Energy SECURITY 24 March, 2023 9:00 am   
COMMENTS: Joanna Słowińska

Chyła: Poland’s energy security depends on the Navy (INTERVIEW)


Maintaining an adequate level of energy security depends on the presence of Armed Forces at sea as never before. The depreciation and undermining of the existence and modernization of the Polish Navy has been going on for many years, while our dependence on the sea is continuously growing. Let’s be wise before the damage – after the damage there will be no ships lying around to buy – said Lieutenant Commander,  BEng, MSc Tomasz Chyła, expert at the Ignacy Łukasiewicz Institute for Energy Policy. In recent years, the coast and territorial waters have ceased to be just our window to the world, but have gained special importance for the broadly understood energy sector. We have an LNG terminal located at the coast and a floating regasification unit will be parked there as well. Gas carriers reach Poland through territorial waters, and the Baltic Pipe gas pipeline is at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. PGE and Orlen are investing in offshore wind farms. It is trivial to say that all these facilities that constitute our critical energy infrastructure, especially in the current situation, require, and in the future will require even greater protection by the Polish Navy. What do you think is the scale of the potential threats to these facilities?

Lieutenant Commander,  BEng, MSc Tomasz Chyła: Thank you for this question, I think that it reflects the current situation where the Russian Federation has increased its presence in the maritime domain and where the coastal location of the Republic of Poland has been gaining significance. Maintaining an adequate level of energy security depends on the presence of Armed Forces at sea as never before. The depreciation and undermining of the existence and modernization of the Polish Navy has been going on for many years, while our dependence on the sea is continuously growing. The transhipment volumes in Polish ports are going up, because our economy is growing and needs more and more energy. The Baltic Sea plays an important role in increasing the competitiveness of the Polish economy by enabling: the import of energy carriers (oil, natural gas, coal), the import / export of energy itself (the existing underwater connections SwePolLink and HarmonyLink – under construction), or, finally, power generation through offshore wind farms (recent reports indicate the offshore projects in the Polish Exclusive Economic Zone can yield 33 GW). While having sea access offers obvious benefits, it also requires that all the strategic facilities are protected (naftoports, gas ports, cables and underwater gas pipelines, mining installations and offshore wind farms). The cases of attacks on the Nord Stream 1&2 gas pipelines, fiber optic lines or energy cables around Bornholm and the recent appearance of “Spanish amber seekers” in the vicinity of the Gdańsk oil port or Russian ships anchored in the area of Lotos Petrobaltic platforms for months are clear signs confirming the thesis that the Polish naval forces must be adequately equipped and prepared to face threats in such a multi-domain marine environment. In today’s complex geo-economic environment (where, as a result of the invasion of February 24, 2022, it is more difficult to diversify supply directions) our dependence on one direction of imports of key energy raw materials significantly exceeds the one recommended by the International Energy Agency, which is 30 percent. This requires defining the risks that may disrupt these deliveries, developing mitigation plans for such situations, and implementing procedures in the event of such occurrences. The component of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Poland that is supposed to fulfill this task is the Navy. Threats to the infrastructure mentioned above can come from the air, sea surface or water surface, which implies the need to have measures that effectively and adequately minimize (because they can not exclude) the risk of interrupting the supply chain of hydrocarbons or electricity itself. The fact that recently the Navy acquired new vessels (3 KORMORAN mine destroyers, ŚLĄZAK patrol corvette) and the Armament Agency commissioned additional vessels (3 MIECZNIK frigades, 2 DELFIN radio-electronic reconnaissance ships, second series of three KORMORANs), shows that the decision-makers have shifted their perception and focus on sea-related issues. The saturation of aviation, modern ships and long-range missiles in the Kaliningrad region (which is 100 km from the planned location of the floating natural gas regasification terminal (FSRU) or 120 km from the planned location of the first nuclear power plant) should indicate the “duty” of the state in the area of restoring naval capabilities (definitely the restoration of the submarine fleet and the return to the idea of building another 6 missile corvettes as a complement to 3 full-size frigates). The more facilities (turbines and substations of wind farms, more than a kilometer pier for cooling a nuclear power plant in the municipality of Choczewo, or the aforementioned FSRU terminal in the waters of the Gulf of Gdańsk) are built on the sea, the more risks will appear, hence the urgent need to replenish the missing components of a strong fleet capable of responding to many threats. It should be emphasized here that ships don’t come “off the shelf”, their process of construction and training of crews takes years, which indicates the urgent need for action in this area.

In your opinion, is the Polish Navy in its current state prepared to protect critical energy infrastructure on our coast and Polish territorial waters?

When talking about the state of preparations, it is important to mention the amendments to the Act on Protecting Maritime Navigation and Seaports. The Act will likely include provisions that make it possible to use the Armed Forces to protect underwater critical infrastructure.

Optimistic presentation of completed orders for ships and planned implementations in the near future should not overshadow the state of the entire fleet as it is today. Unfortunately, the average age of ships continues to fluctuate around 35 years. Long-serving warships that can monitor and protect such underwater infrastructure (Oliver Hazard Perry frigates, OPR Kashub Corvette or ORP Eagle submarine) are long passed their glory years, and this affects the ability to perform some of the tasks. Currently, Poland is implementing a number of measures aimed at preventing an attack on this type of infrastructure, as, in principle, the increased activity of the Russian Federation in the Baltic Sea forces such actions. And despite the age of some ships, we are prepared for this type of task. Let’s not forget that the age of ships and saturation with modern technology is closely related to human potential. Polish sailors, however well prepared for the implementation of this type and more complex tasks, would like and should serve on modern vessels, so that they can effectively and safely carry out tasks. Ships are expensive – the frigate MIECZNIK will cost as much as 50 Abrams tanks or a dozen F35 aircraft. Of course, it is difficult to compare their potential, because they carry out tasks in different domains. However, first, let’s not forget what will be the potential losses of the Polish economy or the analyzed energy sector in the event of an “incident” at sea. Secondly, it is Polish shipyards and not American companies that will build these ships, which will translate into an increase in the potential of Polish ships armaments plants.

