• Toby Irwin

Polish Naval Modernisation is Unconventional

Thales Group recently delivered Poland's new naval patrol ship, ORP Ślązak. According to Thales, the primary contractor, the ships is cutting edge noting the presence of many sophisticated subsystems such as SMART-S Mk2 air and surface surveillance radar, MIRADOR electro-optical system for observation and tracking and a number of top data systems such as NDDS and LINK 11/16. Thales noted further the close relationship between the firm and the end-user military, citing the fluid exchange of ideas needed for technological implementation alongside operational needs. This all said, one has to wonder if this is a trend that has been going on for a number of years, or is more of an 'anomaly' with regards to modernisation.

By looking back to 1999, one can see personnel and fleet size. According to the IISS, this consisted of 17,000, three submarines, one frigate and one destroyer. The destroyer, ORP Warszawa, was a former Soviet vessel Smelyi. Being only several years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, these numbers seem reasonable. However, nineteen years later in 2018 (the latest records available by the same measurements) the personnel had shrunk to 7,000. Submarine numbers remained the same at three, though have become slightly more operational with the purchase of former Norweigan submarines HNoMS Stord (Now ORP Sokol). Combatant ships has remained steady at two, though now there are two former US Navy Oliver Hazard Perry Class frigates. The numbers suggest that the Polish navy may have been modernising slightly, but severe downsizing has hindered capabilities.

Economic troubles have plagued Poland for the last two decades. The 1999 IISS report noted, "Poland's direct costs of joining NATO will amount to some $3bn in the period 1998-10, or about 5% of the annual defence budget. The indirect costs (of achieving interoperability with NATO Armed Forces and of equipment modernisation) are expected to be some $8.3bn over 15 years."

Similar drains on resources were seen for the country's necessary restructuring in order to join the EU. Poland joined in 2004, and in recent years has seen rapid economic growth. In 2018, its GDP grew at a rate of 4.4%. Analysts such as Felix Chang note that strong economic growth, partnered with geopolitical tensions with Russia (seen with Crimea and the Baltics) will spurn on military modernisation. While the navy might be said to be a more marginalised area than land forces and the air force, the effects of increased investment will still be seen. Rather than invest long term in brand new systems it seems that Poland's immediate concern is to update its kit relative to its own previous systems, rather than relative to competitors. Its this concern that might be said to explain continued acquisition of former allied warship. Indeed, the Thales delivery of a brand new ship might actually seem the anomaly itself. After all, what is most striking about Polish naval trends is " not how complete they are, but rather the scale and speed with which they are being made".

One wonders whether continued economic growth will lead to greater, rapid acquisition of old warships, or whether greater reliance will be placed on the slower procurement of brand new ships such as ORP Ślązak.



IISS Military Balance 1999

IISS Military Balance 2018

At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a third year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK foreign policy and the defence/aerospace industry.