23 May 2015
For thousands of young German sailors the inlet or fjord between Kiel and the Baltic Sea in northern Germany was their last glimpse of home.
On the southern shore of the waterway stands a 15-metre high sandstone pillar topped by a four-metre bronze eagle. Behind it dozens of brass plates set into a curved wall carry the names of 35,000 sailors who perished in both World Wars.
One has the names of the crew of U-127 sunk on December 1941 off Gibraltar by the Royal Australian Navy destroyer HMAS Nestor.
Germany has a long and proud history of submarine operations, but the staggering losses commemorated around this sombre memorial speaks to the madness of war.
Losses in the U-boat fleet were astronomical and most sailors who left home here knew they would not be coming back.
Just north of Kiel is the German Navy’s main submarine base near the pretty Baltic village of Eckernforde. The peaceful scenery and array of pleasure craft in the marina is about as far removed from conflict as you could imagine.
Tied up at the base’s wharf is one of the navy’s new Type 212A submarines built at the ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) shipyard in Kiel harbour.
BIDS TO BUILD AUSTRALIA’S FUTURE SUBMARINES
The compact attack submarines are the latest in a long line of German designed and built submarines. TKMS has constructed 161 boats for 20 navies around the world since 1960 at Kiel including more than 50 built in customer countries that have benefited from a philosophy of total technology transfer.
The parent company operates in 80 countries, has a $60 billion turnover and employs 160,700 people globally. In Australia it employs 900 mainly engineers.
TKMS is the world leader in non-nuclear submarine construction and it is pushing very hard to win the contract to build Australia’s future submarine.
The navy wants to buy more than eight 4000-tonne submarines to replace its six ageing Collins Class boats from about 2026.
Germany, Japan and France are engaged in a bizarre “competitive evaluation process” by the Abbott Government for the $20 billion plus contract, which will be the most expensive and complex defence project ever undertaken to provide the nation with a vital deterrent and force multiplier for the next 50 years.
Sadly there is no “transparency” requirement in the process but that hasn’t stopped the Germans from opening their doors to share almost everything about their submarines and what they can offer Australian taxpayers.
The same cannot be said for Japan and France whose submarine proposals are shrouded in secrecy.
For TKMS this is a rare opportunity to win the biggest contract in history for non-nuclear submarines and the firm is pulling out all stops.
INSIDE TKMS’ HEADQUARTERS
This week it opened its door to a group of Australian defence writers to explore in detail both its submarine and surface ship operations.
TKMS board member Torsten Konker described the Japanese bid as a “white elephant” because no one knew anything at all about what it is offering with its evolved Soryu Class boat.
Many observers agree and regard the Soryu as being optimised for Japan rather than Australia. They see the huge sovereign risk issues such as the lack of an export record as well as language, political and cultural differences as a bridge too far.
With nine submarines either under construction or being upgraded the Kiel facility is the world leader in non-nuclear boats.
TKMS Australia chief executive and former submarine commander Philip Stanford said all the German technology was exportable and the firm was willing to design an Australian built capability tailored to Australia’s needs.
“We don’t hide things,” he said.
Mr Stanford said another major advantage was the fact that the synergies between the German and Australian navies were very strong and likely to become even closer.
“The German navy is similar to ours,” he said.
That means cooperating in a variety of areas including submarine, technology and weapons development.
TKMS’ VIEW ON USING ADELAIDE FACILITIES
The company also visualises an Australian submarine and warship hub in Adelaide possibly building boats for countries such as Canada and maintaining TKMS submarines for regional nations and its bid is strongly supported by a German Government that is keen for close cooperation with Australia.
According to Mr Konker the German firm has a good record of cooperating with very different companies and diverse cultures including Israel, Turkey, Italy and Colombia to deliver cutting edge submarines.
“We have quite a good track record,” he said.
At the Kiel yard Israeli Dolphin boats are built alongside Greek or German submarines and when the time comes to install sensitive equipment — and there is a lot of it in an Israeli submarine — the vessel is “locked up” and everyone apart from Israeli engineers are banned from entry until the installation is complete.
Two-hours south of Kiel in the port city of Hamburg, known during World War 2 as “U-boat central”, the Blohm and Voss shipyard stands as a beacon of German industrial might.
The yard that turned out the German battleship Bismark has been building ships for 200 years and it produced hundreds of U-boats between 1939 and 1945.
Below the shipyard and running under the Elbe River is a huge tile lined tunnel where U-boat parts were made as allied bombers pounded the city above. Today it is a popular walk and cycle way between the city and the shipyard.
Blohm and Voss sub contracts its huge yard to TKMS and today turns out hi-tech Frigates and other warships for navies around the world.
It was a robust Blohm and Voss Meko design that was chosen for the navy’s Anzac Frigate project that is widely regarded as the most successful Australian navy shipbuilding project ever.
According to TKMS senior vice-president of strategic sales and former South African Rear Admiral Jonathan Kamerman, the company’s key pillars that made the Anzacs such a success — such as seakeeping and fighting survivability — still applied today. TKMS has supplied 143
warships to 16 navies in 17 new classes since 1970 with half built in customer shipyards such as Williamstown in Melbourne.
He said Australia should learn the lesson from the flawed Air Warfare Destroyer alliance and look to the company that has done it before for Australia.
The man behind the Anzac ship was Dr John White who is now the chairman of TKMS Australia. When John White speaks governments usually take notice and he is speaking a great deal of sense when it comes to the navy’ future submarine and future frigate projects.
He was recently contracted by the government with American expert Donald Winter to examine the troubled Air Warfare Destroyer Alliance that is running years late and hundreds of millions over budget. The report remains a closely guarded secret.
Dr White sees a clear and logical path for the nation’s most important weapon projects.
He said TKMS was committed to replicating its German naval capability in Australia and specifically at Techport in Port Adelaide on the site of the taxpayer owned ASC. The company will push to take over ASC as part of its push to build subs, frigates and Pacific Patrol boats at the site.
“If not we will establish our own facilities at Techport and work with other facilities to build both Sea 1000 [submarines] and Sea 5000 [frigates] if we won them competitively,” Dr White said.
The Howard Government first raised the prospect of Adelaide becoming the national shipbuilding centre of excellence back in the late 1990s.
Sadly successive governments have been unable to make it happen, but the future submarine and frigate projects present an ideal opportunity for “national interest and sound business decisions to triumph over political bastardry and stupidity.”