Uncertain Future for Swedish Silent Service

Operating submarines is expensive business. However, they do offer significant benefits, ensuring that many countries are willing to pay the cost. But one thing even more expensive than operating submarines is building up your submarine service from scratch because you had to spend a decade or so without suitable boats. That is what the Polish Navy is desperate to avoid.

The Baltic Sea proper offer an excellent stomping ground for littoral submarines (as opposed to the gulfs and straits in the Baltic that are quite narrow and shallow), and as such it comes as no surprise that several of the coastal states have submarine fleets. Sweden and Germany are the two leading submarine operators in the sea, with Russia and Poland playing second fiddle. The Polish Navy has had a few though decades recently, and the submarine fleet is no exception. The ORP Orzeł is a Project 877 ‘Kilo’-class submarine and has been in Polish service since 1986, sporting the distinction of being the first exported Kilo. The plan was for her to be joined by more sisters, but budgetary constraints led to two Project 641 ‘Foxtrot’-class submarines being leased from Soviet surplus stocks instead. These were retired in the early 00’s, while the Orzeł seem destined to serve another decade according to information that surfaced earlier this year. To keep the Orzeł company following the retirement of the Project 641’s, the Polish Navy acquired ex-Norwegian Type 207 ‘Kobben’-class. The vessels were originally built to replace a varied fleet of ex-Royal Navy and Kriegsmarine boats, and are in fact of the same generation as the Project 641’s. However, the West German submarine class is a better submarine in more or less all possible ways, and the class has undergone significant upgrades. Still, there’s no denying that their age is starting to show, and the Polish Navy already retired the first vessel of the class back in 2017.

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A significant part of the Polish surface and subsurface fleet in port in Gdynia. Note the size difference between the four Kobben-class and the ORP Orzeł. Source: Joymaster via Wikimedia Commons

The solution was to have been the Orka-program, which has included all the twists and turns that have come to be expected from large Polish defence procurements. The original timeline was to have included deliveries taking place this year, but already in 2014 it was reported that the program had ran into delays. Currently, there is a large amount of uncertainty surrounding the program, with the timeline last year being said to include deliveries between 2024 and 2026 while at the same time TKMS gave the first delivery of their Type 212CD offer as taking place in 2027.

In any case, it is starting to become clear that a stop-gap solution is needed if the Polish submarine fleet isn’t to shrink to a single thirty-five year old hull. However, used submarines aren’t exactly floating around on the market in significant numbers, making the task of finding a few vessels to bridge the gap between the Kobben and Orka difficult.

On the other side of the Baltic Sea, former submarine powerhouse Sweden is down to five operational vessels in the form of the two Södermanland- and three Gotland-class submarines (this can be compared to the twelve submarines that were on strength as late as 1995). The Södermanlands are the two remaining of the originally four-strong A-17 Västergötland-class built in the late 1980’s, and underwent a serious MLU that included conversion from diesel-electric to AIP (Stirling) propulsion in the early 00’s. These are still competent boats, and as a side-note the vessels still likely hold the world-record in wire-guided torpedo salvo firing, being able to fire and simultaneously guide up to twelve 400 and 530 mm torpedoes at different targets (a nice party-trick, but likely of limited operational use to be honest). The Stirling-powered A19 Gotland-class was launched in the mid-90’s, and made headlines when the leadship was leased with crew to the US Navy for OPFOR duty, with quite some success.

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Second A19 Gotland-class boat HMS Uppland being prepared for the relaunch following her MLU, that included a lengthening of the hull. Picture courtesy of Saab

The Gotland-class was quite possibly the best littoral submarine worldwide when it entered service, but things have moved on. As such, the new A26 Blekinge-class is currently being built for the Swedish Navy, and as part of the phased renewal of the Swedish submarine force the Gotland-class receives a serious MLU that include several features and subsystems of the upcoming A26 to lessen the technological risk of the newbuilds, increase synergies when operating A19 alongside A26, and to increase the lifespan of the A19.

The problem is money.

Only two MLUs have been ordered by the Swedish Navy, with HMS Gotland and HMS Uppland having been modified. So far no order has been secured to upgrade the third sister, HMS Halland, despite this being a stated priority of the outgoing Swedish CinC of the Navy. Cutting another hull from the force would likely leave the Navy unable to hold two submarines out on patrol simultaneously over prolonged times, and for a potential adversary there is a serious difference in having to worry about two submarines in the Baltic compared to one (think of it as squaring the size of the issue). But in a situation were all three services are struggling to get the funds to cover the capabilities ordered by the government, and with the surface fleet being in even worse shape, who would pay for the upgrade?

The Poles, perhaps?

