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In March 2019, the first phase of the Belgian and Dutch navies’ joint
acquisition programme reached a milestone when the Belgian Government selected the Belgium Naval & Robotics consortium that brings together the French Naval Group and ECA Robotics for the construction of the twelve new mine countermeasure vessels, with each navy to receive six. “This collaboration is a good example of how nations can collaborate increasingly on procurement programmes,”
Rear Admiral Wim Robberecht, Commander of the Belgian Navy, told ESD. ESD then spoke with the Admiral about modernisation projects in
his Navy and the challenges ahead.

ESD: Can you give us an overview of your Navy’s two major projects and the timeframe for the start of construction, as well as the anticipated in-service dates?
Robberecht: Following the call for tenders in the summer of 2018 the Belgian Government announced the selection of the French consortium Naval Group / ECA Robotics for the construction of the new minecountermeasure vessels on 15 March 2019. The procurement process was conducted in a transparent manner, yielding the best ship design that meets both our navies’ requirements. We opted for a ‘stand-off’ minecountermeasure (MCM) capability, with a ‘mothership’ of about 80 m and displacing a little less than 3000 tonnes, suited to embark a variety of unmanned remotely operated or autonomous subsurface, surface and aerial systems to perform mine detection, identification, classification, and disposal – the so-called ‘MCM Toolbox’. The ships will also be able to act as command platform for a MCM task group and feature the flexibility to be retro-fitted with emerging technologies throughout their service lives. The final notification of the contract is anticipated for May 2019, with the delivery of the leadship in late 2023/early 2024 and our six MCMVs in service by 2030. ECA Robotics will deliver the MCM toolboxes in parallel to the delivery of the platforms.

As the lead nation for this project, we will put the ‘first-of-class’ (FoC) through her paces, e.g. conducting the harbour and sea acceptance tests and testing the MCM toolbox. These tests, scheduled to run well into 2024, will be carried out with a mixed Belgian/Netherlands crew. As such, only the first of the new platforms will have to undergo these tests, without the Dutch Navy having to repeat all these tests when its first MCMV joins the fleet. In order to prepare the initial crew in the best possible way, we will start about 1½ year prior to the delivery of the leadship with their training – sending some of the crew to the shipyard, while others will go to ECA Robotic for ‘on-the-spot’ training with the ‘toolbox’ systems.
When it comes to the new multi-purpose frigates, the Dutch Navy is in charge of supervising this project. At the moment I am not in a position to give more details of what type of platform we will choose. Talks about our capability requirements with industry are ongoing and we are looking at several providers in order to see what is on offer within our requirements. But I can disclose that the Dutch Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO) is in contact with Damen Schelde Naval Shipbuilding (DSNS) and Thales Netherlands. The outlines for these frigates are a displacement in the 6000 and 7000 tonnes range, and they are to feature the latest generation anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and anti-surface warfare (ASuW) suites, as well as a limited air defence capability (ADC), and they need to be capable to embark a medium-sized helicopter. Design work is expected to be completed by the end of 2020 in the hope that the first-of-class can be delivered to the Netherlands Navy in 2024, and our first frigate may join the fleet by 2027. With the new frigates to feature a vertical launch system (VLS), we are also looking at possibilities to fit a Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) ‘shooter capacity’ onboard our frigates.

Both these programmes can be an incentive to enhance cooperation with other navies that are also looking into new platforms or capabilities and, as such, generating commercial export benefits.

The new MCM mother ship will displace around 3,000 tons and be 80 metres long.

ESD: Drones are major game changers in maritime surveillance. Are you looking into the procurement of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)?
Robberecht: Indeed, we are looking into the acquisition of such systems, preferably rotary-winged type UAVs because these are easier to recover and can carry bigger payloads. Last year (2018) we tested a Schiebel CAMCOPTER 100 and this year we will put a Saab V200 SKELDAR UAV through the tests.

So far, the results we have obtained from these trials have been satisfactory. It is worth noting that, in addition to the experience we have gained with the CAMCOPTER, we have also gained an insight into the procedures to be followed when operating these systems, for example, the legislation on flying over coastal waters, ports, and so forth, has some shortcomings. We expect to take a decision in 2020.

