Date: 1 March 2017    Maciej Kucharczyk

Modernizing Poland’s Armed Forces

Poland is in the midst of a wide-ranging process of modernizing its armed forces, on which it will spend around $15 billion by 2022. In particular, much of these funds will be allocated to the purchase of equipment and technology from abroad.

© Lech Muszyński (PAP)

Above all, this process was caused by two decades of neglect. After the fall of communism and the end of the Cold War, defense spending was significantly curtailed. In effect, the process of systematically replacing aging equipment was interrupted, which led to the collapse of the contract-starved, domestic defense industry. This modernization is also being forced by the worsening security situation in Europe, especially after the Russian aggression in Ukraine in 2014 and the increase in Russian defense spending.

Financial Challenge

For many years, weaponry for the Polish Armed Forces was purchased according to itemized lists, detached from any coherent, multi-year strategy. This is how the first major arms contract since the fall of communism was signed in 2003 for an order of Rosomak armored transports, licensed from Finland, but produced and developed in Poland. Similarly, in 2004, an agreement was made for the delivery of 48 multi-role F-16 fighters, which was the largest arms deal in modern Polish history.

It was not until after 2010 that a comprehensive strategy began to be formulated, which was meant to encompass the entire process of equipment modernization of the Polish Armed Forces over the course of a decade. The “Technical Modernization Plan” (Plan Modernizacji Technicznej, or PMT) was first presented in 2012 and covered the period 2013-2022. It formally remains in effect to the present day, but with a change in the ruling party in 2015, it was audited and modified. The initial plan was determined to have underestimated procurement costs by half, which has led to the reduction of new purchases and their partial delay to a future date. Many experts were already calling for such a solution in 2013, since the PMT in its original form was unrealistic.

Based on current assumptions, $15 billion will be spent by 2022 on weaponry alone, wherein contracts for around $4 billion have already been signed since 2013. A number of armaments programs are set to start in 2022, but part of their financing falls into later years, so their costs are not counted in the aforementioned $15 billion. On the whole, this is the largest defense spending plan among the new NATO members, and exceeds the planned arms purchases of many countries in Western Europe.

The PMT may yet to be subject to further changes. The modernization plans are very ambitious and will constitute a heavy burden on the national budget. Defense spending in Poland accounts for 2% of GDP, a rarity among NATO members, the vast majority of which do not maintain this level as recommended by the alliance. The Ministry of Defense of Poland (Ministerstwo Obrony Narodowej, MON) is optimistic and assures that there is no threat to the realization of the modified PMT. Yet, it is highly likely that a number of lower-priority arms programs will be delayed into the future. On the whole, however, there is little risk of an overall freeze to the modernization plan.

High Priority, but not the Highest

All of the major parties on the Polish political scene are convinced of the necessity to maintain a high level of defense spending. Poland finds itself in an adverse geopolitical position, as a frontline NATO country positioned on the edge between the alliance’s area of influence and Russia’s imperial ambitions. Therefore, in the event of escalating tensions and a possible armed conflict, battles will be fought on her territory in the first place.

The feeling of danger is amplified in Polish society by the deeply rooted skepticism towards the willingness of Western allies to come to their aid in the event of a crisis. This view originated from the experience of World War II when France and Great Britain did not provide any support to Poland during the first month of the conflict, the so-called “September Campaign”, which ended in the ignominious defeat of the Polish army. This skepticism is strengthened by the low outlays on defense by nearly all of the Western NATO member states and statements made by their politicians, some of whom have pro-Russian views (especially François Fillon and Marine Le Pen, both serious candidates for the President of France).

Moreover, the current state of equipment of the Polish Armed Forces does not allow for modernization to be delayed any further. Despite a number of completed and ongoing arms programs, over half of the equipment still comes from the Cold War era. Equipment purchased in the 1970s and 1980s, when large purchases were made during times of tension with the West, has reached the end of its lifespan, while refurbishment and maintenance to keep it serviceable is no longer cost-effective.

Lessening the possibility of meaningful cuts is underlined with the fact that the government has officially declared the PMT as an opportunity to inject serious funds into the Polish defense industry. Most of the expenditures on new equipment will stay in Poland and help in the development of the economy. The preferred situation is the production of armaments inside the country, in cooperation with foreign partners who supply the technology and key components, whose production in Poland would otherwise be cost inefficient.

Based on the preceding, cuts in Polish defense spending should not be expected in the foreseeable future; however, the aforementioned delay of certain programs may come to pass, especially if the economic situation deteriorates. The substantial increase in social welfare spending by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has led to a record budget deficit. If the country’s financial situation worsens, it will put pressure on defense expenditures. In Poland defense is not as critical as in Russia, for example, and will be curtailed if there is a risk to funds for social service spending.

