A New Lease on Life for Poland’s Most Modern Naval Vessel

By Matthew Czekaj
The Polish press has taken to calling it “the unsinkable” [link in Polish] ship. After months of uncertainty, the advanced “Gawron” naval vessel, which was being constructed at the Gdynia Naval Shipyard, may yet sail under the Polish standard after all—albeit under a different name and in a different form.
The Gawron-class multi-role corvette, based on the German MEKO A-100 design, would have been the Polish Navy’s most modern vessel. Under construction for more than a decade, the Gawron suffered a series of deadline setbacks and continuous cost overruns until Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s government officially canceled the project in February 2012. After more than 450 million PLN ($141 million) being spent on building the corvette, the shipyard had reportedly only constructed the hull and engine, leading Minister of Defense Tomasz Siemoniak to derisively [link in Polish] dub it “the most expensive motorboat in the world.” Following the Gawron project’s cancellation, debate in Poland ensued as to whether to scrap the hull entirely or try to sell it abroad. However, a foreign buyer never materialized (Gazeta Wyborcza, September 26).
Yet, prospects for the vessel grew much more positive by the fall. An updated inventory of the construction revealed that the Gawron hull had many more internal components and systems installed than was initially assumed. Even more importantly, Polish naval officials succeeded in persuading the government that the Navy needed new, up-to-date surface ships. In September, Defense Minister Siemoniak told journalists that the government has decided not to scrap the Gawron hull, but would instead invest an extra 250 million PLN ($78 million) to incorporate the hull into a new patrol boat [link in Polish] for the Navy, based on its need for coastal patrol vessels.
Days later, on September 26, while viewing the “Anakonda 12” Polish military exercise, Prime Minister Tusk made an official announcement regarding the government’s planned military procurements [link in Polish]. In particular, he reaffirmed the defense minister’s earlier pronouncement, promising that the government would incorporate the Gawron hull into a new, modern patrol boat for the Navy. He also declared that the government would in fact allocate resources for repairing one of Poland’s two aging Perry-class frigates. In February 2012, Tusk had cancelled the planned repairs to both frigates along with terminating further construction of the Gawron-class corvette (see Jamestown Foundation Blog, March 1).
In addition to the announcement about naval vessels, Tusk also notably declared that the government would purchase not just 26 new military helicopters, but would in fact order 70 of them in the coming years. And the contract with a supplier would be contingent on the helicopters being produced in Poland—a pre-condition meant to boost the Polish economy (Wprost, September 26). This will likely be good news for US company Sikorsky Corporation—maker of the Black Hawk S-70i helicopter—and the British-Italian Agusta Westland company, both of which already have working production facilities in Poland and are in competition over the military helicopter contract with Eurocopter SAS.
The new patrol boat utilizing the Gawron hull will likely be christened the ORP Ślązak. Its specially designed stealth hull will, from a certain distance, give it a radar cross section equal to a civilian pleasure yacht. In addition, because it will be much lighter as a patrol boat than as a corvette—which it was initially designed to be—the Ślązak will be the fastest vessel of its size in the Baltic basin, likely able to reach speeds of over 30 knots, and be able to turn almost in place. The new patrol boat will not be designed with anti-submarine capabilities—thus it will no longer be able to fulfill the Gawron corvette’s universal range of missions. However, the ORP Ślązak will have the capability to act autonomously away from port or supply lines for 30 days at a time. This is important, military analysts note, because it will allow for the naval vessel to be used in expeditionary missions, for instance in the Mediterranean Sea (Gazeta Wyborcza, October 16).
Polish naval participation in long-term expeditionary missions has been relatively modest to date, but notable in mine countermeasures (MCW) operations. In recent years, the flagship vessel Warsaw sent on allied operations has been the ORP Czernicki MCM command and support ship, commissioned in 2001. The Czernicki took part in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, and for several years has been in the Mediterranean as part of the NATO anti-terrorism mission [link in Polish] “Active Endeavor.” Although in the area at the outbreak of hostilities in Libya in 2011, the Czernicki was not involved [link opens PDF file in Polish] in NATO’s Libyan operation because Warsaw abstained from participating. Many of Poland’s ships capable of participating in international operations will be phased out in the coming years, however. It will, therefore, be useful for Poland to have another modern, large surface vessel it can use for both coastal protection and as a “pocket corvette” that can be sent as a contribution to Alliance missions away from home (Gazeta Wyborcza, October 16).
The government’s decision on the Gawron represents a partial backtracking on Poland’s significant naval strategy rethink [link in Polish] that the ministry of defense revealed at the end of March 2012. According to Polish strategists, Poland has limited naval interests, and a conflict in the Baltic basin would be mainly fought in the air, underwater and by laying mines—hence the government’s decision to phase out most of its larger surface vessels in favor of smaller patrol boats, submarines, helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as well as coastal protection missile batteries. As a large patrol boat with expeditionary capabilities, the Gawron-turned- Ślązakfits this strategy, but also leaves the door open to more ambitious naval operations far from home in league with Poland’s Allies. The government’s renewed plans to repair one of the two Polish frigates further underscores a cautious decision to slow down the elimination of Poland’s large surface ships.
Clearly, however, economic concerns are also driving the Tusk government’s decision. Having avoided a recession when most of the rest of Europe felt the worst of the global financial crisis in 2009, Poland’s GDP growth is projected to slow down significantly in the year ahead, in large part due to the slowdown in Western Europe. Predictions of economic growth of 2.2 percent in 2013, while still enviable in the West, will have a sobering effect on the country’s unemployment levels. Hence the Polish government’s focus on increasing domestic large-scale production, whether by ordering more than twice as many military helicopters as originally planned—and requiring them to be constructed in Poland—or now by restarting the Gdynia naval shipyard’s building of the Gawron rather than letting its hull be relegated to scrap. The notorious, “unsinkable” Gawron has thus been saved by both policymakers’ strategic broad thinking, as well as a protracted economic crisis.