Let me start by being absolutely clear: everything points to that the A26 Blekinge-class submarine will be a stellar piece of engineering, highly adept at its mission, and by quite a margin the submarine class in the world best suited to the narrow waters of the Baltic Sea.
Having said that, the Swedish decision to acquire two vessels of the class unfortunately seem to be a blow to Sweden’s defence capability, threatening to crowd out key capabilities and investments from a naval budget that is already far too small for the country and its 81,435 square kilometres of sea.
The first modern Swedish submarine design, sporting a teardrop hull-shape inspired by the USS Albacore and an X-rudder, was the A-11 class (also known as Sjöormen or Sjöormen II). These entered service in the late 1960’s, and the five boats meant that Sweden had an impressive fleet of 20+ submarines in the first half of the 1970’s. The withdrawal of the modernised WWII-era Kustubåtar/Jaktubåtar left a fleet of 17 submarines going into the next decades. The 1980’s saw the withdrawal of the A-12 (Draken II-class), which despite the number was an older and simpler design compared to the ambitious A-11. At this time, the fleet stabilised at a dozen submarines, with the A-14 (Näcken II) and the A-17 (Västergötland) covering for the six outgoing vessels. However, the five A-11 were sold to Singapore (as the Challenger-class) starting in 1995, and 1998 saw the A-14 being withdrawn. After the turn of the millennium, two of the A-17 were retired and eventually sold to Singapore (the Archer-class), with the other two returning to service highly modified as the Södermanland-class. Here they joined the three submarines of the A19 (Gotland-class), meaning Sweden had five submarines in service. Of these five, HMS Östergötland (the last A-17) has since been retired, leaving Sweden with four submarines in its fleet.
Of the four serving submarines, two of the A19 have recently undergone an MLU to extend their lifespan “beyond 2030”, while the third (HMS Halland) originally was set to just receive a general overhaul aimed at “ensuring seaworthiness and handling pressing obsolescence issues in certain systems“. It was decided in last year’s white paper to order an MLU for HMS Halland as well, though as far as I am aware of no such contract has yet been signed.
Those who can read between the lines will quickly realise that means that HMS Södermanland is not expected to serve on “beyond 2030”, meaning that if Sweden isn’t going to become a three-boat service, something else needs to come.
Enter the A26 Blekinge-class.
As I said in the ingress, the A26 is set to become an extremely capable submarine, tailored to meet the demanding requirements of the shallow and narrow waters of the Baltic Sea. This include being able to handle a number of different mission sets, including anti-submarine warfare, attacking surface vessels, intelligence gathering, SOF insertion/extraction, and so forth. And it is more and more looking like a seriously failed investment on the part of the Swedish Armed Forces in general and the Navy in particular.
To begin with, let us take a step back and look at the general situation for the Swedish Armed Forces, now (finally) trying to grow again after decades of decline. This include the decision to go from four to five submarines by retiring HMS Södermanland and ordering two new A26: HMS Blekinge and HMS Skåne. The long-term plan also identifies the possibility of further growth post-2025, when “In conjunction with the planning for the replacement of the [A19] Gotland-class the acquisition of further submarines could be considered, in addition to the three submarines required to replace the Gotland-class” (page 173). The two A26 submarines will in the meantime replace HMS Södermanland and HMS Östergötland, which by 2024-2025 “will have served for approximately 35 years”.
The last sentence contain two issues.
To begin with, HMS Östergötland has already left service, and my calendar says it is only 2021.
And secondly, the A26 sisters are now expected to arrive in the 2027-2028 timespan.
There’s an obvious gap there, and it is increasingly looking like HMS Södermanland will either be run until it is starting to fall apart, or there will be a period with a three-boat fleet. Even in the best of cases, the fleet won’t see much of a increase until 2030. However, the bigger question is about the cost in cold hard cash.
