The re-emergence of tensions between Russia and its European neighbours has resulted in the Baltic regaining its strategic importance. Many regional navies are attempting to rebuild capabilities that they dispensed with or downgraded in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War’s conclusion. This article examines the status of the efforts currently underway to rebalance naval capacity to face the renewed threat of combat in the Baltic Sea.
The German Navy has long faced a need to balance its capabilities between the demands of operations in the Baltic and the often different requirements of missions in the North Sea and beyond. In broad terms, the end of the Cold War era saw the naval requirements of the latter area prioritised alongside a broader reorientation away from high intensity warfighting towards crisis management operations. This approach has, perhaps, been best typified by the substantial investment made in the F125 BADEN-WÜRTTEMERG class frigates that are currently entering service. Although Germany’s latest, but now somewhat dated, 2016 White Paper on “German Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr” did not explicitly set out a change in policy, the ability to undertake naval combat operations in the Baltic has clearly regained its importance in recent years against the backdrop of Russian military expansionism.
The German Navy currently fields a balanced force of submarines, surface combatants, mine countermeasures vessels (MCMVs) and supporting elements. The imminent delivery of the last of the quartet of F125 class frigates alongside the planned withdrawal of the remaining F122 BREMEN class frigate LÜBECK will see the force of large surface combatants concentrated on a total of 11 F123, F124 and F125 class vessels. A number of recent announcements have confirmed modernisation plans for the older frigate classes, with a particular focus on radar system improvements. In the longer term, the contract signed with an industrial alliance headed by Damen in June 2020 for the next class of four F126 (formerly MKS-180) type frigates should see deliveries of these new ships commence from Lürssen’s Blohm & Voss yard in Hamburg before the end of the decade. Although primarily intended for blue water, oceanic deployment, all these large surface warships still have relevance in a Baltic context.
The most significant German Navy surface assets based in the Baltic are the five K130 BRAUNSCHWEIG class corvettes. A second batch of five of these anti-surface warfare orientated vessels was ordered from the ARGE K130 consortium in September 2017. The corvettes are being constructed in two half sections at various consortium shipyards before being integrated at Blohm & Voss, where KÖLN – lead ship of the second batch – is currently in an advanced stage of outfitting. A further three members of the batch are under construction following a keel-laying ceremony for AUGSBURG at Lurssen’s Peene-Werft yard in Wolgast in July 2021. The new batch will include a number of modifications over the earlier ships, including use of a rotating variant of Hensoldt’s TRS-4 multifunction radar.
Receipt of parliamentary approval for the funding of a number of naval programmes in mid-2021 holds out the prospect of a further strengthening of the German Navy’s capability for Baltic operations. Prominent amongst these is the project for new Type 212CD submarines that is being taken forward in conjunction with Norway. In July 2021, the programme moved to the contractual stage with the signature of agreements with ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) for a total of six submarines. Four of these will be delivered to Norway and two to Germany, which is expected to receive its pair of new boats in 2032 and 2034. The submarines will be derived from Germany’s six existing Type 212A submarines, which were originally designed with Baltic deployment in mind and are all equipped with Air Independent Propulsion (AIP). Delivery will take the navy’s submarine flotilla to a size not seen since the last Type 206 boats were decommissioned in 2011.
Other significant naval programmes that have recently moved forward include two new Type 707 replenishment oilers – successors to the existing Type 704 RÖHN class – and three replacement Type 724 intelligence gathering ships; the latter contracted with Lürssen immediately after funding approval was confirmed. Two new experimentation and support vessels are being acquired from Fassmer to replace existing ships and the combat management systems of five MJ332 FRANKENTHAL class minehunters are being upgraded. Naval aviation will benefit from the procurement of five Boeing P-8A POSEIDON maritime patrol aircraft as interim replacements for the recently retired P-3C ORIONs. Taken alongside previously-announced plans to recapitalise the fleet’s helicopter assets on the basis of the NH90 helicopter, the German Navy’s capabilities look set for considerable expansion over the course of the next decade.
