Is a naval vessel a weapon system? Or does that depend on its capabilities? Can the Common Military List of the European Union provide an answer to this question?
Two recent military export permits induce these questions. In September 2022 the Dutch government provided an export license for three underwater drones to India. In the same month Damen Shipyards reported the qualities of two naval surface vessels it sold to Pakistan.
The definition of military technology for export control purposes is well organised in the EU. In the Common Military List Category ML9 of the of the European Union (version adopted 17 February 2020) naval vessels are defined as: ‘Vessels of war (surface or underwater), special naval equipment, accessories, components and other surface vessels.’ Both above mentioned sales fall into this category.
The Common List provides two pages of details to define vessels of war. But the first part is enough to answer the questions, raised above: “Vessels (surface or underwater) specially designed or modified for military use, regardless of current state of repair or operating condition, and whether or not they contain weapon delivery systems or armour, and hulls or parts of hulls for such vessels, and components therefor specially designed for military use.” All other lines are to expand the category. There is not doubt: both are vessels of war, both are military sales.
The Damen surface vessels for Pakistan are equipped with electronic warfare, anti-ship, anti-air weapons/sensors and self-protection systems. The ships also have facilities for an onboard helicopter and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV, or drone) according to the Romanian press (in the Netherlands there is no attention for this major weapon deal, so far). Based on earlier deliverances to Pakistan of ships of the same class, the value will be close to € 80 million (see license NL0074CDIU0127901 of December 27, 2019). We know about the sales thanks to a article on the ships and their capabilities by Jane’s (a major publishing house on military matters). The ships did not turn up in any public Dutch report so far (last available information is on May 2022).
The underwater drones are exported by a Dutch company, according to a letter by the Dutch Minister of Foreign Trade. The vessels are for anti-submarine operations (ASW) and valued at € 7.784.565.
While the sale of the underwater drones is officially reported to the Parliament much information remains vague. It is not unknown if the drones will be armed with lethal weapon systems or if they are for reconnaissance, surveillance and observation tasks to find enemy submarines and share that information to other vessels which will do the actual firing. We do not even know which company is delivering the drones (see box). It is peculiar that the target submarines most likely will be Chinese or Pakistan navy, Pakistan being China’s most important regional ally. The Dutch have a centuries long history of selling both sides of a conflict.
Pakistan is not only ally of China, it is also the country which is in conflict with India since the 1947 separation. The Dutch government takes the convenient position that a military escalation between both countries is not likely. Yes there are talks to settle disputes. But there have been talks alternated by violent eruptions for decades. When the coin is on its side it can flip to both sides, preferably towards peace or but also to violent conflict. The Global Conflict Tracker estimates the danger of conflict as significant. Papers from the region are not optimistic either. It is a choice to ignore the realistic view that a conflict existing for almost 75 year is not solved with the next agreement.
The optimist Dutch government adds “the Indian navy is not a party in the forementioned [along the border and because of Kashmir] conflicts.” It is as if for conflict in Kashmir or the India-Pak border (the Line of Control, dubbed Line of Conflict) there is a guarantee the conflict will be limited to these spots. The sea is part of the military stalemate as Sawney and Wahab explain in their elaborate book on the Indian military challenges Dragon on your doorstep (pp. 275-77).
When you deny a conflict and – in case there is one – the involvement of the maritime part of the armed forces you can pretend to stick to a tight arms export policy. The Dutch government position and the market opportunities of a maritime and export oriented military industry connect like waxed zipper.
The population of Pakistan has bigger problems than weapons and conflict and see their security damaged by extreme monsoon, flooding two thirds of the country and wreck their lives and belongings. Selling two naval vessels valued approximately € 80 million to improve ‘security’ for this population is cynical and hard to swallow.
In a search for Dutch underwater drones (ROV, UUV, AUV) some Dutch unmanned underwater vessels surfaced (all the cheap versions ranging from € 800 to € 60.000 for divers, fishing, construction etc. not included). The first is a product by Marin, developed in collaboration with other parties (government, research institutes TNO, NLR, the national & international maritime business community) useful for underwater patrols, the so-called modular Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (mAUV) for “both military and civilian operations.” It seems to be to much in the development phase for export. The Light Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (LAUV) was tested by the Dutch navy already back in 2017 for ASW-tasks, but is of Portugese origin strengthened with Dutch technology.
The export license for India is not the first underwater vehicle exported by the Netherlands. Most went to Russia, one export to Taiwan for seabed research and were categorised dual-use.