Spanish MoD Rejects El País Report Of New Submarine Blunder
(Image: Spain's S-74 Tramontana submarine in 2013, MoD)

El País reported on Wednesday that Spain’s struggling new S-80 submarine procurement programme had run into another problem.

After previously being found too heavy to resurface, the boats were now too long to fit in the submarine pens at the Cartagena naval base, the newspaper said, meaning millions would need to be spent extending them.

The submarines were lengthened—and re-baptised the S-80 Plus—to fix the weight problem.

“The MoD will have to make the docks at the Cartagena base bigger because the new submarine doesn’t fit”, said the headline. The article reported the  €16 million cost would go into the nearly €4 billion revised project cost, or nearly a billion euros per submarine.

El Pais published an infographic suggesting the new length of the boats was the reason the submarine pens would have to be extended lengthways.

“For the four submarines to fit”, wrote the paper: “the pens will need to be dragged and lengthened”.

An irate Ministry of Defence spokesman told me there was “nothing new” in the El País story and confirmed that the extension of the width—not the length—of the submarine pens at the Cartagena naval base had been in budget documents “since before 2009”.

That widening of the pens, by two metres, is part of a package that also includes battery workshops and IT updates to deal with the new boats.

“There is no modification of the project or decision taken in the MoD that implies the lengthening of the pens for the submarines”, he said.

“It is possible that they won’t need lengthening because they don’t have to fit on the dock lengthways anyway.”

Context

Spain’s S80 diesel-electric (non-nuclear) submarine programme dates from 2003, when José María Aznar (PP) was still Prime Minister. Four boats are planned, with the first now due to be handed over from shipbuilder Navantia to the Spanish Navy in 2022, and the last one in 2027.

As well as the weight problem and today’s confusion about the submarine pens, the project is also attempting to develop an innovative ethanol “air-independent propulsion” (AIP) system that would allow each boat to remain submerged and operate for up to two weeks without surfacing. 

El País reported in its story on Wednesday that the plan was to introduce the Spanish AIP system, based on bioethanol, on the third S-80 submarine, not due for delivery until 2026, but that this part of the project still had to be proven to work properly.

What’s at stake?

Billions of euros and Spain’s reputation as a military shipbuilder. Defence procurement projects are notoriously costly and frequently require even bigger budgets than are initially pencilled in to reach the finish line.

Britain’s Type 45 destroyer programme came in at 30% more than the initial budget—at a billion pounds a ship—and the first one entered service three years late.

In 2015, Politico reported America’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme was “$163 billion over budget, seven years behind schedule, and will cost taxpayers about twice as much as sending a man to the moon”.

In 2017, Reuters reported the “20 billion-euro” European A400M military transport aircraft project “continues to encounter technical problems, seven years after winning a 3.5 billion-euro bailout from seven NATO nations”.

More broadly, should a country be ploughing so many billions into military hardware when it has other demands on its budget? Or should it buy vehicles and equipment off-the-shelf but manufactured somewhere else?

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