Thursday 3 November 2022

Destroyer Lore: Poland’s ORP Warszawas

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
It is scarcely known that the Polish Navy operated two guided-missile destroyers from 1970 until 2003. Although by no means modern ships even for 1970s and 1980s standards, these vessels nonetheless constituted one of the few classes of naval vessels armed with surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) operating in the Baltic Sea that were not operated by the Soviet Union for a significant part of the Cold War. The decommissioning of the Project 61MP-class destroyer ORP Warszawa in 2003 brought an end to 73-years of consecutive destroyer operations by the Polish Navy.
33 years earlier, in 1970, the Polish Navy took delivery of a single Project 56AE destroyer (NATO designation: Kotlin-class) from the Soviet Union. Acquired secondhand from the Soviet Navy, which operated the vessel for more than a dozen years under the name of Spravedlivy ("Just"), the Polish Navy became the third Baltic navy after the Soviet and West German navies to operate a ship armed with SAMs. Centred around the M-1 Volna SAM system (a navalised version of the land-based S-125), the ORP Warszawa I provided air defence to the Polish Navy until its decommissioning in 1986.
By that time negotiations with the Soviet Union for a replacement vessel had already begun. Yet it would take another two years before the Polish Navy could officially introduce a replacement for the ORP Warszawa I in the form of the leased Project 61MP-class destroyer (NATO designation: Mod Kashin-class) ORP Warszawa II. First commissioned by the Soviet Navy as the Smely ("Bold") in 1969, the ORP Warszawa II was the Polish Navy's first true multi-role surface combatant. Boasting two double-barreled 76mm AK-726 guns, two M-1 Volna SAM launchers, four P-15 anti-ship missiles (AShMs) and four 30mm AK-630 CIWS in addition to 533mm torpedoes and two RBU-6000 ASW rocket launchers, the ORP Warszawa II was a menacing sight to behold from whatever angle you glanced at the ship.

In contrast, the ORP Warszawa I might be said to look positively tame. Originally designed as a class of ASW destroyers, the Soviet Navy retrofitted seven Kotlin-class ships to carry SAMs throughout the 1960s. One more ship was modified and sold to Poland (Project 56AE, being the only Project 56 destroyer exported). In Poland, the Warszawa replaced the two Project 30bis destroyers (Skory-class) Wicher and Grom and the pre-WWII British-built ORP Błyskawica, which was involved in an accident in 1967 that left her immobilised. The Błyskawica was subsequently relegated to the role of floating anti-aircraft battery before officially being retired in 1976, forty years after she had been launched. In 1976 she became a museum ship, a role she still faithfully serves today.

The ORP Warszawa I.

The ORP Błyskawica.

While the ORP Błyskawica still had to make do with 100mm and 37mm AA guns, its replacement, the ORP Warszawa I, first introduced a surface-to-air missile capability to the inventory of the Polish Navy in the form of the M-1 Volna SAM system. The M-1 is a rail-based missile launcher that can launch two V-600/601 missiles at air targets (or in case of emergency, at ships) out to a range of 15km. The development of the M-1 Volna commenced in 1956 along with work on a land-based version (which ultimately became the ubiqitous S-125). Just one target can be engaged at a time (or two, for ships fitted with two M-1 Volnas), greatly decreasing the system's effectiveness. Up to 32 reloads can carried, and several upgrade projects eventually increased the range of the system to 22km when using the V-601(M) missile. 
In line with its original intended role of ASW warfare, the ORP Warszawa I sported two RBU-2500 ASW rocket launchers and 1x5 533mm torpedo launcher and a defensive armament suite consisting of two 130mm SM-2-1 dual-purpose cannons placed in a turret and one 1x4 45mm SM-20-ZiF anti-aircraft gun system. The ship was not fitted with the four 30mm AK-230 anti-aircraft guns found on Soviet ships in the class. During her sixteen-year long service (1970-1986), the ORP Warszawa I fired a total of 28 V-601 SAMs (more than half of the missiles purchased by the Polish Navy) and made port visits to the Soviet Union, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Great Britain and France. [1]

A V-601M SAM moments after being launched towards a target from the forward-facing launcher on the ORP Warszawa II.