The future direction of the Swedish Navy and the country’s wider armed forces has been set by the Total Defence 2021-25 Bill, which was published towards the end of 2020. The refreshed strategy continues the previous re-orientation of the Swedish defence establishment towards territorial defence and provides for a further acceleration of military modernisation. It is explicitly stated that, “The main focus of the navy shall be to counter an armed attack in the Baltic Sea”. An important secondary objective is to maintain the integrity of the country’s territorial waters.
The Swedish Navy is currently focused on a core of four submarines (forming the First Submarine Flotilla) and nine corvettes (part of the Third and Fourth Naval Warfare Flotillas). A material part of this force has been out of service undergoing major modernisation in recent years. These major assets are supplemented by a number of coastal patrol boats and MCMVs, as well as by support ships and auxiliaries. Additional capabilities are provided by the mobile surface-to-surface missile batteries and naval infantry of the Amphibious Regiment. Over 100 CB-90H series combat boats and a similar number of WATERCAT M8 ‘G’ Boat light landing craft are available to support amphibious operations. The navy has recently taken delivery of 18 improved CB90-HSM combat boats under an order placed with Saab’s Dockstavarvet in mid-2017.
An important focus of recent Swedish Navy modernisation has been the upgrading and expansion of its submarine flotilla. Two linked programmes contracted with Saab in mid-2015 encompassed the mid-life upgrade of two of the existing trio of GOTLAND class patrol submarines and the construction of two, next generation A26 BLEKINGE class boats. The former project has involved the insertion of a c. 2m hull plug to make space for additional equipment, installation of the latest Mk 4 iteration of the Stirling AIP plant, provision of a new suite of masts and other sensor and communications upgrades. An important aspect of the upgrades was to “prove” much of the technology that will be used in the following A26 class. Work on both submarines – GOTLAND and UPPLAND – included in the original programme was completed in December 2020 with the return of the latter boat to the Swedish Defence Materiel Organisation. In addition, the Total Defence Bill provides for the modernisation of the third member of the class, HALLAND, to expand the submarine flotilla to five units.
Progress with the A26 programme has proceeded at a somewhat slower rate, possibly reflecting the need to rebuild fully independent submarine design and development capabilities following the Swedish submarine sector’s period under TKMS ownership. It was initially envisaged that the new submarines would be delivered in the middle of the decade. However, a press release from Saab in August 2021 confirming further government investment in the project stated that deliveries “will take place in 2027 and 2028”. It is envisaged that Saab will then work on a replacement for the three GOTLAND class boats. Saab have also proposed the modular A26 design as the basis for a number of export campaigns but no firm contracts have yet been awarded.
The Total Defence Bill envisages the number of corvettes remaining at nine units. The existing five VISBY class corvettes will commence mid-life modernisation over the 2021-25 planning period, receiving upgraded anti-surface and ASW capabilities as well as a long-delayed capacity to deploy surface-to-air missiles. The intention is to keep the class in service until at least 2040. In the meantime, work will begin on two new “VISBY Generation 2” corvettes to replace the remaining operational pair of GÄLVE class vessels. Definition phase contracts for both programmes were signed with Saab in January 2021. The acquisition of two additional corvettes to replace the STOCKHOLM class will be initiated before 2030.
Other planned elements of naval modernisation include mid-life upgrades and life extensions to the fleet’s existing MCMVs and a strengthening of the navy’s logistics organisation. The Amphibious Regiment will be expanded by standing up a second amphibious battalion to strengthen coastal defences on the west coast around Gothenburg. The operational lives of the small TAPPER class patrol boats that often operate with the coastal defence forces have already been expanded. One potential problem area relates to the continued provision of intelligence gathering capabilities following delays to the new signals intelligence vessel ARTEMIS, which is scheduled to replace the 1980s-era ORION. Financial difficulties at the Polish shipyard contracted to build the ship’s hull have badly impacted the project and a scheduled 2020 delivery date has not been met. Local press reports suggest the new vessel is currently laid up in Karlskrona whilst Saab works out the best way to complete the project.