ESD: Are there other efforts besides these projects or is something else on the drawing board?
Robberecht: Another project underway is the replacement of our 34-year-old oceanographic research vessel BNS BELGICA. On 16 March 2018, the contract for the construction of a new multidisciplinary research vessel was awarded to the Freire Shipyards in Vigo, Spain. The keel was laid on 27 March 2019 and her launch is anticipated for February 2020, with the delivery expected in October of the same year. Displacement is going to be about 2000 tonnes; the 71 m long multidisciplinary research vessel will be fitted with equipment to operate in a variety of fields such as geology, sedimentology, fishery, biology, oceanography and hydrography. It will be built in accordance with the IMO polar code and will be capable of conducting missions in the North Sea, the Mediterranean and even northern waters.

In addition we plan to further enhance our coastal security and harbour protection assets. The two coastal patrol vessels BNS CASTOR and BNS POLLUX will be upgraded with a command and control (C²) suite. These relatively cheap platforms are well suited to deploy further afield, for instance going on expeditionary missions in support the EU Border Security Control initiative. However, due to a lack of personnel, such deployments must currently be excluded.And, on a longer term – if the budgetary means allow – introduce new systems to improve the coastal security and a harbour protection capability that will focus on countering pierside threats.

ESD: What is the status of your NH90 NFH CAÏMAN helicopters?
Robberecht: Our four NHIndustries NFH 90 CAIMAN helicopters are to be upgraded with ASW and ASuW suites, including dipping sonar, torpedoes, sonobuoys and/or air-to-surface missiles. The upgrades take somewhat longer than initially planned because, with the phasing out of the Belgian Air Component’s Westland SEA KING Mk 48 SAR helicopters [on 21 March 2019], priority is given to get their NH90 maritime tactical transport/SAR helicopters in service first. Until our CAIMANs are back from the retrofit, expected in 2021, we continue to operate our ALOUETTE III helicopters.
With Luxembourg having signed a Letter of Intent for the purchase of three NH90s – two Tactical Transport Helicopter (TTH) versions and one NATO Frigate Helicopter (NFH) version – the latter may possibly complement our seagoing capability.

ESD: I suppose that, until the new assets enter the fleet, you have to make compromises to optimise your resources?
Robberecht: Yes, occasionally I have to make compromises in order to optimise my resources. It is a matter of being selective in drawing up the ships’ programmes and making careful decisions of our participation in exercises, deployments and operations. In 2018, we had a fairly busy agenda, seeing our ships being deployed to the Baltic, Atlantic, Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Guinea, and we here also in command of NATO’s Standing Naval Mine Countermeasure Group 1 (SNMCMG1). Consequently, in order not to overstretch my crews, I choose to have 2019 slightly less busy. However, it goes without saying that we continue to be present in NATO’s standing groups – SNMG1 and SNMCMG1 and support EU missions but, in some cases, reduce the duration of our assignments. After the summer break, our frigate BNS LEOPOLD I will join SNMG1 for approximately 4 months during which the group is scheduled to cross the Atlantic for some exercises with the US Navy along the US East coast. As for the minehunters, I will only assign them to SNMCMG1 during those periods when the crews can really enhance their MCM experience, such as for the mine clearance operations in the Baltic, the Historical Ordnance Disposal Operations (HODOPS) on the French side of the English Channel, or the Northern Coast exercise.
And sometimes I deliberately skip our participation in exercises. Although a very interesting exercise with a high training value, I decided not to send any of my assets to Joint Warrior 1-2019.

ESD: Do you face challenges in recruiting the right people?
Robberecht: In the years ahead we will have to reckon with a massive outflow of our chief petty officers and petty officers. To deal with this high attrition, and with new ships underway, my focus is now on recruitment. We need a significant increase in the number of recruits. I am aware that this is a challenging recruitment environment. Many young people do not know that there are many civilian jobs available in our Navy, and their attitude to job hopping certainly does not help. That is why we have introduced a balanced plan that allows us to pause and ensure predictability. As for recruitment campaigns, we will go to schools and universities to explain what you can do in the Navy, and if we can show them the new platforms they will be working on, I am very confident that this will convince them that a job in our Navy is attractive.

