After the Nord Stream gas pipeline blasts, the protection of underwater infrastructure became crucial for NATO states. A significant role can be played here by the Kormoran II-class ships just entering service.
For the Polish Navy, November 28, 2022 was a special day. Almost at noon, the white and red ensign first fluttered over the board of the ORP Albatros mine destroyer. At this moment, the second of the Kormoran II-class (Project 258) ships entered service. The ships of this class are designed for searching, classification, identification and counteracting naval mines. They are to safeguard the key maritime routes. Not only, though. With their state-of-the-art equipment, they can play a crucial role in the protection of critical infrastructure scattered on the Baltic Sea, which was mentioned about during the celebrations in Gdynia by Jacek Siewiera, the Chief of the National Security Bureau (BBN). The recent events reveal how urgent this is.
First, there were several explosions. Then, the media in the entire world were posting videos and images of the Baltic Sea looking like a pot filled with boiling water. On September 26, the confrontation of Russia with the West reached a brand new level. That day, a series of explosions damaged a solid fragment of Nord stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines. Although at the moment of explosion they were not operating, still they were filled with the so-called technical gas, which was to keep them ready to start operating when needed. The explosions led to an enormous spill, as well as to mutual accusations. Three months later we knew for sure that the explosions were not accidental. In December, Mats Ljungqvist from Swedish public prosecutor’s office, which runs the investigation, told the Expressen newspaper that the pipelines were damaged with the use of explosives. Who put them there?
The Kremlin accuses the crews of the British ships seen there. However, there are indications that the Russians themselves could do it, as they wanted to destabilize the market and deepen the energy crisis in the West. According to the analysts of the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), the incident could also be used as a pretext for increasing the presence of the Russian Navy on the Baltic Sea. It’s also possible that the explosives were installed there by the special forces’ combat divers operating from a civil ship. Meanwhile, there occurred several other incidents. At the beginning of October, the locals from the Danish Bornholm island faced a several-hour blackout. Soon after it turned out that it had been an affect of the damaged undersea power cable from Bornholm to Sweden. The media speculated about possible sabotage. Soon, however, the company responsible for the exploitation of transmission infrastructure denied these speculations. Several weeks later, the Norwegians informed about detecting unidentified drones around their oil and gas platforms on the North Sea. Norwegian services arrested seven Russian citizens who tried to leave Norway with small UAVs and memory cards with suspicious videos, capturing the objects related to gas extraction, developing, processing and transportation.
“Threats, so far only talked about, have just been materialized. We have to be ready for various hybrid activities, which can be counted as state terrorism,” emphasizes Professor Andrzej Makowski, a specialist in the theory of naval war at the Naval Academy of the Heroes of Westerplatte (AMW) in Gdynia, and further adds: “The Baltic Sea in this context is a specific water basin. Both, due to the multiplicity of sensible infrastructure, and to its strategic location.”
Diversion in the Depths
Multiplying provocations immediately evoked a reaction of NATO states. In the region of the Nord Stream explosion, in support Denmark sent HDMS Absalon ship, and Germany the frigate FGS Sachsen. The vessels are fitted with equipment for monitoring the air, surface, and underwater situation for threats. The Swedish HSwMS Belos naval vessel operated in the region of Bornholm. Norway sent the strengthened forces, additionally supported by German navy, to the North Sea. The European Parliament also deliberated over this issue, and at the end of November established new rules for critical infrastructure protection. The EU member states are soon to develop their own protection strategies and improve mutual communication.
That’s not the end. Some states announced they were going to strengthen their naval forces with specialist vessels. The best example is the Cetus project. On December 1, the Royal Navy signed a contract for delivery of a series of the largest in the world unmanned underwater vessels for monitoring underwater infrastructure of strategic significance to a country. According to the plan, the first vessel should enter service in two years.
The recent events should be a serious warning also for Poland. We would probably strongly suffer the effects of any potential attack on installations in the Polish waters of the Baltic Sea. “Cutting off from Russian raw materials means that majority of strategic shipments to Poland go by sea routes,” reminds us Professor Makowski. The key Polish infrastructure includes the Baltic Pipe (operating since the end of 2022). Soon, about 10 billion cubic meters of annual gas capacity will start flowing from Norway, which covers a half of Poland’s need. With that, there is also the LNG Terminal in Świnoujście, which is constantly being expanded. “These two objects are most important. We can’t however forget about electric power transmission, optical fiber, port approach fairways, and finally – future investments. Here I mean the wind farms in exclusive economic zone (EEZ) managed by Poland, and floating platforms for LNG loading and bunkering in Gdańsk Bay,” says Professor Makowski.