The original price tag was 8.2 Bn SEK in 2014 value (approximately 9.2 Bn SEK in 2021, or 910 MEUR). However – and this one is strikingly stupid as well as a prime example of political obfuscation – the price was based on securing export customers. That a budget is made on the assumption of securing export orders in a highly competitive niche markets within defence can’t be considered planning in good faith.
In this case, it is particularly bad due to two issues:
- The high complexity of the submarine as a weapon system, meaning that a significant part of the value goes into non-recurring costs such as research and development,
- The small size of the Swedish order – just two vessels – means that there will be no real series production, but rather two handcrafted vessels.
Combined these will cause the non-recurring part of the price tag per submarine to be particularly high. And as no export order has been signed (though the Netherlands in particular is still looking promising), the chicken eventually came home to roost earlier this fall when Saab and FMV announced that the project was late and above budget. The fact that no new submarine has been built in Sweden between the launching of HMS Halland in 1996 and HMS Bleking being launched perhaps 30 years later also appears to have come into play, as the yard “was in worse shape” than anticipated back in 2014, meaning that the project will have to include further infrastructure costs.
Bear with me for a moment.
In 2016, the Swedish public broadcaster SR did an interview with Saab, where the company confirmed that the project would stay within budget, regardless of whether there would be export orders or not.
In 2018, the Minister of Defence got an official request for information regarding the status of the project and the budget from an opposition MP. The somewhat evasive answer was that government would continue to keep the parliament informed.
In 2019, the situation was repeated, and again the answer was that the government would keep the parliament informed.
In 2021, the contract was revised upwards with an additional 5.2 Bn SEK to land at approximately 14 Bn SEK in total (approximately 1.4 Bn EUR). In Saab’s messaging, the focus is on “new capabilities that are to be added to the A26 will give an additional edge within the weapon system and stealth technology among other things”, while FMV is more frank and openly talk about the infrastructure failings and more generally issues including “a delay in the development work“.
Now, if we are to believe the poor shape of the yard in 2014 as being among the main culprits here, the story is that for six-seven years – a time that also saw the MLU of two submarines at the yard in question- neither party realised that the yard wasn’t in fact fit for building new submarines in its current state. The Minister of Defence also hadn’t noticed that the A26 was almost 60% above budget and three years late, or at the very least didn’t feel this detail was among the things the government should inform parliament about.
Exactly which part of the cost increase stems from the “increased capability” and additional spare parts is obviously hard to tell, but the sole example of the added capability given is integration of Saab’s new lightweight torpedo – Torped 47 – which was ordered by the Swedish government in 2016, and the development of which had been decided upon in 2010. Again, I do find it somewhat strange that no one in the A26 project figured out that they needed to include some money in the budget for the integration of the standard Swedish arsenal of submarine-launched weapons onto the new submarine – mind you, the submarine was ordered well after the development of what would become TP 47 was launched. Something that has been speculated about is that the new capability might include the fitting of VLS-cells, an option Saab has offered for export. However, for the time being the complete lack of any official Swedish interest in the niche capability of a dedicated cruise missile module aboard the submarine as well as the complete lack of suitable weapons makes this unlikely. The limited benefit in a Baltic Sea-scenario also stem from the fact that the submarine is not able to manoeuvre into a position from where it can launch an off-axis attack from behind the enemy defences. Besides, the fact that tube-launched cruise missiles are available and the recent decision to equip the Swedish Gripen-fleet with long-range land-attack both also point to the VLS-module being an unlikely candidate for the Swedish submarines.
The Issue at Hand
At the current price tag the A26 still seem to be roughly at the same price level as competing designs (the uncertainties are significant, though, as no two submarine deals are exactly the same when it comes to what’s included in the package). But there are significant questions that seemingly are glossed over, in part because there are sensible answers to all of the questions, but not not necessarily ones making sense when looking at the holistic picture of Swedish defence.
The basic issue is that creating a completely new submarine class from scratch is extremely expensive at the best of times. Doing that and ordering just two is quickly at risk of becoming prohibitively so as the technology and budget risks are more concentrated.
