Contrary to other kinds of military forces, the Navy is responsible for both preparing for war and preventing it. Often the sole presence of war ships in a region is a wake up call for hot headed individuals. The Navy does a lot to maintain peace and that is the context in which it should be perceived – commander lieutenant Tomasz Witkiewicz, former ORP Sęp commander, currently serving at the Maritime Operations Centre – Maritime Component Command, says in an interview with BiznesAlert.pl.
BiznesAlert.pl: The Polish society does not hold the Navy in high esteem. One of the reasons behind this is the Operation Peking in which Poland’s main naval forces were withdrawn from the Baltic right before World War II erupted. Other contributing factors are the lack of overseas colonies, or a strong historical bond with the sea. Why does Poland need the Navy and how to explain its importance?
Lieutenant commander: Yes, one of the main charges against the Navy is the constantly reminded defeat in September 1939, which in fact was a failure of the entire state, not just the Navy. Both the ground forces and the air force failed to implement the defence plans, but they are not as criticized as the Navy is. However, the “September argument” is false and is the wrong way to look at the Navy. First, the Peking Plan, which involved the evacuation of Poland’s three main destroyers from the Baltic, was drafted by the General Staff, and authored by the so-called “green” generals. It wasn’t planned by admiral Urung, but by the head of the General Staff, and, despite everything, it made sense. We should remember something that is often forgotten today – that the interwar Navy was developed with the intention of fighting the Soviet Union, not Germans. This historical background determined the kind and size of the vessels. The large destroyers were to escort vessels with supplies and equipment to Gdynia in case of a war with Russia. Whereas later on, when the army was preparing to face the Third Reich, they were to escort goods and supplies to the Romanian port in Constanța, from where they were to reach Poland by land. The submarines were large, because their original job was to attack groups of Soviet battleships, which, the planners expected to arrive near the Bay of Gdańsk in case of a war with Russia. Large submarines, such as ORP Orzeł (Warship of the Republic of Poland Eagle – ed.), that had many torpedoes were to successfully face soviet vessels, which were well-armed as well. Contrary to what many claim today, the make up of the pre-war Navy was not a coincidence.
The lack of appreciation for the Navy and the entire sea is part of the picture that has been with us since the Nobles’ Republic. The majority of crops, crafts and resources, e.g. tar, made on the territory of the First Republic of Poland went to Gdańsk, or the ports in Courland. Nobody understood, or maybe they did, but had no idea how to change it, the fact that the ports were building their wealth thanks to those goods, which were bought cheaper here and then sold at a higher price thanks to maritime transport. I think this is changing today. The society is starting to understand that the Baltic is the only direct highway that connects us to the world, that thanks to access to the Baltic we can, without any limitations, trade with anyone we want. We do not have to bear additional costs and pay intermediaries, contrary to landlocked states on our continent. In recent years increasing numbers of people have started to acknowledge the significance of the Baltic in the energy context and projects such as the Baltic Pipe, the LNG terminal in Świnoujście and the FSRU in Gdańsk, as well as offshore wind farms and the oil terminal, and the fact that in the first quarter of the year Gdańsk was the biggest container port by the Baltic. All of this has prompted some people to notice this part of Poland, which so far has been marginalized.
Apart from reaping the profits, we also need to face the challenges and I am under the impression that the Nord Stream 2 problem has shown the society that the Baltic Sea is not just a basin open for us, but also a place where various interests of different countries cross. The Baltic is not a wall, but a window, which may pose challenges.
So what do we need the Navy for?
