The Romanian Defense Ministry will announce, on November 15, the winner of a tender to acquire four multirole corvettes to equip Romania’s Naval Forces (Adevărul, October 26). This announcement will mark the official beginning of the Romanian navy’s modernization process. The four ships will be the first to be acquired by Romania since 2003 and the first to be built in the country since 1996. The value of the contract is estimated to be around $1.8 billion and the first ship should to be delivered to the navy after three years, with the rest of the ships built in another four years (Mapn.ro, December 12, 2017). Overall, the program should last seven years. According to defense minister Mihai Fifor it is likely that Romania will order more ships after the original four will have been delivered and commissioned (RRA, October 25, 2018).
Why is this acquisition process so important? The answer is threefold. First, the corvette program is linked with Romania’s 2 percent of GDP commitment for defense spending. As such, the acquisition aims to create the material basis for increased North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) cooperation in the Black Sea. Part of the rationale for buying and building the ships is to show that Romania takes Black Sea security seriously and is willing to share the burden of its naval defense. Furthermore, these modern ships will be part of any NATO task force that will patrol or exercise, within the limits of the Montreux Convention, in the Black Sea.
Second, the Romanian government wants to use this contract to develop a national military naval building sector. Such an industrial sector existed before the fall of Communism, but by the year 2000 it had all but disappeared due to a lack of naval shipbuilding programs. Only after Romania became a NATO member did a nascent military naval industry again develop—this time by private shipbuilders and only for foreign customers. According to the requirements put forward by the Ministry of Defense, the “national interest to be fulfilled” by this acquisition is the creation of a national military shipbuilding industrial base (Mapn.ro, December 12, 2017). All four ships will have to be built at local shipyards; and as part of the offset agreement, a local maintenance and repair facility must be provided by the winning bidder.
Third, the program involves not just the building of the four ships, but also the overhaul and modernization of the two Type 22 frigates already in service with the Romanian navy. These ships were acquired second hand from the United Kingdom in 2003 and today require serious upgrades to increase their capabilities. In the past decade, Romania had tried twice to modernize these ships, but economic troubles and administrative issues delayed any serious upgrades (Digi24.ro, May 30). As part of the offset agreement, the winner of the corvette tender will have to modernize and upgrade the two Type 22 frigates (Agerpres, January 25).
The main external driver of the naval program is the Russian military buildup in the Black Sea. Since 2014, the Kremlin has invested heavily in its Black Sea Fleet, which received six Kilo-class submarines, three Admiral Grigorovich–class multirole frigates as well as a number a smaller patrol vessels capable of launching Kalibr missiles; moreover, Russia has restarted building military vessels in occupied Crimea (ROEC, July 19). Although less ambitious in scope and somewhat delayed, the corvette program is the Romanian response to these developments.
It is not the first time Romania has expressed interest in acquiring multirole corvettes. In the 2006–2015 military modernization plans, drafted after the country’s accession to NATO, the government specifically listed the acquisition of four multirole corvettes was one of the major acquisition programs. However, Romania’s economic troubles meant that the corvette program had to be delayed. In 2016, following the pledge to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense the program was revived and the government selected Damen Schelde to build the ships (Hotnews.ro, November 23, 2016), a Dutch company which owns Galați Shipyard and had built military vessels for the Dutch and Swedish governments in Romania.
The entire acquisition program was re-launched and re-organized in 2017, after the general elections. Instead of a direct award contract, a competitive acquisition process was launched. Initially five major international shipbuilders expressed interest in the corvette program: STM from Turkey, Group Naval from France, Damen Schelde from the Netherlands, Fincantieri from Italy and TKMS from Germany (ROEC, July 19). After the initial selection process, only three shipbuilders have remained in the competition: Damen, Fincantieri and Group Naval.
Although a competitive process may lead to smaller costs, it has further delayed the program by at least two years. If Romania had signed a contract with Damen in 2017, as was then expected, the keel for the first ship would have been laid the same year. The direct award could have been justified given the speed of Russian military buildup in the Black Sea, the poor state of the Romanian Naval Forces, which have not acquired new vessels in 15 years, and by Damen’s extensive experience of building military vessels locally. Provided none of the final bidders contests the acquisition process in court after the winner is selected, work on the first ship should begin in late 2019 or in early 2020.