent, the role of submarines is strategic deterrence. Such a capability is a strategic priority because NATO’s Article 5 commitments and the focus on symmetrical conflicts are yet again becoming the centre of attention in European security. Therefore, the end-result might be an agreement between the two countries on a joint acquisition programme on submarines. Furthermore, to utilise the potential gains from such a cooperative endeavour the two states must also actively harmonise needs, specifications, time-frames and decision-making processes. It might also include common training and education programmes, and a more widespread sharing of infrastructure such as training grounds and storage facilities.

Nevertheless, Dutch and Norwegian strategic cultures differ substantially and this might become an important impediment for a successful joint cooperation programme. Strategic culture is often defined as the national beliefs and norms about when, how and for what ends military force can be used. Here, the Netherlands has a far more expeditionary strategic culture than Norway, which is more homeland oriented. Hence, differences in strategic culture translate into differences in requirements for the new submarines. The necessary question that needs to be asked is how two NATO countries with very different strategic cultures can come to an agreement on acquisition of new submarines. Furthermore, are there other factors than strategic cultures that are relevant when we discuss such a comprehensive cooperation programme? In short, are there factors that can counterweight any differences in strategic culture? In fact, agreeing upon a joint acquisition programme will be far easier to achieve if the two countries share compatible strategic cultures. If that is the case, it will also be far easier to agree on common requirements for the new submarines. Clearly, identical requirements and an identical design will be the best solution in all areas, also including being the most cost-effective one.

Even though ‘strategic culture’ is a fluid concept more susceptible to change than previously thought of, one cannot expect the Dutch or Norwegian strategic cultures to change dramatically in the years to come. Therefore, the best outcome for both countries will be if the Dutch expeditionary strategic culture can be utilised for the purpose of the common defence commitments in NATO. This, however, presupposes a high degree of trust between the two countries. In fact this trust factor is the condition that might be able to counterweight differences in strategic culture. Hence, trust is important and especially so when the capabilities the two countries want to co-develop are responsible for defending home territories. It is important to notice that trust-building is a slow process and that the level of trust can be different at different levels from the political-strategic to the military-tactical level.

An important concept in trust-building is path dependencies. Path dependencies are created when past events set the framework for future cooperation efforts between the parties. Trust is also the key difference that determines whether joint projects are successful in creating the best operational output for money, which is the overarching aim of the Dutch-Norwegian Future Submarine Capability programme. Beyond doubt, the level of trust between them is high since they share a common security policy history and both are founding members of NATO. Importantly, they also share a common geography belonging to the north-western European ‘node’ in NATO characterised by some common characteristics like interpersonal day-to-day contacts, common training and commonalities in foreign and security policy outlook.

Therefore, while differences in strategic culture clearly exist between the two countries, they both need partners to cooperate with. The Netherlands and Norway have a long history of defence material cooperation and they both will take part in the German Framework Nation Concept as well as in the British-led initiative for a Joint Expeditionary Force. Important to note is also the high degree of symmetry in the bilateral relationship between them. Strong asymmetries in the relationship would in fact have resulted in submarines with other capabilities and capacities for the weaker part in the relationship. For Norway such an outcome would have been serious due to the highly specific oceanographic conditions outside the coast of Norway. Without any doubt, within the north-western European ‘node’ in NATO, the Netherlands and Norway are the two countries that most certainly match each other. This is also due to the fact that Denmark does not have a submarine fleet anymore.

In sum, when assessing the prospects for a future Dutch-Norwegian submarine capability one must take factors other than just strategic culture into consideration. The level of trust between them is perhaps the factor that might have the possibility to counterweight differences in strategic culture. But also geographic proximities and symmetries in the relationship must also be regarded as important factors. Over a longer perspective, however, the fact that Europe through the EU might take a stronger role in European security can be a challenge and especially so for Norway since the country stands on the outside of the ever growing debate on European strategic autonomy in security and defence affairs. Nevertheless, what kind of impact this will have on the development of the Norwegian strategic culture remains to be seen.

Vol. 7, No. 75 (2015)

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