During peace time, which is the majority of time, the Navy performs many day to day tasks. I don’t want to make a comparison to other military forces, but the Navy, contrary to the ground forces and the air force, constantly carries out tasks for the national economy. It takes protective and defence measures, such as monitoring the state’s maritime border in cooperation with the Border Patrol, which involves surveillance, collecting data and signals. These data are collected for all of the military forces, not just the Navy. The naval force also conducts rescue operations at sea. It supports the civilian Maritime Search and Rescue Service by, e.g. offering air rescue. It is a little known fact that the unexploded ordnance found at the bottom of water basis, lakes or rivers, are recovered, irregardless of their location, and then neutralized, by sappers employed by the Navy. This kind of military force is also responsible for all of the hydrographic duties, including preparing maritime maps, navigational publishings, preparing navigational warnings, etc. It could be said that during peace time, 50 percent of tasks carried out by the Navy has nothing to do with the military.
However, these are side tasks and even though they are important, they are not the core challenges the Navy needs to face. The basic task of the Navy is to make sure that Poland’s activities and economic freedom in the Baltic is not limited by threats coming from various directions. So far, the Baltic has been a rather safe place, but to better understand the situation one could make an analogy to owning a cat. When one has this animal at home, the presence of rodents is not an issue. They are simply not there, but when there is no cat, we suddenly realize that we have a mouse at home. And that’s when the problem starts. The same pertains to the Baltic. The presence of the Navy allows us to maintain a certain level of security. This is the soft side of the Navy’s existence and of the state policy.
What tools does the Navy have to meet those obligations?
First, we have a visual and radiolocation system for monitoring the coastline. The Navy also has its own Naval Aviation Brigade, which performs tasks for the maritime forces, including patrolling and rescue missions. The naval forces also have land subunits, including sappers, chemists and others. Last but not least, there are the vessels – from the smallest ones to the biggest ones. So, the Navy is composed of a mini cross-section of the entire military forces, which in fact includes all of the elements that are present in the other branches of the military.
Exactly. This is one of the main arguments of the critics of the Navy – why do we need it if all of its tasks can be delegated to other institutions, and the basin itself is so small that the best vessel for it is actually a jet. What do you think about it?
Let me start with the argument on merging parts of the Navy with other kinds of armed forces. The specificity of the sea, of working at the intersection of the land and the sea requires professional trainings and a specific approach to handling some of those challenges. The sappers that are part of the Navy specialize in very narrow, yet very important, areas. Delegating them to, e.g. general military brigades would cause this specialization to die out, because there would not be enough time and possibilities to teach it. The same pertains to other specializations, such as chemists, radar system operators and airmen. Due to its specificity, the Navy uses a completely different kind of equipment, a different kind of measurement units, other kinds of maps. I always laughed with my colleagues from the land forces that their tactical maps were missing many items, or data. They had the same impression when they looked at maritime maps. The same pertains to the Navy airmen. Flying over water and over the land is different, and every pilot knows that. When pilots search for survivors on land, and when they look for them at sea they use different methods. It is easier to take into account those differences when this system is part of the Navy.
What about jets being the best ships for the Baltic?
It is easy to disprove this view. First, historically there have already been times when the end of ships as combat platforms was prophesied. For instance this happened back in the 1960s, when missiles entered the stage at a mass scale. They were to replace ships, but in reality they found a home on their decks as weapons. Second, the specificity of the Baltic is that it has adverse weather conditions. The beachgoers during the summer time suffer because of them, they annoy vessel crews, and they are also problematic for flight crews. In comparison to other seas e.g. the Mediterranean, the number of days during which the weather is suitable for flying is a lot lower for the Baltic. When the clouds are hanging low, or when the wind is strong, jets are often unable to carry out their mission. Weather conditions that make it hard for a plane to complete an assignment are not an issue for a ship. Also, jets are not designed to conduct a long mission above the sea. The further the plane is from its base, the more fuel it needs to carry, which means it won’t be able to take enough weapons. Due to the fuel, as well as a limited number of crew members, planes can only stay in a specific area for a specific amount of time. Ships, especially large war ships, are self-reliant even for up to a few weeks, and if they get supplies at sea – up to a few months.