However, submarines have long been a staple of Swedish defence industry, and the country has been at the cutting edge of submarine design at least since the A-11 was launched. The political decision to build and design the A26 in Sweden is understandable from that point of view – security of supply is a very real concern – but it harken back to a day of bigger orders. The obvious solution is to buy more submarines.
But this leads us back to the basic issue of there not being enough money to go around for the Swedish Armed Forces. The Navy is cash-strapped, and while it is a real worry that the submarine force despite talk of growing to five vessels in practice is set to remain at four, or even shrink to three in the years leading up 2028, the silent service is in fact one of the better arms of the Navy. The newest of the few surface units are the Visby-class corvettes which have celebrated 20 years, with the remaining four surface combatants being over ten years older still. And the long-term plan foresee the beginning of preliminary design work for two vessels before 2025, meaning that most of the fleet will have to serve on past 2030. At the same time, the Navy is trying to get their new (old) mobile logistics concept up and running, perhaps the single most important change envisioned for the Navy in the latest white paper, and a second marine regiment has been stood up which also will require an increase in funding.
And that is just the Navy, in August the Swedish Riksrevisionen (think GAO) published a report where they noted that the Army was unable to meet their goals, with lack of funding being a key detail. Oh, and in particular they noted that:
In addition the costs for the critical defence interests JAS 39E and the new generation submarine (A26) have been difficult to make cuts to, and these projects have crowded out other acquisition projects.
With the funding for the A26 coming from the regular defence budget and not from any kind of additional funding made available to ensure that this “critical defence interest” is secured and domestic submarine knowledge are retained, the 60% growth in the budget means that something else has to give. And it is currently very difficult to find any kind of slack in the Swedish defence budget.
What is then the solution? Well, the obvious solution is that the Swedish government quickly need to start funnelling more funds to the defence budget, one possibility being through recognising its unique status and breaking out the A26 and funding it from a combination of defence funding and economic stimulus to secure the continuation of the shipyard.
However, there have been preciously little in the way of political will to pay for the defence ordered, and this solution seems unlikely in the short term.
The other possibility, and this is perhaps even harder, is to ask the question whether Sweden should just accept the fact that at some point the jack plane simply isn’t working, and the low numbers of the submarine force makes it unsustainable – or, rather, that the same defence capabilities can be had cheaper through a combination of other systems. Most of the missions can be solved in other ways. Giving the Swedish maritime NH 90 the long-required upgrades to their ASW-capability would bring a significant benefit, and investing more in the ageing surface vessels could support both the ASW- and the ASuW-mission. The Air Force can also lend a hand in the surveillance role, as well as bringing more RBS 15 as a potent ship-killing capability. Both naval and air assets can also be used to support the SOF. On the horizon, unmanned systems are also set to bring increased capabilities, though they are likely not going to be the end all be all some make them out to be in the near- and mid-term.
Have anyone dared to honestly ask whether submarines are really the best solution under the current budgetary constraints and as a part of the overall Swedish Armed Forces? Let us hope so, and it certainly is true that the uncertainty caused by submarines operating in the dark waters of the Baltic Sea is difficult to match through any other means. And there is few things that are as effective in creating a deterring effect as capabilities that are known unknowns, and which are hard to keep track of and take out in a first strike.
So we will trust the professionals that the submarines are needed and that the decision hasn’t been made on autopilot, and that the A26 is the submarine best suited for the Swedish needs. Still, it is hard not to feel that the opportunity for Sweden somewhat passed with HDW (later part of TKMS) buying Kockums in 1999 and not launching any new subs in the next few decades (the blame obviously largely goes to the Swedish government again, which maintain that the yard is a critical national interest despite first selling it to a foreign owner and then not placing any orders to ensure that the know-how is kept up to date). As noted, the combination of A26 being ordered as just a two-vessel class coupled with the complete inability to get a grip of both the cost and the timeline eleven years after order also sends alarm bells going off, and further bad news feel like a very real possibility.
