With Konrad Konefał on final tests of the ORP Ślązak patrol vessel, and on how building a new ship to serve in NATO forces will help the shipyard obtain contracts in Poland and abroad, talks Łukasz Zalesiński.
I am sure you popped champagne bottles on November 14.
It was a very special occasion. ORP Ślązak’s first sea trial is undoubtedly a success, though a small one. We still have a lot of work ahead of us.
Many people might have already lost hope that this moment was ever going to come...
It is hard to deny that. Due to many problems on the way, the building process has been going on for the last 17 years. But one of the reasons why PGZ (Polish Armament Group) took over the shipyard was to finalize this investment. We made it a point of honor, and so far we have been fulfilling our obligations.
The question that remains is the combat value of the vessel. The world has greatly developed within those 17 years.
Not in the area of construction. We can say with certainty that Ślązak meets current standards in that extent. It is equipped with two engines, a turbine, the propulsion system can work in almost 30 modes. The ship has a very comprehensive IPMS [Intelligent Patch Management System]. It ensures full control of the power plant and the ship’s systems. The vessel’s interior space is also very functional.
What about armament?
For such a big vessel, it is indeed quite modest. Ślązak is as big as a corvette, but it hasn’t been equipped with torpedoes or rocket launchers. Such decisions, resulting in a big extent from financial limitations, had been made in the past. The gaps can be filled at any time, since both the combat information center and the software had been adjusted to control such armament. However, these decisions are way beyond our authority – they can only be made by the ministry of defense. The shipyard is only responsible for building the vessel. Armament is supplied by Thales; radars, navigation and internal communication for the ship by Enamor.
Let’s return to the sea trials that began on November 14. What stage are they at?
As to the vessel itself, we have tested virtually everything: from various propulsion system operating modes, through fire protection and chemical contamination combating systems, to such prosaic issues as ventilation and toilets.
What are the conclusions?
The vessel is fast. It can reach the speed of 31 knots provided for in the contract, which will make it the fastest vessel in the Polish Navy. There is also good stability, maneuverability, and very low level of vibration caused by the working propulsion system. The comfort of sailing is therefore very high.
During sea trials we observed a fault connected with the transmission bearing. However, paradoxically, it was good for us, because we were able to check the efficiency of the IPMS in a real-life situation. It worked very well: it turned off the whole shaft line and activated the one-engine operating mode. The fault itself proved to be a manufacturing defect. The producer replaced the faulty bearing and we have not had any further problems.
What about armament, communication tests?
We tried to more or less synchronize the schedules of ships going into sea for testing. Soon, we will have artillery fire trials, an attempt to establish communication with the F-16 aircraft, and the Friend-or-Foe identification system tests. If everything goes according to plan, the next step is acceptance tests before a commission appointed by the military.
When will the ship be finally transferred to the navy? We’ve recently heard about the end of March...
We are to finish delivery tests of the vessel by the end of March and we are doing our best to make it happen. We need to keep in our mind, though, that military procedures are very complicated, and finishing acceptance tests does not mean the ship automatically enters service. Some activities, for instance, can be conducted only when the level of the sea doesn’t exceed three degrees on the 10-degree Douglas Sea Scale. If the weather is inappropriate, we will have to wait. We also can’t rule out the occurrence of some faults. There is a small chance that it will happen, but we must remember that Ślązak is a one-of-a-kind vessel, a prototype.
You must all be counting down the days to finish this project and start a new chapter.
Yes, we are, because this project is very important in many respects – image- and business-related, but also purely practical, since the navy is in urgent need of new vessels. We compete for new orders, in Poland or abroad, and a ship that has just started service in NATO forces in our portfolio might be a crucial factor. Besides, we have to move on.
PGZ took over the shipyard a year ago. What situation was it in?
The procedure of taking over the Polish Navy Shipyard started already in 2016 with collecting funds necessary to carry out this operation. In February 2017, the receiver announced a tender which worked out the way PGZ was hoping for. Besides, PGZ was the only entity interested in taking over the company. We spent the following months attending to very complicated formalities. Therefore, PGZ actually became the owner of the shipyard only at the beginning of last year. What did we find there? Experienced personnel was definitely an asset. Although the shipyard was operating in bankruptcy, the salaries were quite low, and the employees hadn’t been given raises for a long time, since bankruptcy law forbids that, many skilled specialists stayed out of sentiment – to the place, to navy ships. These people are really highly qualified. Of course, there used to be more such specialists. The receiver carried out collective redundancies twice, some people resigned themselves, since competition on the market is quite big. In order to beat it, we had to quickly raise salaries in the production department, win several dozen employees, mainly for the design and construction bureau, and introduce significant changes in the employment structure.