In response to its rotary wing UAV requirement the Belgian Navy is considering the Schiebel CAMCOPTER S100 and the UMS Skeldar V200.

ESD: Given Russia’s posture in Europe and the resurgent Russian Navy, the North Atlantic is re-emerging as a contested space. Is the Belgian Navy affected by the security concerns due to deteriorating relations between the West and Moscow?
Robberecht: In the past decades, navies switched from a warfighting role to a maritime security role, forcing a decrease of the fleets’ high-end capabilities and a loss of experience in conventional warfare.

Today there is a renewed focus on the GIUK gap and the Atlantic Ocean with blue water operations, and ASW in particular is regaining importance. NATO not only established a new Joint Force Command headquarters in Norfolk, US, but introduced also its Defence Planning Process (NDPP) within which national and Alliance activities are harmonised in order to enable allies to provide the required assets to undertake NATO’s missions. Obviously, this complex security context and NATO’s new policy has an impact on our Navy. But I assure you that our procurement programmes prove to be very relevant and in accordance to this prevailing environment.

ESD: What do you think is needed for an effective approach to improve Maritime Situational Awareness (MSA) and Maritime Security (MS)?
Robberecht: Maritime security is paramount and is now one of the navies’ core task. With maritime challenges becoming more complex and unpredictable, international cooperation is a necessity.

We support the initiatives taken by VADM Sir Clive Johnston (Commander of NATO’s Allied Maritime Command – MARCOM). He advocates that NATO must have the knowledge of what is happening in the maritime domain and, therefore, develop a coherent, shared and sustainable maritime cooperative strategy and stay informed about the assets and capabilities the members can make available if need arises. These initiatives are the annual Maritime Operations Centre Directors Conferences and the Maritime Operational Commanders Conferences (MOCC) where the Chiefs of Navy can meet.

ESD: You also attend the Chiefs of European Navies (CHENS) meetings and the Regional Seapower Symposium (RSS) in Venice. How useful are these meetings?
Robberecht: Both events are excellent venues to meet colleagues and to exchange ideas, talk about issues of common interest and enhance awareness and knowledge of the maritime domain. As such, one sees that often regional cooperation agreements within the maritime world are equivocally linked and established from the bilateral or multilateral talks we have during these meetings.

ESD: You became the new Commander of the Belgian Navy in September 2016. Have you already achieved some of the goals you set yourself? What have been your most memorable achievements so far?
Robberecht: One of my main goals when I took command of the Belgian Navy was to try to raise the awareness of our Government and the general public about the relevance of our Navy. And, with the initial phases of the Navy’s new projects in full swing, one of my other aims was to promote the interaction of the military leadership with industry, the academic world and research and development companies in order to find mutual synergies. These institutes have the technological capabilities we possibly can translate into our requirements. Enhancing such partnerships has been a crucial element to successfully deliver the platforms we need.

ESD: What do you think will likely have an impact on your Navy in the coming years?
Robberecht: I expect that the upcoming technological innovations will transform the navies. The pace at which technologies are evolving creates a world where equipment and doctrines are constantly redefined.

Virtual reality (VR) is the ‘next big thing’. VR training and technologies will play an increasingly important role in the education and training of our sailors, as the inherent interactive nature of virtual technology makes training more interesting and also improves learning processes and enables capabilities to be freed up for operation.

ESD: What is the course ahead? How will you ensure that your Navy is ready to meet future challenges?
Robberecht: It is my responsibility to ensure that the Belgian Navy has a perspective for the next 30 to 40 years. Although I am very satisfied with the comprehensive renewal of the fleet, I must guarantee that the Navy remains relevant in the long term. I firmly believe that “numbers matter”, for example, that our inventory should ideally include a third frigate and two more coastal patrol vessels. And we must also keep pace with the new technologies that are becoming available, such as robotics, unmanned systems, sensors, underwater drones and communications, and see how they can help us maintain our naval lead and be prepared for tomorrow’s challenges.

The interview was conducted by Guy Toremans.