KARLSKRONA, Sweden — It's been 18 years since Swedish industry delivered a new submarine. The shipyard in Malmö that delivered Gotland-class submarines is closed. But the cloud that hung over the Kockums shipbuilders who designed and built those subs has been lifted — gone with last year's transfer from tension-filled ownership by Germany's ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems to Saab, the Swedish firm known for fast planes and solid cars.
"We have not taken over something just to be friends with our country," Gunilla Fransson, Saab's senior vice president of its naval business, told reporters here April 30 on a company-sponsored press tour. "We think it is a very stable business and it can become something very successful."
Since finalizing the shipyard acquisition in July, Saab's leadership has displayed relentless optimism about returning Kockums to the forefront of naval technology, particularly in submarine design and construction. Corporate leaders acknowledge there is much work to be done, including upgrades to the Karlskrona shipyard, but they point out that Kockums engineering talent remains in place.
"Apart from we want to be the most modern shipyard in the world, we want to have all these traditions, too," Fransson said at a press briefing symbolically held inside a shipyard mast crane from the early 1800s. "We still have the people on board — people have not left Kockums. We have the knowledge and the competence intact."
The naval business now is one of six businesses within Saab. Aviation-related products make up 45 percent of the company's portfolio, land systems 22 percent, with naval coming in third at 14 percent. But Saab is working to create a new naval identity.
"Ninety percent of people think we do cars," Fransson noted, even though the auto-building portion of the company was spun off in 1989. "Seventy percent of the population thinks we do airplanes," she said, referring primarily to the Gripen fighter. "And that's about it."
She acknowledged the decision to regain Swedish control of Kockums grew out of political desires.
Saab is hoping its Kockums shipyard in Karlskrona, Sweden, will soon be hopping with new submarine construction.
Photo Credit: Christopher P. Cavas/staff
"Sweden decided that underwater technology was important," Fransson said. "The government came to us and asked if we could be the supplier of underwater capability. Then we were in discussions with TKMS [ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems], and the acquisition was a business decision, made on business grounds. Only when I could show that did I get permission to go ahead."
Saab's naval business isn't just about shipbuilding — it produces a variety of ship and combat systems that are installed on more than 200 ships worldwide. But it's in submarines where the company is trying to make its mark.
Saab Kockums and the Swedish Navy have resurrected the A26 submarine project, a highly advanced design that many in Sweden thought TKMS wanted to kill off in favor of German designs. Retaining the rights to the A26 was a major element in the government's decision to restore Kockums to Swedish ownership, and earlier this year, the Defense Ministry committed to buying two of the subs. A contract is expected this year.
"We are negotiating now on A26," Fransson said," and I would expect something in a matter of months."
Using a newer version of the proven Stirling air-independent propulsion (AIP), non-hull-penetrating photonics periscopes and enhanced special operations features, the A26 is considered by Kockums to be one of the most advanced submarine designs in the world.
"The design features a number of pre-defined cuts so we can cut the pressure hull and introduce new capabilities" over the submarine's life, said Lars Roninqvist, the head of marketing for Saab Kockums, and a Kockums employee for 16 years. The ability to enlarge the submarine, he said, will make it easier to modernize the vessel with new payloads or extended AIP stores.
The new Mark 4 AIP module, he said, "makes better use of waste heat" than the existing Mark 3, and the low sulfur diesel and liquid oxygen that power the engine make for "very easy replenishment." The Swedish Navy, he noted, carries out underway replenishments of its Gotland-class submarines "a couple times" each year. The propulsion plant, Roninqvist added, will also feature a permanent magnet motor allowing for a much smaller generator, although he declined to provide further details.
Designed with stern planes in X-configuration, the A26 will have a bottoming capability, said Gunnar Ohlund, a senior sales executive and former engineer who's been with Kockums since 1992.
The submarine will have a "high-performance sensor and communications suite with large and flexible payload capacity and special operations forces support," Ohlund said. Another feature will be "excellent habitability and working environment" — necessary features "to convince the younger generation that the submarine will fulfill working expectations."
Much of the A26 design, Ohlund said, still derives from the Nordic Viking program, an aborted project in the early 2000s to develop a common submarine design for Sweden, Norway and Denmark.
But with Swedish requirements remaining "fairly stable," he said, the design "is quite mature today," and "comes quite close to the version we developed for Norway."
Saab Kockums projects a building time of about five years for each submarine, Ohlund added, followed by a test-and-trial period, with the first unit being commissioned in late 2022 or early 2023.
Saab is aggressively pursuing international partners for its submarine programs. The company had high hopes last year to make a serious run for the 12-ship Australian submarine replacement program. Kockums designed the Collins-class subs in the 1980s and was an original partner in the Australian Submarine Corporation that built the boats. But it was rebuffed in February by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who criticized Kockums for not having built a new sub for nearly two decades.
The comments still sting here in Sweden. Saab's combat systems are on Australian and New Zealand frigates, and on the new Canberra-class assault ships, Fransson said.
"We have 300 people in Adelaide," she said. "Whether we win the Australian submarine program or not we will be part of naval in Australia."
Saab Kockums is also going after the Dutch Navy's four-ship Walrus-class submarine replacement program, and in January announced an "exclusive teaming agreement" with Dutch shipbuilder Damen Shipyards Group to work together to secure the contract.
"We have always been a company that works locally," Fransson said. "We work where we are, we work with others. Partnerships are important to us. It's not a coincidence that we entered into a partnership with Damen. We believe that if we're going to be strong in submarines in Europe, we know submarines, they know shipyards."
The Dutch program, she added, is "still in the early phases. We anticipate seeing something from the government before the end of this year."
And while Saab Kockums will still consider building surface ships — "we're going to choose very carefully where we want to be" — Fransson clearly is focused on the domain beneath the water's surface.
"The underwater domain is very important for Saab in the coming years, as it is one of Sweden's strategic areas," she said. "We need to position ourselves to show what we can do."