Amid Shifting Strategic Priorities, Poland Cancels Construction of Its Most Advanced Naval Corvette
By Matthew Czekaj
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk announced[link in Polish] on Friday, February 24 that his government was cancelling further construction of the “Gawron”-class naval corvette, a vessel based on the German MEKO A-100 design. In explaining the move, Tusk cited the project’s overwhelming cost overruns as well as the country’s changing security priorities. The Ministry of Defense spent 402 million PLN ($130 million) [link in Polish] on the advanced corvette, but after nearly 11 years of work on the Gawron (Polish for “rook”), the naval shipyards in Gdynia only managed to build the hull and install the engine. Finishing construction would have required another 1.1 billion PLN ($324 million), not even including the costs of arming the corvette with missiles and torpedoes – estimated [link in Polish] by the government in 2009 at 250 million PLN ($81 million). Had it entered service, the corvette’s maintenance and operational costs would have also overwhelmed the country’s military budget, Tusk added. The Polish MoD budget in 2011[PDF in Polish] totaled 27.5 billion PLN ($8.9 billion).
The Gawron multi-role corvette would have been the most advanced vessel in Poland’s Navy, featuring[link in Polish] anti-radar stealth technology, anti-ship and anti-air missiles, anti-submarine torpedoes, electronic jamming systems, surface and air radar, as well as an advanced combined diesel and gas turbine (CODAG) [link in Polish] engine of an Italian design capable of reaching speeds of about 30 knots (close to 34.5 miles per hour). Warsaw realized in the late 1990s that its Navy required state-of-the-art vessels to patrol the Baltic, yet the path toward acquiring the Gawron was a long and bumpy one, culminating in a dead end.
Construction of the Gawron corvette began in November 2001, with an initial plan to build seven vessels. That order was soon revised down to 3-4, followed by a pair, and finally just one ship, to be christened the ORP Ślązak (Polish for Silesian), which was to enter service by 2012. The decrease in orders for Gawron corvettes drastically increased costs per unit for the Naval Shipyards. The Gdynia shipyard’s ongoing financial problems, coupled with its feud with the MoD over payments, eventually culminated in bankruptcy in April 2011. Moreover, in late 2011, Minister of Defense Tomasz Siemoniak noted that “not without reason” Poland’s General Prosecutor was looking into the Gawron construction project for signs of misappropriation of funds, financial fraud and corruption (Kurier Lubelski, February 24). Defense Minister Siemoniak has pledged to try to sell the Gawron hull abroad.
A final decisionon whether to continue building ORP Ślązakwas supposed to come in March. Instead, however, Tusk revealed the Defense Ministry’s choice to scrap it at the end of February, and dressed the announcement as part of the larger list of achievements and plans decided in the government’s first 100 days in office. As Tusk noted, canceling the “nonsensical” Gawron program was part of the effort in the last few months for a “radical increase in efficiency” of the Defense Ministry’s spending. As part of a larger military modernization scheme, in addition to stopping construction of what Minister Siemoniak called “the most expensive motorboat in the world” (Gazeta Wyborcza, February 24), the government plans to raise soldiers’ salaries, purchase new multi-role helicopters and possibly more military transport planes – either the CASA or C-130 Hercules. Finally, the government plans to reduce the number of generals and streamlining the officer corps not directly attached to the army’s command hierarchy to achieve what Minister Siemoniak termed “more army in the army” (Gazeta Wyborcza, February 24; Gazeta.pl, February 24). Opposition Law and Justice politician Ludwik Dorn emphatically agreed[link in Polish] with the decision, saying in an interview with TVN-24 that today the Gawron’s anti-radar stealth technology would have been already outdated and that the vessel would have made a “floating target.”
Predictably for such a high-profile military-industrial program reversal, however, the scrapping of the Gawron corvette created a political firestorm in Poland. The Polish Navy naturally responded quite negatively[link in Polish]. Retired Polish Admiral Zbigniew Badeński said in an interview with the Polish press that having a corvette like the Gawron was a national interest for Poland, a maritime country with a 273-mile coastline. He added that the Gawron-class corvette would be “able to operate in every region, with everyone and against anyone – a multi-role vessel: meant to defend against surface, air and underwater targets, as well as asymmetric threats, both in the Baltic and beyond” (Polska Times, February 24). At the same time, Leszek Miller, former prime minister and current leader of the center-left Democratic Left Alliance, angrily rebuked[link in Polish] the government in an interview with RMF FM radio, asserting that coastal Poland needed the vessel and that the government’s decision will set in motion the phasing out the country’s entire Navy. In following interviews with the press, Miller suggested sarcastically[link in Polish] that to save money, perhaps the government should eliminate the Army next. He also encouraged[link in Polish] Polish President Bronisław Komorowski – of PM Tusk’s Civic Platform party – to save the Gawron since the decision to begin constructing the corvette in 2001 occurred while Komorowski served as Minister of Defense.
Tusk’s government was not swayed by such arguments, however. Indeed, the termination of ORP Ślązak’s construction fits into a larger and longer-term decision by Warsaw to downscale and alter the shape of the Polish Navy. Opinions abounded within the Ministry of Defense that a singular vessel like the Gawron corvette would be useless in the Baltic and be unable to protect ships carrying liquefied natural gas (LNG) or oil to Polish ports. Rather, a series of cheaper, smaller patrol vessels would be more efficient for patrolling Polish sea-lanes (Rzeczpospolita, February 20). Furthermore, in announcing the Gawron’s elimination, PM Tusk also added that the government was not expecting to repair Poland’s ailing older frigates. TVP journalist Marek Świerczyński wrote back in 2008 for Central European Digestabout Warsaw’s moves to drastically downscale the Navy, focusing state resources instead on “missile and aerial defense, heavy airlift and armored vehicles.” To offset its growing lack of surface vessels, Poland plans to beef up its shore-based missile artillery system composed of Swedish RBS-15s. Decidedly less seriously, Stanisław Koziej, the head of the National Security Bureau, suggested on RMF FM radio that the Navy invest in some unmanned autonomous underwater vehicles [link in Polish]. With a shrinking sea-worthy fleet, Poland will thus need to rely more and more heavily on the navies of its NATO allies, Denmark and Germany, to protect its interests in the Baltic Sea (CED, October 15, 2008).
It is clear that Warsaw is consciously prioritizing its Air Force and Army well ahead of its Navy – to the point of enhancing the two former branches at the expense of gradually eliminating the latter. In an ongoing age of fiscal austerity, all NATO allies are under increasing pressure to do more with less and pool or share resources, at times eliminating entire military branches or capabilities in order to devote more resources to more efficient, specialized, or niche capabilities. Yet, if this is the Polish Defense Ministry’s strategy, Warsaw will need to be careful. All of its allies are currently also slashing their defense budgets to the bone. Moreover, Russia has long-term plans to bolster its own Baltic Fleet including eventually adding an advanced, French-made Mistralhelicopter carrier. The Russian navy in the Baltic may not be a direct security concern to Poland at present – and arguably will not be an existential threat even with a Russian Mistral patrolling the Baltic Sea. Yet, the Alliance and each of its Baltic-littoral members will need to be mindful of Russia’s growing regional strength and act to discourage Moscow from possibly becoming more aggressive in the Baltic Sea.
The NATO summit in Chicago is fast approaching, and one important topic of discussion will be better coordination in defense procurement and training to enhance NATO’s overall security and ability to defend all of its members. Poland – whose navy is shrinking so drastically – will have to do its best in Chicago to ensure Alliance cooperation and cohesion remains strong and European defense-centric if it wants to rely on its allies for Baltic Sea defense.