According to the Polish MoD, they are currently in negotiations with the Swedish government (Saab has confirmed they aren’t involved in the negotiations at this stage) to acquire the two Södermanland-class boats as a stop-gap to replace the Type 207 Kobben-class while waiting for the Orka-class. The vessels would be updated by Saab Kockums before delivery, which potentially could fit in nicely with the fact that there are currently no submarine MLUs ongoing and the two Gävle-class corvettes should be out of MLU sometime during next year. As such there should be free docks and slipways available and engineering resources available. To cover the shortfall in Swedish submarine capability the Swedes would buy back the other two A17 vessels, that are currently in service in Singapore as the Archer-class, having undergone an MLU in the early 2010’s and another round of upgrades in recent years. This castling move would ensure that Sweden has a five-strong fleet of submarines, give Poland two relatively modern boats to replace the Kobben, and potentially bring in some much-needed cash that could be diverted (if the government is so inclined) to the upgrade of the HMS Halland.

The only problem is that there is no indication that Singapore is interested in playing along.

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A crew-member inspects the no. 2 torpedo tube aboard HMS Södermanland. Note the smaller 400 mm torpedo tube below the 530 mm ones, a Swedish specialty to allow for lighter weapons being used against other submarines and lighter surface vessels which are prominent in the littorals. Source: Mattias Nurmela/Försvarsmakten

The Singaporean submarine fleet consists of the two Archer-class vessels as well as two older ex-Swedish submarines, these Challenger-class being upgraded A-11 Sjöormen-class boats. In addition, the German-built Type 218SG Invincible-class is currently being built, but none have so far entered service. Those familiar with the RSN seriously question that it would be prepared to part with the Archer-class before at least the first two, or perhaps more likely all four, of the Type 218SG are in service. If the RSN would be ready to part with something, it would likely be the Challengers, and it’s highly doubtful if Sweden would be interested in such a downgrade in capability.

Is the Polish A17 deal then dead? Quite possibly not.

The deal makes a lot of sense from a Swedish point of view. Kockums’ submarine know-how is seen as a vital strategic asset, and readers might remember the dramatic headlines when Swedish authorities assisted by soldiers from the P 7 Södra Skånska regiment in 2014 entered the facilities and left with a cargo of ‘sensitive equipment’ as part of an ongoing dispute with then-owner TKMS. The yard was sold to Saab in 2015 to ensure Swedish ownership and that they could be tasked with building the new A26-class. However, the low number of Swedish operated submarines means that keeping the know-how alive purely based on domestic orders is ever more challenging, and the export market hasn’t been kind to Swedish submarines since the controversies surrounding the Australian Collins-class. Selling the Södermanland-class to Poland would not only mean Saab getting to upgrade the two boats, but also ensuring that Saab would be well-positioned in the eventual Orka-project. If the Navy would play its cards well, it could also make the argument that the funds from the sale should be funneled to the upgrade of the last Gotland-class, ensuring all three staying in service alongside the upcoming A26-class.

And before the delivery of the A26, the Swedish submarine force would be down to three boats.

This would be a serious blow to Swedish naval capabilities, especially when it comes to intelligence gathering and more intangible effects such as threshold effects and the creation of uncertainty regarding the kinetic capabilities the Swedish Navy possess at any given time in specific parts of the Baltic Sea. This would also directly affect the Finnish intelligence picture, as Finland and Sweden cooperate closely on the establishment of the maritime situational picture in the Baltic Sea. The submarines can be assumed to be amongst the single most important assets in either the Swedish or Finnish arsenal when it comes to keeping an eye Baltiysk, the main base of the Russian Baltic Fleet, thanks to their range, endurance, sensors, and ability to remain hidden. If Sweden would go down to three submarines for a period spanning years, both Finland and Sweden would be left with a poorer picture of the whereabouts and capabilities of the Baltic Fleet.

Naval News interview with Saab from this summer about the latest status of the A26 Blekinge class

But is it a gamble worth taking?

The situation for the Swedish Navy is already dire. In effect, if HMS Halland isn’t upgraded and no more A26 are ordered, the future Swedish fleet will be down to four boats. If letting go of the Södermanlands prematurely would allow for an upgrade of all A19, and possibly the ordering of a third A26 following economics of scale thanks to A26 securing the Orka-order, gambling on a serious crisis not taking place before the delivery of the Blekinge-class again has brought the submarine force back to strength in 2026 might start to feel tempting. An important detail is also that an Orka-order would mean that the A26 would get cruise missiles, an interesting option for later integration into the Swedish submarine force as well.

After all, temporarily scrapping all artillery pieces worked out nicely. Right?

Polish Iron

The Polish Army is expanding again, with their mechanized units catching the headlines during the last few months.

Last December it was announced that Poland was planning on upgrading 300 T-72M1 and T-72M1D tanks to a modernised standard. While the most modern tanks of the Polish Army is the mix of German-built Leopard 2A4’s and 2A5’s, T-72’s and their derivatives make up the bulk of the force. Around 230 of the T-72’s have been upgraded already earlier to the PT-91 Twardy standard, but there are also significant numbers of the obsolete T-72M1 left in service. While new tanks would have been a preferred option, it now seems that the Polish Army will instead upgrade 300 of these.