Procurement Plans for Land Forces

The largest and most important component of the Polish military is its Land Forces, which are considered indispensable in a country bereft of large natural barriers on the plain between Western Europe and Russia. Currently, they include 13 armored, mechanized and airmobile brigades, along with numerous smaller support units, while around 49,000 soldiers serve in them. According to the newest version of the PMT, the modernization of the armored and mechanized brigades, forming most of the Land Forces, is one of five priorities.

Several large arms programs are currently in effect. First of all, 142 Leopard 2A4 tanks, which were purchased from Germany, are being modernized into the 2PL variant. Also, 105 newer Leopard 2A5 tanks will serve until the 2030s as the foundation of Poland’s armored forces after bringing them to a decent level that will allow for an equal playing field in battle with most Russian tanks. However, problems remain with the 232 PT-91 Twardy (Resilient) tanks and the 150 or so T-72M tanks (with several hundred more sitting in warehouses).

The first are T-72s modernized in the 1990s. They represent technology that is now 25-year-old and are increasingly irrelevant to the modern battlefield. Officially however, there is no plan to modernize or replace them. Unofficially, the possibility of buying used Leopard 2s or M1 Abrams tanks is being considered, but the problem here is the potential cost or the availability of tanks in an appropriate condition.

Meanwhile, the T-72Ms are completely outdated and have very limited utility on the battlefield. According to the Ministry of Defense, they are to be replaced by the PL-01 armored fighting vehicle, which can be considered a light tank. They are significantly under-armored compared to traditional tanks, but equipped with the same armament, in the form of a 120mm cannon. Similar vehicles, based on a tank tread chassis, are rare elsewhere in the world. The CV90120-T light tank is one example, but it never left the prototype stage. Polish defense manufacturers, in cooperation with foreign partners, have already submitted proposals of such a light tank named Anders; however, the program is still in its infancy and the first deliveries are not expected to be until after 2022.

The Borsuk armored transporter will be based on the same chassis as the PL-01, which is meant to replace over 1000 archaic BWP-1s from the 1970s that are still being used by the Polish military, but were never modernized. So the Borsuk is a higher priority than the PL-01 and is extremely important for the armed forces. Based on current plans, the beginning of mass production is set to start in 2019 and the first prototype is to be finished this year. Meanwhile, the main contractor is Huta Stalowa Wola in Poland.

Work to improve the modern, wheeled Rosomak armored transporter is ongoing, some of which will include Israeli, anti-armor, Spike rocket launcher integration. Preparations for the production of an unmanned, ZSSW-30 tower are also ongoing, which will substantially raise the combat capabilities of the Rosomak. The production of much-needed reconnaissance and technical assistance vehicles has already begun.

Within the Land Forces, a wide-ranging modernization of its artillery continues. At the end of 2016, the largest arms contract in years (over $1 billion) was signed for the production of almost one hundred 155mm Krab gun-howitzers. This modern armament, a combination of British, Korean, French and Polish technology, is produced by Huta Stalowa Wola. The self-propelled, 120mm caliber mortar, Rak, based on the Rosomak transporter chassis, is also produced there. For about $250 million, 64 of them will be produced.

Currently, within the bounds of artillery modernization, one big purchase is left to be realized — long-range rocket launchers. The Homar program is meant to provide Poland with equipment capable of precise attacks on targets 300km away. Polish industry does not have the appropriate technology so it will only supply the chassis; the rest has to be purchased abroad. The biggest possibilities lie with companies in the US (HIMARS system) or Israel (LYNX system).

Anti-Aircraft and Missile Defense Programs

Though the Land Forces are the most numerous, their modernization will consume less money than the replacement of practically all of the anti-aircraft systems of the Polish military. The current systems are old, some of which have their roots in the 1960s while most are decidedly insufficient to the demands of modern warfare. Taking into consideration that Russia wields a relatively strong air force, while Poland, next to the Baltics, finds itself in close proximity to Russian air bases, possessing suitably strong anti-aircraft defenses has become a priority matter. Additionally, in the Kaliningrad Oblast on the Polish border, the Russians possess a rocket brigade, which over the course of several years will surely be rearmed with short-range, Iskander ballistic missiles. Though it is not official, these can almost certainly be armed with nuclear warheads. These weapons are a serious threat, especially as Poland’s military has no anti-missile defenses.

Considering these challenges, Poland plans to purchase mid-range Wisła anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems, and short-range Narew systems, through two programs. Both weapons programs are thought to total around $15 billion ($10 billion for the first and $5 billion for the second), while their financing stretches beyond 2022, so it is not entirely covered in the current PMT. The company with the biggest chance at landing the first contract, which will also be the biggest in the history of the Polish Armed Forces, is the US consortium Raytheon, which offers the Patriot system. The competition is the US-German-Italian system MEADS, as well as the French-Italian SAMP/T. Discussions are well-advanced, but they were delayed by nearly three years. The government has declared that an agreement will be signed this year and that deliveries will start in 2019, although the same was promised last year. The negotiations regarding the purchase of the Narew system are far less advanced. For now, the offers of numerous companies are undergoing an initial review. Based on the latest plans, the first deliveries will be in 2021. Both programs assume a high degree of Polonization, in other words a transfer of technology and production to Poland. Officially this is to amount to 50%.