Apart from that, one needs also to take into consideration the combat capabilities of the Air Force and its tasks during a war. Our jets, and we have a limited number of those, will have to support the land forces, offering direct assistance, reconnaissance missions, strike missions, and others. Additionally, they will have to provide air defence against enemy planes. These are the main tasks of the Air Force. So how do we find enough room to fit in the additional assignments carried out over the water? Such jets would have to be equipped with the right sensors, radars, other equipment and weapons. The specificity of flying above the sea also requires the pilots to have very distinct skills. Today we don’t have trainings like that, and creating everything from scratch would be a lot more expensive than the money that could be invested in building Navy ships.
Moreover, at a time of war military forces perform very specific duties, to put it bluntly – killing, destroying, or subduing the opponent. It’s an either or situation. We either destroy, subdue, or we don’t. The jets that could potentially replace vessels are not able to carry out their tasks during a situation different than a war, i.e. in a time of crisis. A jet that approaches a maritime vessel that is breaching our border will not be able to change its course, or behavior. Such actions are often practiced by Russians, but apart from a propaganda effect and videos from such flights, they don’t really have any meaning. A plane is a great tool for reconnaissance; however, the only way to neutralize a threat is to use a different maritime vessel. Additionally, ships may inspect other vessels and conduct surface and underwater monitoring. Therefore, it needs to be asked whether the Air Force could be of use in a situation, which is not yet a war, but neither is a time of peace. Its abilities in this matter are limited, and significantly. If the theory about jets being a better alternative for the Baltic was true, by now the other states would have withdrawn their ships. Meanwhile Sweden, Finland, Germany, Denmark and Russia are investing heavily in this kind of armed forces. The situation is the same in case of the Naval Missile Unit. It’s a typical example of a binary effector. It is a terrific tool during a war as it supports the Navy, but it cannot be used during a crisis or peace time.
And this is the subversive essence of my remarks. Contrary to the popular opinion, the Navy isn’t here just to wage war. The other kinds of armed forces are preparing for war. The way they are trained, equipped and function is about preparing for combat. The Navy does more. It performs tasks whose underlying goal is to prevent war. It has to avert provocations, scare away the opponent before a real conflict starts. This is the only kind of armed forces that can prevent a war through its actions. Imagine a situation where we find mines at the entrance to the LNG terminal in Świnoujście, which are disguised as mines that come from, e.g. World War II. Someone put them there and is waiting for a tragedy. It will be the Navy that will be responsible for the entire search and rescue operation, etc., but there won’t be a war, or even a crisis. We are the only military formation that is capable of doing this. The ground forces cannot handle such challenges.
Since the beginning of the year, the Miecznik project (Swordfish – ed.), which is a plan to buy three frigates, has been in the news. Some claim that such ships are too big for the Baltic. Is that true?
It was bad luck for the Navy when it was announced that the Ślązak (Silesian – ed.) as a patrol ship was the world’s biggest motorboat. Later on the unfortunate, made-up ship class – the Seaside Defence Ship – was invented. People were afraid of using traditional names, such as corvettes or frigates, because the society and decision-makers had bad associations with them. This moment in the history of the Navy had a very negative impact on its image.
When it comes to the frigates… the destroyers we had during the interwar period had a tactical impact of 20-30 km around the ship. In other words, that was the distance within which the main weapons were effective. Today, in times of advanced missile technology, these distances, when we are talking about the air space, went up to 160-200 km. We are talking about effectors, i.e. the missiles themselves. When we are talking about sensors, which enable to detect threats and monitor the air space, we are talking about over 400 km. If we add a helicopter equipped with the right radar, we can cover the area without any “radio interference” or dead zones. And this is ensured by one ship only. However, we need to remember that it’s not enough to have one ship during combat. They should work in teams. Two frigates are four times as likely to win than one. It’s a geometric progress. One frigate complements another, which enables the optimal usage of sensors and effectors. It’s also a tactical matter. Why three frigates? This is about trainings and maintenance works during peace time. One is in training, the second one is in maintenance and the third one is at sea. During a war all of them will be ready to act, just like all of the vessels in September 1939 were ready to perform missions, all of them were working. Any war is preceeded by certain movements, actions for which we can get ready. Contrary to what some claim, a war won’t surprise the ships at harbors in Gdynia or Świnoujście. If there is a threat, these units will leave ports and take fighting positions beforehand.
