Belgium and Netherlands have recently announced the launch of a joint frigate programme that will replace their current multipurpose frigates with four new anti-submarine warfare (ASW) frigates.
The programme is part of a long-standing cooperation between the two navies, which share a common fleet and command structure. The new frigates will be built by Damen and equipped with Thales Nederland’s integrated radar and fire control system. The first frigate is expected to be delivered to the Royal Netherlands Navy in 2029, followed by the Belgian Navy in 2030. The remaining two frigates will be delivered in the subsequent years.
The ASW frigates will have a main task of detecting and engaging submarines, using their onboard NH90 helicopter and Mk54 torpedoes. They will also have the Naval Strike Missile for surface targets and the ESSM Block 2 for air defence. The frigates will feature the Under Water Warfare Suite, which will provide the crew with a comprehensive picture of the submarine threat. The frigates will also have a low acoustic signature, making them difficult to detect by submarines, and countermeasures to defend against torpedo attacks.
The frigate programme will cost around €4 billion, which is higher than the initial estimate in 2018. Part of the increase is due to inflation, and another part is due to the decision of both countries to fully equip the frigates with the most modern armament and sensors. The Belgian Defense Minister, Ludivine Dedonder, said that she could not afford to have less capable frigates than the Dutch ones, and that she wanted to ensure that the Belgian Navy had the best equipment to carry out its missions. She also said that the Netherlands had committed to strengthening the industrial cooperation between the two countries, and that €355 million worth of orders would be placed with Belgian industry.
The frigate program is a significant boost for the naval capabilities of Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as for their defence cooperation. The new frigates will provide an important reinforcement of their striking power, especially in the field of ASW, which is a vital domain in today’s maritime security environment. The program also demonstrates their commitment to European defence integration. They are leading examples of how two neighbouring countries can work together to achieve common goals and share costs and benefits.
Anti-Submarine Warfare Frigate
ASWFs are frigates that have specialized sensors, weapons, and systems for anti-submarine warfare (ASW). ASW is the branch of naval warfare that involves finding and neutralizing enemy submarines, which can pose a serious threat to surface ships, aircraft carriers, and coastal installations. Submarines can operate stealthily underwater, launch torpedoes and missiles, and conduct intelligence and reconnaissance missions.
ASWFs use various methods to detect submarines, such as sonar (sound waves), radar (radio waves), and electro-optical (infrared and visible light) sensors. They also use helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to extend their range and coverage. Once a submarine is detected, ASWFs can engage it with torpedoes, missiles, guns, or depth charges. They can also deploy decoys or countermeasures to evade or confuse enemy torpedoes.
ASWFs are important because they provide a vital capability for naval forces to protect themselves and their allies from submarine attacks. Submarines are becoming more advanced and numerous, especially in regions such as the Indo-Pacific, where countries like China, Russia, India, and North Korea have been expanding their submarine fleets. Submarines can also challenge the freedom of navigation and access of naval forces in contested waters, such as the South China Sea, the Baltic Sea, or the Persian Gulf.
ASWFs can also support other naval missions, such as escorting convoys or amphibious forces, enforcing maritime security or sanctions, conducting humanitarian assistance or disaster relief operations, or participating in joint or coalition exercises. ASWFs can also act as deterrents or show of force against potential adversaries or aggressors.
Several countries are developing or acquiring new ASWFs to modernize their naval forces and enhance their ASW capabilities. Some examples are:
- The United Kingdom is building eight Type 26 frigates for the Royal Navy, replacing the older Type 23 frigates. The Type 26 frigates will have a displacement of 6,900 tonnes, a length of 149 meters, and a complement of 157 personnel. They will be equipped with a bow sonar, a towed array sonar, a variable depth sonar, a helicopter hangar and flight deck for an NH90 helicopter and UAVs, a vertical launch system for 48 Sea Ceptor missiles and 24 Tomahawk cruise missiles or LRASM anti-ship missiles, a Mk 45 5-inch gun, two Phalanx close-in weapon systems (CIWS), four 30mm cannons, two quad torpedo launchers for Sting Ray torpedoes, and two miniguns. The first Type 26 frigate, HMS Glasgow, is expected to enter service by the end of 2028.
- The Netherlands and Belgium jointly procure four Anti-Submarine Warfare Frigates (ASWF) for their navies, replacing the existing M-class frigates. The ASWFs will have a displacement of 5,500 tonnes, a length of 133 meters, and a complement of up to 110 personnel (plus space for an additional 40). They will be equipped with a bow sonar, a towed array sonar, a helicopter hangar and flight deck for an NH90 helicopter and UAVs, a vertical launch system for LRASM anti-ship missiles and ESSM surface-to-air missiles (quad-packs per cell), a RAM CIWS with 21 missiles each, an OTO Melara 76mm gun with DART ammunition, two Oto Marlin 40mm guns, several medium and light machine guns, and a torpedo system. The first ASWF is expected to enter service by 2029.
- Norway is acquiring five Nansen-class frigates for its navy, replacing the older Oslo-class frigates. The Nansen-class frigates have a displacement of 5,290 tonnes, a length of 134 meters, and a complement of 120 personnel.