Did you dismiss employees?
Unfortunately, yes. In the first quarter of 2018 we reduced employment by one-fifth. About one hundred employees left. That was a painful moment, also for the shipyard, but we had to do it. We had too many people in the administration, and too few in the production and the mentioned design and construction bureau. We are in fact still employing people there.
What about infrastructure, equipment, machines?
This is the shipyard’s weakest point. A big part of the infrastructure is old and decapitalized. We had to make some absolutely essential investments right at the start. We changed lighting in the production plants to led, we invested in sealing the transmission grid, we removed some of the buildings from use, repaired roofs. We did all this to lower utility charges as much as possible, but also to quickly improve work comfort.
I assume that this is just the tip of the iceberg.
And you’re right. We have developed a comprehensive program which is to improve the shipyard’s production capacity. We will start implementing it this year. We want to gradually purchase new machinery, but also build a production hall and a warehouse. We planned our expenditure for about 90 million zlotys, and work worth about 10 million zlotys is already at a very advanced stage. We are also planning to delimit the terrain on which the company is operating. About 4,000 people used to work here, now there are 500. And even if our plans are successful, the number of employees will reach 700. That’s why we are planning to sell some of the land and buildings, and make further investments using the money obtained in this way.
Did you “inherit” any other projects besides Ślązak?
We are modernizing the ORP Piast rescue ship. It might not create such a hype in the media as the building of Ślązak, but the value of both contracts is similar. The work covers modernizing the propulsion, engines, mounting new rescue equipment and devices, such as a diving bell. We have replaced some elements of the hull, the work also covered the inside of the superstructure, including the bridge. In fact, it is more like rebuilding the ship rather than its modernization. After the work is finished, Piast is to serve in the navy for at least several more years, if not longer. We are planning to finish in mid-March, but the undertaking is extremely complicated. Maybe even more than building Ślązak.
From what I know, you have also managed to get new contracts.
That’s true. We succeeded in acquiring two orders from foreign customers. We are building a reconnaissance vessel together with Nauta Shiprepair Yard in Gdynia, which is the main contractor. We are also working on our own on a vessel for a ship owner from Norway. There is a big chance that they will place an order for another vessel of the same type. We have offer approval, we are preparing the contract. We are aware that the shipyard is not able to support itself exclusively from orders for the Polish navy. Although they are certainly our priority.
You have your share in the Ratownik (Rescuer) program, which – as the name indicates – provides for building a modern rescue vessel for our navy. What phase is the program in?
In this program we are the main contractor and technical leader. We are currently designing the ship. Technical documentation should be ready by the end of March. Then, we will begin the process of its approval by the ordering party and the classification society [a national institution supervising vessels under construction and later their periodic inspections]. If everything goes according to plan, we should start building at the turn of the third and fourth quarter.
What about other modernization programs?
We are particularly interested in the Miecznik project. It provides for building for our navy a series of modern coastal defense vessels. I hope that we will be awarded this contract. If we succeed in signing the contract, the construction of the first vessel might probably begin at the end of 2020.
Can we say then that you are slowly getting on an even keel?
As I said before, we are working on some orders. We manage to keep deadlines. We are soon facing two new challenges – extensive repairs on ORP Kontradmirał Xawery Czernicki command and support ship and on the ORP Arctowski hydrographic survey ship. PGZ is regrouping in the shipyard section. Nauta will slowly withdraw from building vessels and concentrate on repairing them. We will focus on building. We are conducting trade talks in Asian countries and in Scandinavia. The results of those talks are promising. It would be great if Polish shipyards restored their potential once and for all, so that they could execute their programs single-handedly, not as subcontractors of Scandinavian companies. Yes, I think we are slowly turning the corner, although if we consider the difficult market, there is still a long way ahead of us.
Konrad Konefał is the President of PGZ War Shipyard in Gdynia.
autor zdjęć: Łukasz Zalesiński