What components of the Polish Navy should be expanded in your opinion, which ones in the first place?

Since the Polish Navy’s ability to wage a mine warfare is at a European level, we should focus on improving and adding new units for reconneisance and building the so-called situational awareness. At this point, it should be pointed out that maritime aviation is also crucial. At the time of construction of the frigates and possibly the Corvette, the four AW101 heavy helicopters ordered in 2019 for anti-submarine and combat rescue (CSAR) missions should not be the last to be received by “sea pilots”. However, I believe that it is crucial and urgent to acquire at least 3 submarines, since this is both the most expensive and the most prolonged process in time, and the underwater domain may be crucial in the context of actions aimed at destabilizing both maritime communication routes and the operation of power-generating facilities.

What new elements should be added to the Navy’s infrastructure?

The potential of the Navy is growing thanks to the already completed and new orders for ships, which means its Recognise Maritime Picture and Recognise Air Picture, i.e. situational awareness, is improving. However, we must not forget about the need to build our offensive capabilities, this is extremely important in deterring or discouraging a potential enemy from launching a kinetic attack, which could be met with an adequate response. Having a very good base in the form of three missile ships equipped with one of the most modern water – to-water anti-ship missiles RBS 15 MkIII and a naval missile unit with 2 NSM missile squadrons, we need to increase the ability to perform strikes on land targets, so that in a combined environment we can support the other components of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Poland from the sea. These missiles have the ability to carry out this type of attack, but they are not typically designed for this type of tasks and due to their limited range (180 – 200 km), so in my opinion, there is a need to discuss the usage of Tomahawk missiles in the future. The MIECZNIK frigates will be equipped with Mk41 launchers (for storing and firing CAMM missiles), which are compatible with these tactical missiles (with a range of more than 1000 km). Naturally, “our” Navy’s needs are not limited to combat ships only. It also needs modern support ships: a rescue ship (RATOWNIK program), and a supply ship (SUPPLY program), which are part of the modernization program of the Polish Army by 2035.  These ships are not necessarily spectacular, but in the complex maritime domain extremely effective. Taking into account the wide range of tasks that Polish sailors will have to perform in the near future, this purchase should be equally urgent.

When it comes to the organizational aspect of protecting offshore critical infrastructure, should the way the duties in this regard are divided among the entities that constitute the Polish Navy change?

When comparing the growing threat with the state of the Naval Forces of the Republic of Poland (which include the Navy of the Republic of Poland, Maritime Special Operations units, Border Guard, field Maritime Administration bodies, Chief Inspector of Maritime Fisheries, Maritime Search and Rescue Service (SAR), Customs and Revenue Service, Water Police), one should notice a significant “dismemberment” of the bodies responsible for ensuring security in Poland’s maritime areas. It is from this fragmentation and sometimes overlapping competences that significant problems can arise, as well as conflicts of competence between individual representatives of the Maritime Administration. The sheer number of bodies seems to result in, among others, them working on different, incompatible systems for surveillance and imaging of the maritime areas, or exchange of information between individual institutions.  In order to mitigate this adverse phenomenon, it would be expedient, in addition to the implementation of various systems of surveillance and imaging of Polish marine areas intended for individual authorities, to create a single system of surveillance of marine areas under the jurisdiction of our country. Such a system should unify all institutions that make up the chain of the Maritime Safety System of the Republic of Poland, which would allow for savings, as well as significantly improve the daily supervision of the safety of Polish maritime areas and the infrastructure located there.

Looking into the not-too-distant future, what risks and opportunities do you see for the Polish Navy arising from the upcoming construction of offshore wind farms as an element of the state’s energy security?

We know that the construction process will probably start next year, it will be an investment on an unprecedented scale in this not entirely friendly environment. The hydrometeorological aspect of the South Baltic Sea will not be an ally of developers and contractors, so I believe that a big challenge will be the implementation of SAR (search and rescue) tasks by aviation considering its current equipment.

In the context of the strictly operational activities of the Navy, wind farms at least 24 km from the shore are an excellent place for enemy ships to “blend in” with their surroundings. The farm itself provides a radar shadow and without effective sensors it will be extremely difficult to “spot” enemy units inside it (despite the establishment of no-go zones inside the farm). A risk could also be an opportunity, turbines or actually turbines with a height of about 200 m would be an excellent place to install radars and optoelectronic systems (infrared cameras, laser rangefinders) to “reach where the sight does not reach”, that is, to increase the area that we are able to monitor. This is certainly a challenge, but at the same time a way to mitigate the risks.

Interview by Witold Szwagrun

Lieutenant Commander,  BEng, MSc, Tomasz Chyła, expert at the Ignacy Łukasiewicz Institute for Energy Policy in Rzeszów, former senior lecturer at the Faculty of Command and Maritime Operations at the Westerplatte Naval Academy in Gdynia.