But why do we need frigates? Because it’s a compromise between the size, the cost and the combat capabilities. This type of a ship is also very popular across the world. There are many offers and vessels, so it is easy to order them. Such ships also present a very high level of combat capabilities against missile and air threats.
It’s a total misconception that a ship could be destroyed with a salvo of missiles. Only laymen who get their knowledge from video games and sci-fi movies claim this. It is extremely difficult to orchestrate a saturation attack, which “exhausts” the combat capabilities of a ship. An attack would have to come from various platforms, from the air, water and the ground, from various directions and altitudes, etc. All of this would need to be coordinated. A modern frigate has several missiles, even up to a hundred. They impact various defense areas: from long to mid, to short range. Additionally, a vessel has passive systems, software for radio electronic warfare, anti-missile systems, etc.
A group of three frigates, which has an arsenal of over 300 missiles in total, that have various ranges and are of different types, is a very difficult and absorbing target for an enemy. During such a confrontation the enemy forces cannot perform other actions on land or in the air, because those are engaged as well. During that time, the enemy is exposed to an attack. For the frigates to be useful they need to have the right displacement. This is important in order for the ships to be able to carry the right amount of effectors and to correctly maneuver during bad weather. It’s also crucial for the vessels to have the right modernization potential in the future. The bigger the ship, the more it will be possible to better adapt new solutions onto it. Contrary to the popular opinion, the size of the ship is not the key component of its price.
The hull is not the biggest cost, and one should remember they are built to last 30-40 years. The “insides” are the most expensive – radars, weapons systems. However, these elements can be replaced, modernized and renovated while the vessel is in service.
Moreover, it is also worth stressing that a frigate is very mobile. Within 24 hours, maintaining a regular speed, the vessel is able to cover 300-400 nautical miles (550-750 km). This means it can practically reach the other side of the Baltic. Just consider how much time it takes to move the Patriot missile batteries, all of the accompanying vehicles, launchers, radars. It would take a few days to move such a battery from the south of Poland to the Tricity (in Pomerania – ed.), plus an additional few days to reinstate operational readiness. A ship is always ready and the crew is always present, as it works in shifts. There is no risk for a ship at sea, and even if it is docked at the harbor it still has an emergency crew.
Yet, it’s been argued that such vessels are too big for the Baltic.
It’s like an analogy with cars. Is it better to a have small, compact car or a big one? A small one is a lot cheaper, but in case of an accident the chances for survival, avoiding injuries, or even evading death are slim. The bigger the car, even though more expensive, the safer it is for the driver and the passengers. A lot can fit onto a big ship. It can be modified during service, it has enough power to accommodate new appliances and equipment, it can have a hangar for a helicopter, which means air support is always available.
But we do have allies, who have ships and will help us if a war breaks out…
First, we never know what political decisions our allies will make. Second, collective security is like EU funds. If we want to use them to build something, we have to make a financial contribution first. The same goes for the Navy. No country will help us at sea, if we ourselves won’t be able to provide at least two combat ships. If we do, then it will be possible to join forces with other countries to create a task force on the Baltic, which will exponentially improve our chances. Otherwise, there is little hope that anyone will sacrifice their ships to help Poland.
We talked about frigates. Submarines are an equally interesting topic. You served 18 years on such vessels, among others, as the commander of ORP Sęp (Vulture – ed.). What challenges does the Baltic pose for such vessels, and what tasks do the subs perform?