Finland’s current defence strategy and priorities are set out in the Government’s Defence Report that was adopted in February 2017. Responding to the deterioration in the local security environment, this established revised policy guidelines for the maintenance, development and utilisation of Finland’s defence capabilities through to the mid-2020s. In general terms, the new policy confirmed existing modernisation plans for the navy and air force whilst strengthening the capacity and readiness of land-based forces. The navy’s primary missions remained the surveillance and defence of Finland’s territorial waters and the protection of its sea lines of communication.
As presently structured, the Finnish Navy is focused on the combat vessels and auxiliaries of the Coastal Fleet, the coastal defence, logistic support and Special Forces of the Coastal Brigade, and the naval infantry of the Nyland (Uusimaa) Brigade. Naval combatants include a small force of fast attack craft, a number of minelaying and mine countermeasures vessels, and much larger numbers of amphibious assault ships that operate in conjunction with land-based formations. Mine countermeasures capabilities have been substantially upgraded over the last decade through the delivery of three KATANPÄÄ class minehunters between 2012 and 2016 under the “MCMV 2010” programme. Constructed by Italy’s Intermarine at Sarzana near La Spezia, these c. 700-tonne vessels are derived from the Italian Navy’s GAETA class. Also joining the fleet over the same period were twelve new 20-metre JEHU (U-700) high-speed assault craft. Ordered from Finnish shipbuilder Marine Alutech to the firm’s WATERCAT M18 AMC (Armoured Modular Craft) design, these can transport up to 24 troops at cruising speeds in the region of 35 knots.
The most important current procurement programme is the “Squadron 2020” project. This involves the replacement of seven existing or recently retired vessels – the three POHJANMAA and HÄMEENMAA class minelayers and the four RAUMAA class fast attack craft – with a quartet of new corvettes. A contract for the construction of what will become the new POHJANMAA class was awarded to Rauma Marine Constructions in 2019. Fabrication of the first vessel is expected to begin in 2022 and – in spite of some delays – it is hoped that all four ships will be in service by the end of 2028. The corvettes have been designed for all year-round operation in Baltic weather conditions and will incorporate a degree of ice-strengthening for this purpose. With a full load displacement approaching 4,000 tonnes, the corvettes will be amongst the largest warships ever to serve in the Finnish Navy and are designed to provide multi-role capabilities. Sweden’s Saab will have a key role in equipping the ships, supplying systems that include its 9LV CMS, SEA GIRAFFE 4A and 1X radar arrays, CEROS 200 director and new TORPED 47 lightweight torpedo. Other important equipment selections encompass BAE Systems’ Bofors 57mm gun, Raytheon’s surface-to-air RIM-162 ESSM and IAI’s GABRIEL surface-to-surface missile.
Closely associated with the Squadron 2020 project is a mid-life upgrade of the existing four HAMINA class fast attack craft, a programme sometimes referred to as the “Squadron 2020 MLU”. This will include many of the systems specified for the new POHJANMAA class so as to ensure commonality across the fleet’s frontline combatants. The refits will also improve the HAMINA class’s ASW capabilities to counterbalance capacity that will be lost as the existing RAUMAA class retire. As of the end of 2020, two of the class had completed modernisation. The remaining pair are scheduled to return to the fleet by the end of 2021.
Just as for the German fleet, the Danish Navy’s need to operate in Baltic waters has to be balanced with its responsibilities in the North Sea, in the waters of the more distant northern territories that form part of the Danish Realm, and in protection of the country’s global maritime trading interests. Unsurprisingly, the Baltic role has been de-emphasised since the end of the Cold War, with the submarines and attack craft focused on Baltic operations now long decommissioned. Accordingly, the fleet’s most potent capabilities are focused on its five large frigates, supplemented by the THETIS and KNUD RASMUSSEN class vessels largely optimised for patrolling northern waters. Although these vessels can and do operate in the Baltic, the once numerous flotilla of smaller ships optimised for territorial defence are now largely reduced to the six constabulary-focused patrol vessels of the DIANA class.