Any potential threats for this kind of infrastructure are various – from explosives planted by undercover special forces, who hide on civil ships, to purposeful sinking even the smallest vessel at the entrance to the port in order to paralyze port’s functioning. It is also possible that along the approach fairway to one of the ports mines will be put. “In the past, even the trade vessels were involved in such activities. In 1984, the Libyan ship – Ghat – put mines in the approach fairway to the port in the Egyptian town of Port Said. Libya and Egypt at the time were not at war. In effect of explosion, 19 vessels were damaged, including Polish M/S Józef Wybicki general cargo vessel,” recalls Professor Makowski. “It seems, though, that at present, it is underwater installations that are the main target of attacks. At least, such assumption is made by the NATO members,” says the expert. Russia has a lot of opportunities here. For several decades, Russia develops technologies related with underwater vehicles, designs specialist vessels, which can be used for diversion. Let’s take “Jantar,” for example: according to official nomenclature it is the research vessel of the Main Directorate of Deep Sea Research (GUGI, Glavnoye Upravleniye Glubokovodnykh Issledovaniy). In fact, the institution is responsible for espionage and underwater hybrid activities. Several years ago, Spetzsnaz also bought underwater Seabob Black Shadow 730 diving scooters, and with their help, three soldiers with equipment can transfer to the distance of several tens of kilometers.
The list of potential threats is long. Western states however have resources to protect strategic infrastructure. In case of Poland, mine destroyers, which are consecutively acquired by the Polish Navy, may become quite an asset.
The first one of Project 258 ships entered service in 2017, it is called ORP Kormoran and is a prototype. ORP Albatros, which as of recently joined Kormoran, is the first one of the production lot for this vessels. “It has a different equipment than Kormoran – larger and better gun, firmer thruster, and slightly different set of underwater vessels,” explains Cdr Michał Dziugan, a commander of the 13th Minesweeper Division, which now own these two ships.
The naval seamen can also monitor water depth with the use of Gavia and Hugin drones, as well as of Double Eagle SAROV, which – depending in the needs – works as a semi-autonomic vehicle, self-powered and linked to the ship with the optical fiber or a device controlled directly from the ship through the so-called umbilical cord. It can also set small explosives. Finally, there’s also Katfish sonar produced by Kraken. “It can be towed behind the ship at the speed of even 10 knots, sending high-resolution images to the operator, which is possible with the technology of synthetic aperture that allows to scan an underwater object with even several hundred scanning beams,” explains Cdr Dziugan.
Underwater vehicles should most of all be used to search for mines and unexploded shells. They can also help to keep an eye on the sensitive for the country infrastructure. Hugin within 24 hours is capable of inspecting 100 km of underwater pipeline, while documenting it with high-resolution images. Similar job is done by Double Eagle SAROV equipped with three cameras. Kraken’s Katfish can build 3-D models of the sea bottom. The units of the Hydrographic Security Squadron also have the potential for naval scanning of sea depths: the OORP Arctowski and Heweliusz ships. However, it’s not obvious. The Polish Navy tasks include securing national strategic interests, and regular inspections of transfer lines go beyond its competences. It is mainly the owner that is responsible for the protection of pipelines. In the case of Baltic Pipe – the owner is Gaz-System. “The objects of critical infrastructure have their own security and monitoring systems, but considering state security, we cannot rely solely on them,” admits Professor Makowski. “A new situation requires certain legal amendments, as well as strengthening the cooperation between the Polish Navy, Maritime Polish Border Guard and maritime administration offices. Strengthening, because the cooperation itself has existed for a long time. Data collected by each of these institutions go on a regular basis to the Maritime Operations Center, which can this way respond to current threats,” he adds.
Another issue is more equipment for the Polish Navy. In December 2022, this branch of the armed forces received its third mine destroyer of Kormoran II class. In the upcoming years, the 8th Coastal Defense Flotilla in Świnoujście will get three more of such vessels. In the spring 2023, the building of the fourth Kormoran will start. Currently, ongoing are the procedures related with building and purchase of three coastal defense ships of Miecznik class. The work on the development of the first out of two radar and electronic surveillance ships (designated as Delfin) is also in progress. The needs are however more extensive.
Strengthening the Navy
In December 2022, the participants of the 15th Maritime Convent said that it would be worth coming back to the doing the Ratownik program of building a state-of-the-art search and rescue ship. Such vessel would become the base for deep sea divers, and with proper equipment it could also reinforce the protection of underwater installations.
There is one more thing. “So far, we don’t have any modern systems for port protection which could be placed directly on water surface for them to even detect the presence of unauthorized divers or drones,” admits Prof. Makowski. The Ostryga system could be a solution. Analytical and conceptual phase of the program was completed several months ago. The Kijanka program, which is about acquiring unmanned surface vehicles for mine hunting, is also ongoing.
“Reinforcement of the Navy is now one of the key questions, which is confirmed by the recent orders for the defense industry. Even accepting Sweden and Finland in the NATO structures shouldn’t change that. Although the Baltic Sea may soon become NATO’s internal sea and security will increase within its area, the threats, which we are now coping with right now, won’t disappear,” says MP Michał Jach, the Chairperson of the Sejm’s National Defense Committee.
autor zdjęć: MW RP, Kraken, SAAB