Let me start by saying that when it comes to the Navy, the sailors are divided into various squadrons. Generally speaking those who served on submarines argue investments should be made into those kinds of vessels. Those who serve on surface ships opt for frigates, etc. We should abandon this kind of thinking. Even though I myself am a submarine veteran, I believe that the Navy needs both large combat ships, whose weapons and radar systems enable them to defend and protect, as well as submarines that play a typically offensive role thanks to their ability to work undercover. Both kinds of ships complement one another. One could say that the frigates are the shield, while the submarines are the sword. A frigate is big, well-armed and has lots of sensors, but it is visible. It cannot be hidden. Whereas a submarine has fewer weapons, does not have many weapons systems, but it can work unnoticed. It can be in a place where the opponent does not expect it. Submarines can also conduct secret reconnaissance missions, including radio electronic monitoring during peace time.
When it comes to the specifics of their performance, the older submarines, e.g. Kobben, were efficient at operating in basins 40-50 meters deep. Thanks to new technologies, navigation systems and weapons, a lot bigger subs are able to work in basins that are as little as 20 meters deep. This means the opponent must expect such a vessel to be anywhere. Additionally, this generates challenges for forces that search and destroy such hidden subs. However, even their combat systems are not efficient against a vessel that operates in a basin that is 20-30 meters deep. That is true apart from traditional, gravitational depth charges and missiles that are directly dropped onto a submerged vessel. The technical development of submarines has significantly expanded the area where underwater warfare can be waged, by making it possible to fight in rather shallow waters. In result, our opponent knowing that we have such submarines in the area has to expand the search area, which requires equipment and men.
What about the conditions in which the sub can operate?
Undoubtedly operating in the Baltic requires the submarine crews to be very well trained. However, such crews are a lot more likely to not get detected, which means they have a significantly higher chance at surviving than if they operated in the depths of the, e.g. Mediterranean Sea. Why? An environment that makes it harder to operate underwater also makes it harder to find such a vessel. The Baltic is so shallow that the majority of the hydro-location stations are simply blind. The signal is interrupted, because the waves bounce off the seabed, which is very uneven and shallow. The water surface is a source of similar interference. Additionally, the salinity in the Baltic is low and spread unequally, which generates many layers, sound canals and isoclines. Once during my career, we were in the Baltic and we detected a Norwegian submarine. They noticed us as well, but we could not hear each other. We calculated that we were only 3 km away from each other.
I don’t want to end this interview on an optimistic note, so let me ask you about Russia. Some argue that Poland should follow in its footsteps and upgrade our Navy by adding small vessels. Why have the Russians taken this path?
After all, the Baltic is the same sea for them as it is for us. Russians treat the Baltic very seriously, but after 2014 the political situation forced them to introduce corrections to the modernization program of the Baltic fleet. First, some of the 636.3 Warszawianka submarines, which are an upgraded and modern version of the Kilo type vessels (our ORP Orzeł) were to serve o the Baltic. The same pertains to two types of frigates – the Admiral Gorshkov class, designation project 22350 and the Admiral Grigorovich class, designation project 11356. According to the original plans, ten years ago these two types of frigates were to serve on the Baltic. However, due to the crisis in Ukraine, Russian shipyards lost access to large submarine engines produced by the Dnieper. Since they don’t have a technology of their own, the subs they were building were sold to India, which then made a separate agreement with Ukraine on the purchase and installation of the engines. However, if it wasn’t for these events, today Russia would have one of the biggest fleets on the Baltic. What they have today – small missile ships – are just a prosthetic of their capabilities. However, we should not kid ourselves. Once the demands at the Black Sea are met, which is currently Russia’s priority for obvious reasons, and once the technologies for engines and other systems are designed, the Baltic will also see Russian frigates. So, we should not be influenced by what Russia is doing and we should definitely not follow their example when it comes to modernizing our Navy. The truth is that it would make Russia very happy if we followed their path and invested in the same “prosthetics” as they.
Interview by Mariusz Marszałkowski