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Non-upgraded Polish T-72’s advancing during an exercise. Source: DGRSZ’s official FB-page

Keeping up the heritage of the Twardy, Polish companies have been presenting a number of T-72 upgrade options over the years. These have largely failed to attract orders up until now, with the major exception being the order from Malaysia for the PT-91M Pendekar for the Malaysian Army. The most radical suggestion is probably the PT-17, which sports a new turret with composite armour, laser warners, new sights and optics, a Ukrainian-built 120 mm smoothbore gun (firing NATO-standard ammunitions), and options for a new drive-train (either based on the Pendekar or a completely new one with a Scania-diesel). However, while the capabilities of the PT-17 is approaching that of new(ish) western tanks, the price tag does as well, and it now seems that the Polish Army is settling for a minor update based on the PT-91M2.

The exact scope is somewhat unclear, as the designation PT-91M2 has been used for a few different set-ups. The core of the upgrade is likely digital radios and communication equipment, new sights and electro-optical sensors (possibly Safran’s SAVAN 15 package), a new auto-loader for the main gun, ERA blocks, and additional smoke launchers. New ammunition for the 125 mm gun is also to be introduced, but a change of the main weapon is unlikely. The Slovak 2A46MS 125 mm L/46 has been mentioned in speculations, but currently it looks like this has been cut due to costs. While a far cry from a modern MBT, the PT-91M2 still represents a significant upgrade over the T-72M1 both when it comes to protection and firepower. All in all, the carry-over of technology from the Pendekar seems to be solid.

On the other end of the Polish tank spectrum, the Leopard 2A4’s are being upgraded to the 2PL standard. Here as well the focus is on increased protection and upgraded firepower. A new bolt on armor package with composite armor blocks changes the outlook of the flat 2A4 turret to a more wedged design, while modification to the Rheinmetall 120 mm L/44 gun allows it to accept modern high-pressure munitions. New sensors are also included in the package. The original order was for 128 upgraded tanks with an option for 14 more. The option was exercised this summer shortly after delivery of the first upgraded tanks to Poland, bringing the total number of Leopard 2PL up to 142.

More divisions, more brigades

But perhaps more interesting is that the Polish Army will expand with another mechanised division. This will be the 18. ‘Żelazna‘ (“Iron”) Division, officially standing up on Monday 17 September, and taking up the traditions of the similarly named infantry division which formed part of the Narew group in the early stages of the Second World War.

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21. Rifles taking part in exercise Lampart-17 last autumn. Source: 21. Rifles homepage

The order of battle is partly based on current brigades. The 1. ‘Warszawska’ Armoured Brigade currently stationed in the Wesoła district on the eastern outskirts of Warsaw will be transferred from the 16. ‘Pomorska‘ Mechanised Division. The 16. Division is, as the name implies, largely positioned in the northeastern part of Poland, with the 1. Brigade having been something of an outlier being held further to south. The 16. Division has also been the only of the Polish divisions to have a square structure with two armoured and two mechanised brigades, meaning that the downsizing to three brigades (9. Armoured, 15. and 20. Mechanised) makes the structure a copy of that of the 12. ‘Szczecin’ Mechanised Division. In addition the formerly independent 21. ‘Podhalańskich‘ Rifles (often the English name “Podhale” is used in English texts) will be added to the 18. Division. The 21. Rifles is interesting in that it is the Polish mountain infantry unit, being based in the southeastern parts of the country. However, the “mountain”-part of their mission easily leads a western observer astray. They are in fact not a light infantry unit, but a mechanised brigade equipped with BMP-1 (locally designated BWP-1) and a single tank battalion, the 1. Tank Battalion with T-72’s. There are indications that the BMP-1’s of the brigade will be replaced by KTO Rosomak’s (license-produced Patria AMV’s), and if the T-72’s of the battalion are amongst those to be brought up to PT-91M2 standard this would make the 21. Rifles a considerably more capable unit on the modern battlefield than it currently is. The third brigade of the 18. Division will be a new motorised/mechanised unit, the details of which are so far unknown.

A quick look at the map confirms that this is a shift to increase the readiness of the Polish Army to meet attacks on the eastern parts of the country. This includes the Brest-Warsaw axis, which as I have earlier discussed on the blog is the route used last time around when an attacker came for the Polish capital.

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The preliminary order of battle of the new 18. Division. Courtesy of Cezary Stachniak

It remains to be seen to what extent the creation of 18. Division actually increases the amount of well-equipped troops in the field compared to the modernisation plans revealed earlier. However, the creation of a divisional HQ on the ‘right side’ of both the Bug and the Vistula with a plan for leading higher-level operations in Masovia is in itself important, and in case of a larger conflict it would be an extremely valuable resource thanks to its local knowledge.