The ORP Warszawa II greatly expanded on its predecessor's 1950s-era capabilities by introducing a second M-1 Volna SAM launcher, four P-15 AShMs, CIWS, improved ASW equipment and the ability to carry a helicopter. After the lease of the vessel ran out, the Warszawa II was permanently transferred to Poland in 1993 to pay Russian debts incurred during the days of the Soviet Union. That same year, the destroyer commenced a two year long overhaul that also saw the replacement of the Soviet navigation radars with Polish ones. Despite speculation regarding the replacement of the vessel's ageing weapons systems and the construction of a permanent hangar for the W-3 helicopter carried onboard, a chronic lack of funds meant that no major modernisation was ever undertaken.

In the (likely) chance an enemy aircraft or AShM would have made it through the ship's outer layer of missile defence, point-defence would have been provided by four AK-630 CIWS (two on each side) and two double-barreled 76mm AK-276 cannons.

Insufficient finances also meant the ORP Warszawa II only sporadically took to sea after the conclusion of the Cold War. The very same weapons systems that once were the reason behind the ship's purchase were now becoming difficult and expensive to maintain. Out of all the major international exercises that took place in the Baltic Sea during the 1990s and early 2000s, the vessel only took part in one exercise in 1999. The destroyer was officially removed from the fleet on the 1st of December 2003 pending a sale abroad. In the end, no country was interested and the vessel was placed in reserve before being sold for scrap and broke up by the Gdańsk Shipyard in 2005. In Polish service, the ORP Warszawa II fired 48 V-601 SAMs and eight P-15 AShMs. [1]

The ORP Warszawa II in the process of being scrapped.

Despite being originally designed in the late 1950s the ORP Warszawa II's brethren soldier on, with three heavily modified Mod Kashin-class destroyers still in active service with the Indian Navy, which took delivery of five vessels in the early to late 1980s. Known as the Rajput-class in Indian service, India has invested significant resources in keeping the remaining three vessels relevant in 21st century warfare. Two of the vessels have been upgraded to deploy eight BrahMos AShMs, replacing the four P-15 Styx launchers previously installed. The aft M-1 Volna SAM launcher was replaced by two 8-cell VLS for the Israeli Barak 1 SAM on two ships and a 16-cell VLS for the SAM VL-SRSAM on another. One of the vessels has also served as a testing ship for the Dhanush (anti-ship) ballistic missile. A plan to upgrade the propulsion of the Rajput-class with an indigenously designed gas turbine engine could mean these ships are to remain in service for years to come.

Soviet-designed naval vessels are not particularly well known for their clean lines, as evidenced on the Mod Kashin-class destroyer ORP Warszawa II.

Though neither the ORP Warszawa I or ORP Warszawa II were particularly modern by the time they entered service with the Polish Navy, they nonetheless represent an interesting and important chapter of Polish Navy history, protecting its maritime interests in the Baltic Sea from 1970 until 2003. Larger and more capable than any other vessel ever operated by a Warsaw Pact member other than the Soviet Union, the Warszawas embodied Poland's desire to operate destroyer-class vessels, a continuation of a tradition that was founded in the 1930s.
The ORP Warszawa II was ultimately replaced by two Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates acquired secondhand from the U.S. Navy. Despite their smaller size it can be argued that these presented the Polish Navy with a more capable (though less menacing in its appearance) platform. The Perry class in turn will be replaced by three indigenous Miecznik-class frigates, which are set to be the most capable vessels ever operated by the Polish Navy. Despite the fact that they no longer constitute true destroyers, these ambitious successors will be the undisputed flag bearers of a proud tradition.
[1] Robert Rochowicz. Dzieje niszczyciela ORP Warszawa. ''Morze, Statki i Okręty''. Nr specjalny 1/2015, 2015. Warszawa.