Danish defence policy is currently guided by the Defence Agreement 2018-2023. With resources heavily committed to acquiring new F-35 strike fighters, naval investment has focused on expanding the capabilities of existing ships. This has included purchases of SM-2 missiles for the IVER HUITFELDT class in 2018 and the planned installation of additional ASW equipment in the two ABSALON class flexible support ships. The two vessels were reclassified as frigates in October 2020 in the light of these plans. However, it will not be until 2026 that the upgrades are finally complete. Preliminary plans for the development of a new class of surface warship have been revealed in the Danish press but practical realisation of any programme will likely have to wait until the next Defence Agreement.
Poland and the Baltic Republics
Current Polish defence policy for the period through to 2032 was established in the Strategic Review of 2016 and is further elaborated in The Defence Concept of the Republic of Poland published in May 2017. The defence concept gives explicit priority to the land and air forces as the key elements of Polish defence, with the navy being tasked with “…defending our coastline and denying enemy supremacy over the southern Baltic Sea.” This relegation to a subsidiary, largely coastal defence role has badly impacted ambitious plans for Polish fleet renewal, which have been subject to ongoing delay and alteration. Although the 2021-2035 Technical Modernisation Plan (TMP) for the Polish Armed Forces announced in late 2019 confirmed several important naval procurement projects, actually progress has been patchy.
The situation is most serious with respect to the navy’s submarine arm. A programme – known as ORKA – for new submarine acquisition has been continually deferred. Moreover, a “Plan B” involving the purchase of a pair of refurbished Swedish A17 SÖDERMANLAND class boats has also failed to gain traction, reportedly on cost grounds. The delay has resulted in the progressive run down of underwater capabilities as the existing elderly former Norwegian Type 207 KOBBEN have reached the end of their operational lives. The last two members of the class were in the course of being decommissioned as of mid-2021, leaving only the 35-year old KILO class boat ORZEŁ in the fleet. It is hard to see how the submarine arm will recover from this turn of events.
Until recently, the situation with the navy’s surface warship inventory has been little better. This has remained focused on two 40-year old FFG-7 type frigates transferred from the US Navy, the single Project 620 type corvette KASZUB and a trio of partly modernised Project 660M ORKAN fast attack craft. These are supplemented by a handful of MCMVs and landing craft. However, November 2019 saw the final delivery of the MEKO A-100 corvette ŚLAZĄK after an 18 year construction process. Even more encouragingly, good progress is being achieved in completing the trio of Project 258 KORMORAN II MCMVs being built by Remontowa Shipbuilding. The second member of the class, ALBATROS, was reported to have commenced trials in May 2021 and her sister MEWA was launched the previous December. Meanwhile, the maiden flight in July 2021 of the first of a quartet of Leonardo AW101 helicopters ordered in 2019 holds out the prospect of an imminent boost to the navy’s ASW capabilities.
Looking to the future, July 2021 also saw the signature of an agreement with the PGZ-Miecznik consortium establishing the project for the construction of three new frigates under the MIECZNIK (SWORDFISH) programme. This represents an increase on the two units previously reported under the TMP. The project will see TKMS (offering the new MEKO A-300 PL variant), Spain’s Navantia (F-100) and the United Kingdom’s Babcock International (ARROWHEAD-140) put forward concept designs prior to selection of one of these ships for construction in Poland. It is intended to select a final design no later than early 2022, with an ambitious target set of having the lead vessel in the water within the following four years. The TMP also envisages the local construction of six light missile craft under the MURENA programme but there has been little news on tangible progress.
Elsewhere along the Baltic’s southern shores, the navies of the Baltic Republics have been undertaking various upgrades to their MCMV forces. Notable amongst recent efforts has been the Latvian Navy’s current project to reconfigure three of its TRIPARTITE MCMVs towards a MCM “toolbox” configuration with the support of ECA Group. These programmes will allow the three neighbours to retain credible countermeasures forces until a full renewal of MCM capabilities is commenced, probably towards the end of the decade.