Which brings us to what in hindsight probably should have been the correct way forward. Foreign turn-key submarines.
The sound you just heard was the choir of Swedish naval geeks singing the praises of 400 mm torpedoes, Stirling-engines, and a number of other unique Swedish features in the confined waters of the Baltic Sea, and how none of these could be had in a foreign design.
Yes, as I’ve said twice already, the A26 is probably the most capable design available when it comes to the Swedish demands. However, it is also late, and the final price tag is a big question mark. Sometimes, getting the second best of any individual capability is worth it to ensure that you get working stuff on schedule, and that no single capability crowd out the other capabilities needed to keep a well-balanced and working defence force. So let us look at the options.
The number of available designs isn’t overly large. Spain’s S-80 has had some, eh, interesting teething troubles, but after lengthening it it is now able to float (yes, really). At the same time, it is now an 80 meter / 3,000 ton boat, rather on the large side compared to the 65 meter / 2,000 ton of the A26. Let us quickly move on.
The elephant in the room is that TKMS (ex-HDW) which by a margin is the most important supplier of export submarines in the world is out of the question following the rather spectacular break-up with Kockums (which saw the Swedish Armed Forces, and reportedly also the Swedish Security Service, enter the premises to secure certain equipment, after which the whole yard suddenly was sold to Saab). A derivative of the Type 212 or the related Type 214 would probably be an excellent choice, these being something of a European standard with Germany, Italy, Portugal, and Greece all operating different versions, with Norway also having a number of vessels on order. The Type 212 has sported a number of different versions, with the latest Type 212CD ordered by Norway and Germany being quite a bit larger than the original vessels.
The best fit, and likely the only that even has a theoretical chance (though I like to stress that as well is purely theoretical) is likely the latest Italian design, the Near Future Submarine (NFS), also known as Todaro II. Italy has a long history as a competent designer and builder of post-war subs, and despite the original Type 212A Todaro being largely a HDW-design, the Italian and German boats have diverged as additional batches have been ordered. The NFS will introduce Lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) batteries which will provide a significant boost and a ‘first’ in European waters. Besides the Black Shark Advanced-torpedoes, the boat will also have a number of nifty SOF-features (naval special operations being an Italian speciality) as well as a land-attack capability. Delivery schedule and cost is roughly in line with A26, with the crucial difference that it is based on a tried and tested design, and there already is an Italian order for 2+2 vessels of the NFS-design providing for risk-sharing. The NFS isn’t as well-suited for the Baltic Sea as the A26, but it is a 95 % capability at a significantly reduced risk, and sometimes that is the kind of trade-off one need to make. The high-level of Italian input also means that it perhaps could be sold to the public as a Italian submarine rather than a German one.
A politically even better choice would be the French Scorpène-class, which also has received a number of export orders around the world (though none in Europe). Following AUKUS, this certainly could be a good time to get a really nice deal on French submarines. Depending on the version, the Scorpène is found in versions stretching from 60 to 75 meters, and 1,700 to 2,000 tons. The project was hit by a serious leak when a significant amount of classified documents found their way into cyberspace, though it is doubtful that it has compromised the vessel to an extent that would require buyers to stay away from it. Based on some of the numbers quoted, the boat is on the cheaper side (don’t confuse ‘cheap’ with ‘little money’, though) and available for delivery at a relatively short notice, but again – anyone claiming to know the price with any kind of accuracy of a submarine probably shouldn’t be trusted.
In the end, the reality is that the Swedish Navy will stick with the A26, meaning that the unfortunate crew of HMS Södermanland will have to keep their vessel going for quite a bit longer. It also means that any further budget increases certainly can threaten important projects, such as the Navy’s mobile base concept or those of the other services (the Army’s planned increase in engineering capabilities or the Air Force’s need for mobile logistics for the rotary wing assets come to mind as key capabilities that aren’t media-sexy enough to be able to compete with the A26 for funding).
The A26 is great, but that doesn’t mean it’s a great choice for Sweden.