Beyond the Wisła and Narew programs, the Polish military is purchasing numerous short-range, anti-air systems. For about $1 billion, several types of anti-air cannons and hand-held, anti-air rockets have been ordered from Polish companies, the deliveries of which are in progress. Since this is less advanced equipment than short- and medium-range systems, the needs are met almost entirely by the Polish defense industry.

Modernizing the Air Force

In the past year, emotions in Poland were stirred by the purchase of new helicopters. Most of those in the possession of the Polish military are outdated and will require replacing in the next few years. Purchases were to be conducted through two large procurement auctions, one for multi-purpose helicopters and the other for assault helicopters. The first was formally settled in 2015 and won by Airbus Helicopters for the H225M, yet after the change in government, talks were called off, motivated by insufficiently attractive offset agreements. The episode was steeped in scandal.

A new procedure is underway. Everything indicates that for now, a smaller number of helicopters will be purchased and not just one type, but rather several (the previous plan was to use one type for multiple jobs — anti-submarine warfare, marine rescue and combat and transport). The company with the biggest chance of winning the contract is the Italian firm Leonardo, which owns the Polish PZL Świdnik works and Lockheed Martin, which controls the Polish PZL Mieliec works. The production and service of the new helicopters is supposed to be, at least in part, based in Poland. In parallel, there are plans for the serious modernization of part of the post-Soviet helicopters from the Mi-8/17 family, in cooperation with the Ukrainian Motor-Sicz company, which has produced their engines since the Soviet era. Perhaps, in the coming several years, attempts will be made to purchase new helicopters. The cost of the entire undertaking is hard to estimate; however, the initial auction was to cost around $3 billion.

At the same time, the Kruk program is ongoing, with the aim of purchasing assault helicopters which will replace the worn-out, post-Soviet Mi-24 whose fighting potential is very limited because many have been used up as a result of age and their intensive use in Afghanistan and Iraq. Most importantly, their basic armament – the Szturm anti-tank rockets – have also been withdrawn from service due to their age. In their place, the defense ministry plans to buy 32 new assault helicopters, 16 of which before 2022, whose main mission is to destroy enemy armored vehicles. Potential candidates include the American Boeing AH-64E Guardian and Bell AH-1Z, French Airbus Helicopters Tiger and the Italian Lenardo A129 Mangusta or its Turkish variant, the T129 ATAK. The price of the purchase is unknown; the defense ministry has presented divergent figures, but it can be estimated to be at around $2 billion.

Besides helicopters, the Polish military must replace part of its aircraft fleet. The Polish Air Force has 48 relatively modern, F-16 Block 52 fighters, bought in the first decade of the 21st century. Yet the rest of the Air Force includes 32 post-Soviet MiG-29 fighters and 18 Su-22 bombers. Half of these fighters were modernized and can serve for about another decade. Yet the rest of the MiG-29s and all of the Su-22s are of little value on the battlefield and, realistically, should be withdrawn from service by 2025. The problem is that the PMT does not account for the purchase of new planes before 2022 and there are no funds for it. For now, the defense ministry is conducting analyses about what should be purchased. The most likely solution is the purchase of used and modernized or new F-16s. Buying more planes of this type would mean the limitation of expenditures tied to logistics and training. In the long-term perspective, closer to 2030, is the purchase of fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II fighters.

Smaller purchases of precision armaments for the F-16s already in service are ongoing, while the biggest contracts are for long-range, JASSM and JASSM-ER rockets. The first have already been delivered to Poland and an agreement for the second was signed at the end of 2016.

Serious Fleet Problems

Poland was never a seafaring country and did not have a strong navy until the 20th century. This change was largely due to the country’s geopolitical position which forces Poland to concentrate on defending its eastern and western land borders. The Polish Navy continues to be treated as a kind of inferior category of the armed forces. Since the end of communism, no major investments have been made in this area while no significant modernization program has taken effect. As a result, the navy is in a state of decay: its most valuable forces are three small Orkan rocket ships (armed with RBS15 Mk-3 anti-ship rockets) and the Coastal Rocket Division (Nabrzeżny Dywizjon Rakietowy, NDR), with a second division currently being equipped with NSM rockets.