Hussars heading east

In an earlier post, I argued that the Suwałki gap was in fact ill-suited for a full-scale Russian armoured offensive with the goal of linking up Kaliningrad and Belarus, as the terrain and road network did not favour that kind of manoeuvres. This naturally leads to the next question, namely what the alternative would be?

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Major roads in Northeastern Poland (including planned expansions). Source: Wikimedia Commons/Sliwers

Going south from the gap, the first opportunity is Białystok. The city is the main hub of northeastern Poland, and features a significant amount of both roads and railroads, and has the benefit of being approachable from Belarus along two major road, Grodno-Białystok from the northeast and Baranovichi-Białystok from the East. From there it is possible to either turn north towards Suwałki (along E67, not visible on map) or southwest towards Warsaw. However, the areas east of the city  are heavily forested, and it represents a significant detour if the aim is to reach Suwałki from Grodno.

However, the route that promises a decisive victory fast, as well as dragging away Polish reinforcements from the Kaliningrad/Suwałki-region, is the E30/A2 road from Minsk via Brest and on to Warsaw. Brest is located directly on the eastern bank of the river Bug, which in this area marks the border between Poland and Belarus. Striking out from Brest would make it possible to potentially take the border bridges over Bug in a coup, or at the very least prepare the crossings on allied territory. Here, the E30 as well as the twin-rail railroad would provide a crucial lifeline for the advancing forces, and the right flank would be protected by the Bug.

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The Vistula basin covering the eastern parts of Poland would play a major role in influencing any operations in the area. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Kmusser

This is not a new idea. In the summer of 1944, the Soviet Operation Bagration included a major offensive in the Lublin-Brest area, where the Soviet forces (including the Polish 1st Army that was transfered from the Lviv sector halfway through the operation) captured bridgeheads over Vistula at Magnuszew and Puławy (approximately 60 and 100 km south of Warszaw) and over Narew at Serock (40 km north of the capital). However, the Polish capital did not change hands until the launching of the Vistula-Oder offensive in January the following year, a controversial fact from a Polish point view.

 The Vistula opposite Magnuszew, site of the bridgehead in 1944

As noted, this would be a major treat towards the Polish capital, and it is very likely that Poland would direct at least two of its three main divisions to meet this. In practice, the 16th ‘Pomorska‘ Mechanised Division would be left to deal with Kaliningrad, creating a situation where both sides would be roughly comparable, and causing a stalemate around the exclave. This would likely be in the interest of Russia, compared to an offensive closer to the Suwałki gap which would make it easier for Poland to shift troops from one front to the other, thereby negating part of Russia’s quantitative superiority.

The downside to these military upsides is that while a ‘disturbance’ in the Baltic region could perhaps be caused to look like a Ukraine-scenario, thereby delaying a NATO-reaction during the critical first days, an armoured corps moving west along the E30 would be a sure way of launching WWIII, especially as Germany would be far more likely to intervene if the advancing Russians where on the (literal) highway to Berlin than if they occupied Vilnius.

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PT-91 Twardy of the 1st Brigade. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Polish MoD

This is obviously not something that hasn’t crossed the minds of the Polish general staff, and the above-mentioned 16th Division actually has an additional armoured brigade in the form of the 1st ‘Warszawska‘ Armoured Brigade equipped with PT-91 Twardy (modernised T-72), BWP-1 (local-designation for BMP-1), and 2S1 Gvozdika. The brigade is headquartered in the Wesoła district on the eastern outskirts of Warsaw. In other words, it is located on the ‘right side’ of both the Bug and the Vistula, and as such is well-placed to meet any offensive along the Brest-Warsaw axis. However, the equipment is rather old, and while the Twardy is a significant step up from the T-72, it is still far from the latest generation of tanks.

As such, it is a noteworthy move when the Polish Defence Forces announce that a tank battalion from the 11th ‘Lubuska‘ Armoured Cavalry Division in the southwestern parts of Poland is set to transfer to Wesoła. This is to make room for the US Army units coming to Żagań, currently home to the division’s 34th Armoured Cavalry Brigade. The 34th sport two battalion equipped with the Leopard 2A5, currently Poland’s most modern main-battle tank. Moving one of these battalions East of the Vistula radically alters the number of units available to the Polish in this key area during the first day or so after mobilisation. It does seem like the Polish Army has recognised the need to be able to concentrate more high-quality units in defence of the capital at shorter notice, and comes as part of a trend in which the West tries to shorten response times in general, and with a focus on heavier units in particular. This is also evident from a Finnish perspective, and both the recent transfer of older Leopard 2A4’s to ‘new’ units and the creation of fast response units in the Army can be seen as part of this very same trend.