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.
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.
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.
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?