Formally, the modernization of the navy is one of the priorities of the PMT, which includes an adequate number of marine defense programs. The key is the purchase of new ships. First, under the Orka program, the military wants to obtain three new submarines (relatively small, conventionally powered subs, adapted to Baltic Sea conditions), additionally armed with maneuverable, long-range rockets, like the Tomahawk or MdCN. Over a period of two years, however, work has not moved forward substantially and a procurement process has not yet officially started. Once this happens, there will be three bidders: France’s DCNS (Scorpene ships), Germany’s ThyssenKrupp (U-214) and Sweden’s Saab (A26). Deliveries are planned after 2024 and if it comes to pass, it will be the most expensive marine program, estimated at $2.5–3 billion.

The next big programs are Miecznik and Czapla. With regard to the first, there are to be three relatively strong armed corvettes and under the second, three patrol ships capable of clearing mines. They will all be based on the same hull design. Construction is to take place in Polish shipyards but in cooperation with foreign industry. For now, both programs are in their infancy. In 2016, an ongoing procurement process was terminated and prepared anew. The delivery of ships is set for after 2021, while the estimated costs have not yet been released.

Against the backdrop of these weakly advanced programs, work on the new Kormoran II mine destroyers stands out, with nearly $200 million already having been spent on them. The first of three ships is to be turned over to the navy in the first quarter of 2017. Its construction in the Gdynia shipyard, Remontowa Shipbuilding, is one of the few Polish arms programs that have not run into any major problems or delays. Additionally, the majority of the equipment for this program has also been supplied exclusively supplied by Polish industry. Equipment for combatting sea mines has been its specialty and strength since the times of the communist Polish People’s Republic.

The PMT also contains a slew of smaller programs meant to give the navy various auxiliary ships (including tankers, tugs, rescue ships) as well as different systems, such as port defenses against sabotage. Most programs, however, are not far advanced and have distant realization dates.

Not Only Regular Forces

Besides the aforementioned main arms programs, lots of smaller ones are also planned. The list is long but it is worth mentioning for example the work done in the Łucznik Weapons Factory on the MSBS, which entails an entire modern family of rifles. In the future, it will be the basic weapon of the Polish military, which will supplant the Kalashnikov-based AK system and its deeply modified variant, the Beryl. Currently, the basic rifle is undergoing testing in select divisions; however, when they will be accepted into service and begin to be purchased is not yet clear. On a positive note, regular deliveries of Jelcz trucks are in progress. By the end of 2018, an order for nearly 1000 vehicles will be filled, worth $150 million. Analyses, in advance of procurement auctions for digital communications systems, are ongoing, which will bring command and control over the Polish military into the 21st century.

Next to these standard modernization processes, dependent on buying new equipment, the leadership of the defense ministry is pushing a new solution which will significantly change the situation of the Polish military. A Territorial Defense (Obrona Terytorialna) is being built, which in brief is meant to act similarly to the National Guard, but with much less ambitious tasks, lighter armaments and subordinated to the defense ministry, and not to regional leaders. The soldiers of the Territorial Defense will be mainly tasked with assisting the military and playing a supporting role in the rear. Eventually, the formation will include 50,000 volunteers. For now, structures are being built in Eastern European eastern countries bordering with Belarus and Russia. The Territorial Defense has many opponents who argue that poorly equipped and trained “weekend warriors” will siphon urgently needed money away from the modernization of the professional, frontline army.

The defense ministry has declared a desire to invest significantly in cyber-defense. Under the PMT, $250 million has been allocated for this purpose, which is significant, given the years of neglect of cyberspace by the military. But what exactly is meant to be done with this money is not yet clear due largely to a dearth of specific information and deadlines.

Plans are one thing, but reality is another…

Based on the juxtaposition above, it is clear that Poland has a very ambitious modernization plan for its armed forces. If it were actually realized in the established timeframe, the Polish military would unquestionably become one of the key players in Europe. The problem can be seen with the current experience in realizing the PMT, in that politicians treat it elastically. Established deadlines, in most cases, have turned out to be extremely optimistic and nearly all of the programs have already been delayed by several years. Due to overambitious goals, and given the available funds, certain programs have to be substantially curtailed, for example the purchase of multi-role helicopters.

A serious problem is the weakness of Poland’s defense industry. Already in the communist era, it lacked modern technology and the black hole of the 1990s only worsened the situation. For nearly a decade now, one can see the clear rebuilding of production potential, yet it is still insufficient for the timely deliveries of large amounts of modern equipment to be the standard. Apart from delays, there is a problem with production quality and an inability to master the newest technologies. The solution is primarily to buy foreign licenses and cooperate with international defense contractors. Nevertheless, the current government is seeking the maximum Polonization of purchased equipment, which aims to strengthen Polish industry and return the largest possible amount of defense expenditures back into the economy.

There is little doubt however that Poland will long be one of the most attractive markets in Europe for Western defense contractors. Especially since competition from Russia’s strong defense industry, for political reasons, is not a factor.

All texts published by the Warsaw Institute Foundation may be disseminated on the condition that their origin is credited. Images may not be used without permission.

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