COLOGNE, Germany — The Netherlands would be welcome to join a German-Norwegian submarine acquisition program, even as the door is closing for final design work on the boats, the Norwegian defense ministry said.

The statement comes as German defense industry officials have talked for weeks about what they believe is an impending move to reshuffle big-ticket shipbuilding programs by way of a new naval cooperation umbrella with the Dutch. In that telling, The Hague would join the purchase of 212CD-class submarines, built by Thyssen Krupp Marine Systems’ undersea division, and gain a say in the fate of Germany’s Mehrzweck-Kampfschiff 180 frigate program, from which the surface division of TKMS was excluded last month.

While Berlin and The Hague have officially kept mum about details, several German industry officials and analysts surveyed for this article believe the prospect of a Dutch move is keeping the MKS-180 programs fate unpredictable.

When asked about the Netherlands’ interest in the German combat ship effort, Dutch defense ministry spokesman Peter Valstar only wrote in an email to Defense News that senior acquisition officials from both countries had met recently to discuss “various topics like possible cooperations on all kinds of defense projects.”

As for submarines, “We’re currently in the B-phase (research) of our so-called ‘Defence Material Process,‘” Valstar wrote. “The ‘need’ (A-phase) of a submarine purchase is clear. The C-phase (further research) and D-phase (product and supplier) are still to come.”

Norway has always considered the door open for additional submarine buyers since Oslo teamed with Berlin last year. The joint acquisition would see Norway buy four boats and Germany two. Buying and maintaining identical submarines would keep cost down for both countries, the argument goes.

“Norway and Germany would like to see additional partners joining the cooperation, and it would be very welcome if the Netherlands should decide to join,” Norwegian defense ministry spokeswoman Ann Kristin Salbuvik wrote in an email to Defense News.

“We are working together towards several potential nations, and we have a good dialogue with potential partners,” Salbuvik added when asked if the Dutch had formally expressed an interest.

But the door is closing for would-be partners to have a say in the boats’ configurations. “The design of the German-Norwegian submarines will soon be frozen in order for the supplier, TKMS, to be able to provide a binding offer in July 2018,” the spokeswoman wrote.

“After this point in time, design changes will be costly, and will also have a negative impact on time and delivery schedules for the German-Norwegian submarine building program,” she added. “If additional partners join the cooperation, it will be beneficial for them to strive for as identical a design as possible.”

It is unclear how far discussions for a Dutch-German naval armaments pact have bubbled up toward the defense ministries’ leaders. But the issue is “very much a topic of conversation in political Berlin,” one source noted.

If given the chance to tweak the MKS-180 configuration, the Dutch would push for a smaller ship design than is currently envisioned, one industry source predicted.

With Damen Shipyards, the Dutch already have local industry in the running for the program, teaming with Germany’s Blohm &Voss, which is now part of the German Lürssen group.

Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.

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