On August 18th 2016, the HMBS Nassau (P-61), a 17 year old 60 metre long Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) arrived at Damen Maaskant Shipyards Stellendam in the Netherlands to start a 9 month refit. That a vessel of that age needs a refit is unsurprising. What is surprising, however, is the fact that P-61 was built in the United States and its refit is taking place in the Netherlands, a step that would, at first glance, seem to be somewhat odd.
However, the refit of P-61 is just the latest step in a process which has seen the complete recapitalization of several Commonwealth Caribbean Coast Guards with ships designed and built by the Dutch Damen Shipyards Ltd company. In ten years, from 2006 to 2016, the Coast Guards of Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas and Trinidad & Tobago would have been virtually totally re-equipped with Damen patrol vessels in the 30 to 50 metre length range. Not only has Damen supplanted the more traditional American and British suppliers of naval vessels to these countries, it has forged strong partnerships with the users of their products within the region – to the extent of refitting the Nassau and her sister-ship the HMBS Bahamas (P-60) though they were not Dutch made, as well as building support facilities for their vessels to enable maintenance and overhaul work to be done within the region.
It is not just the Commonwealth Caribbean that has proven to be a ready market for Damen products, but the Coast Guards of Canada, Mexico, Honduras, Ecuador, Venezuela and the United States have made large purchases of Damen designed vessels, although in the cases of the United States, Canada and Mexico, the vessels are locally made. Of these ships, the US Coast Guard Sentinel class Fast Response Cutter (SPa 4708), with 58 being planned for induction, marks the largest class of coastal patrol vessels in the entire Western hemisphere. To facilitate the sheer number of vessels, Damen has entered into a partnership with the Bollinger shipyard based in Louisiana.
The popularity of Damen vessels in the region is surprising considering the decidedly modest capabilities of the basic vessels. Building to standard designs (known as Standard Patrol or SPa), Damen’s construction process enables vessels to be fabricated in virtual kit form and assembled and integrated in a relatively short space of time. The SPa sub-types are differentiated by their length and width – an SPa 4207 being 42m long and 7 m wide, with an SPa 5009 being 50m long and 9m wide. Of the various sub-types, the SPa 4207 is used by the largest number of countries though the 5009 is gaining in popularity. The SPa 4708 which forms the basis for the Sentinel class is curiously not so popular, with only 3 others in service in South Africa for fisheries protection. A list of the countries in the Western hemisphere using Damen SPa patrol craft is as follows:
|Trinidad and Tobago||2015||4 (+2 FCS 5009 and 6 DI 1102)||5009|
|United States||2011||19 (delivered of 58 planned)||4708|
|Bahamas||2013||4 + 1 Damen 5612 landing craft||4207|
Source: Damen Shipyards, Author’s own research, Jane’s Fighting Ships
The capabilities offered by the SPa vessels in their basic form are modest – the vessels are unarmed and do not come with a particularly substantial surveillance suite and have a performance that is at best barely adequate for their envisaged roles. This means that the cost per vessel can, for basic ships, be quite reasonable for Coast Guards on limited budgets with a basic SPa 4207 costing approximately USD 15 million and a basic SPa 5009 coming in at USD 23 million. The addition of armament and surveillance systems can dramatically – and at times excessively – increase the price of the vessels.
Two examples illustrate this trend. Trinidad & Tobago’s SPa 5009s with the addition of a relatively simple 20mm gun on a MSI LW 20K-A1 Seahawk mount and a surveillance suite that included high-end civilian items such as the Kelvin Hughes Sharp-Eye radar and a FLIR system and more powerful engines to increase the vessels relatively low top speed, increased in price from USD 23 million to a substantial USD 35 million. The United States Sentinel class suffered even worse price inflation with the cost of the vessel’s 25mm gun, surveillance system and C4I suite increasing its price by over 300% from approximately USD 20 million for the basic SPa 4708 to a staggering USD 65 million. It should be noted that even with these enhancements, the vessels, while certainly capable of performing their intended tasks of coastal patrol and interdiction, still fall below the standard of naval Fast Attack Craft (Gun) such as the Indian Car Nicobar class and its successors.
As has been mentioned before, the Coast Guards of the Commonwealth Caribbean were previously equipped with a mixture of British and American craft since their inception in the 1960s and 1970s. Only Trinidad & Tobago deviated from that path by procuring two modified Spica class 40m patrol boats from Sweden in 1979-80 and then six 30m Austal APB-30 Fast Patrol Craft in the period 2008-2010 from Australia but its Coast Guard largely stayed with British and American designs for most of its history.
Damen’s ability to break into this market and then to dominate it is largely due to its ability to deliver craft quickly at reasonable prices. Speed of delivery cannot be understated as Caribbean Coast Guards have a penchant for waiting until their fleets are almost on the verge of total collapse before placing fresh orders. Damen calculated that Caribbean Coast Guards were principally constabulary forces that did not require sophisticated naval vessels for their stipulated tasks. To this end, it was able to market its SPa vessels as cost-effective solutions to national requirements. Furthermore, being designs that were easy to upgrade, the SPa 5009 and SPa 4708 designs were able to morph into much more capable patrol vessels as in the case of those in service with the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard and the United States Coast Guard. It is this combination of factors that worked in Damen’s favour when it secured its Trinidadian contract. Even though vessels from South Korea, the United States, China and Colombia were carefully evaluated and though the performance and capabilities of those vessels were in some cases superior to Damen’s and their prices comparable, Damen’s overall package was deemed to be more suitable.
Damen’s success in the Caribbean – and indeed the Western hemisphere – offers several lessons for shipyards seeking to export small and medium sized patrol vessels:
Despite its success, it should be noted that Damen has not been able to sell a single new warship to any navy in the Western hemisphere nor has it been able to convince any Coast Guard to order a Damen OPV (despite a Dutch Naval OPV, built by Damen, being permanently stationed in the Caribbean). The only Dutch ships in service in the region – in the navies of Peru and Chile respectively – are an ageing cruiser and some frigates which were all obtained second-hand from the Dutch government when they were phased out of service. This shows that Damen has secured a niche market in the region for “cheap and cheerful” patrol craft with modest capabilities. The market for more advanced vessels thus remains wide open for any that wish to venture into these waters.
Endnote: There is a somewhat ironic twist in the Damen saga in the Latin America-Caribbean region – the former Dutch colony of Suriname has adamantly refused to purchase any Damen vessels for its Coast Guard – it could be that the Dutch government’s desire to place President Bouterse on trial for murder (committed in 1982) may be a factor in this decision.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.