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Beyond Air and Missile Defense: Modernization of the Polish Armed Forces


F-16 Polish Air Force

F-16 Polish Air Force

The current discussion of the threats and challenges to European security tends to focus on the problems related to the effectiveness of international organizations, i.e., the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU), and their mechanisms. Yet, this approach is misleading as it suggests that the problem lies in the stalemate that characterizes 21st century multilateralism. In fact, what some of the European states have been trying to do is pass the buck to someone else. This concept is seductive, because of the simplicity of its core claim — elusive and indefinable others are responsible for inaction.

From a Polish perspective, this approach can put European security in jeopardy. The economic crisis — which has limited Europe’s ability to invest in defense — can only be overcome by a mixture of political will and a reindustrialization of Europe, including the necessary investment into the defense industry. In fact, such an approach would also boost the defense potential of EU and NATO member states. Yet, some argue that by focusing on the modernization of their national armed forces, EU states might shift toward a renationalization of their security policies. The aim of this article is to debunk this myth.

Poland believes that investment in the national defense potential — its modernization and development — is nothing else but sharing the responsibility for the security of the transatlantic area and preparing to act beyond it in the future, should the need arise. Ultimately, NATO and the EU will be effective only if their member states are strong and efficient. Therefore, despite the economic crisis, Poland has made the modernization of its armed forces a top priority.

Scope of the Modernization

Since August 2012 when Poland’s President Bronisław Komorowski announced the defense modernization initiative, the air and missile defense system has been in the limelight, becoming the buzzword on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet, the scope of the modernization effort is far more complex, and comprises of four distinct pillars.
First, the Polish army will be considerably strengthened. Armored forces, even if perceived by some European states as a hulking, overpriced holdover from a bygone era, play a crucial role in Poland’s defense strategy. Warsaw aims to introduce its indigenous multi-rocket launcher system “Homar,” built by one of the largest Polish producers of military equipment Huta Stalowa Wola (HSW), in 2015. The same company will also deliver approximately 70 mobile automatic mortars “Rak” between 2014 and 2018. They will be based on the chassis of the armored wheel vehicle “Rosomak” — a top notch construction manufactured in Poland under Finnish license, and combat proven in Afghanistan. Given that the “Rosomak” is a perfect tool suitable for both territorial defense and expeditionary tasks, Poland will acquire an additional 300 units of it. Finally, the armor program will include the modernization of the 128 Leopard 2A4 tanks, as well as the acquisition of an additional 128 of the same model or of the 2A5 type. This will render the Polish army the heaviest in both Central and Western Europe.

Second, Poland has accelerated its naval force modernization program, which foresees a total spending of $3 billion (10 billion PLN) by 2030. Without this major investment, the Polish navy would soon lose its operational capacity as 17 of its 41 combat vessels are scheduled to be withdrawn from service by 2022. The program has four priorities: the acquisition of three mine destroyers “Kormoran 2” (the first to be delivered by 2016, the second and third by 2022), three coastal defense vessels “Miecznik” (to be delivered between 2014 and 2026), three patrol vessels with mine-destroying capability “Czapla” (to be delivered between 2015 and 2026), and three conventional submarines equipped with tactical missiles (the first and second to be delivered by 2022, the third by 2030).

Third, the most modern component of the Polish Armed Forces — the air force — will be further enhanced, among others, by introducing a new Advanced Jet Trainer system of eight aircraft by 2017. In addition, the helicopter fleet, which is to be used by different sections of the armed forces, will be fully modernized. The first tender amounts to $2.5-3.3 billion, which will provide for 70 pieces of combat support and logistics support helicopters of four specialized versions to be delivered starting in 2015, is already underway. The second tender, which will aim to replace the Mi-24 attack helicopters starting in 2020, is currently in the analytic-conceptual phase.

Fourth, the Polish defense industry, which could play the role of a vital linchpin in the modernization effort, needs clear strategic guidance. This necessitates the speedy completion of the new governmental strategy that will set out a plan for the consolidation of the branch, currently prepared by the Ministry of Economy, the Ministry of Treasury and the Ministry of National Defense. This consolidation process should help Polish companies to deal with the challenges of an evolving European market. However, the ongoing debate on strengthening Europe’s defense sector — an important part of the upcoming December 2013 European Council preparations — has shown that there is a temptation among some of the EU member states, as well as the European Commission, to equate consolidation with competitiveness. From their perspective, the best way to boost the economic development of the European defense industries is to further consolidate second-tier and third-tier firms (i.e. the small and medium enterprises), rapidly phase out offsets and limit the importance of Article 346 of the Lisbon Treaty. Unfortunately, these false assumptions could lead to an even more unbalanced development of Europe’s defense industries. This approach would be beneficial primarily to the European industrial champions — the first-tier companies, from just six member states: France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. They dominate the market by virtue of their size, technological sophistication, high level of investment in research and development and the political support they receive. The small and medium enterprises which prevail in other member states — including Poland — will thus have a limited chance of successfully competing on a market driven solely by economic forces. Warsaw cannot stop the consolidation process on the European level, so its only viable solution is to channel it in a way that best serves Polish interests. Ideally, Poland should counteract the possibility of an eventual increase of such discrepancies by supporting an equal regional distribution of the funds dedicated to increasing competitiveness in the branch, while securing the necessary political, economic and technological backing for small and medium enterprises. Warsaw should also make a virtue of necessity, and ultimately seek to change its indigenous defense industry landscape.

Strategy First

Poland’s modernization program cannot be an art for art’s sake. Managing the process in a new strategic context will be far from easy, but doing it effectively is essential. The best way to ensure success is getting the security and defense strategy right. The new-old rationale was laid out by the Minister of Foreign Affairs Radosław Sikorski in his annual address to the Polish Parliament in March 2013:

History teaches us that Poland must look to itself to look after its security — also in the military sense — and that this security largely depends on our own defense potential. As Jan Nowak-Jeziorański once wrote, “you must not base your security on your allies alone, even the most formidable ones, if you cannot use your own forces to enable these allies to come to your help. A feeling of security […] cannot become a myth that leads to mental disarmament and gives rise to laziness of military thought.”

How should these words be interpreted and translated into practical strategic actions?

First, the goal of Poland is to be prepared for all possible threat scenarios, not only the most probable ones. This approach is clearly in line with the commitments under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. Therefore, Poland — due to its location and the historic lessons-learned — cannot enshrine the concept of niche capabilities and specialization recommended by some European countries as a solution to financial constrains. Instead, Poland has chosen to pursue a wide-ranging defense modernization, which will also ensure a higher level of mobility of the Polish Armed Forces.

Second, in the upcoming years Poland will put an emphasis on guaranteeing the financial resources necessary for the acquisition process. This has become even more pertinent after the Polish government announced severe budget cuts in mid-July 2013, which will lead to a decrease in defense spending by at least 10 percent of the sector’s annual budget (approximately $1 billion). Moreover, as the modernization deals entail long-term organizational commitment and supervision, not surprisingly, they will have Warsaw focus its political, military and economic attention inward. This should not, however, lead to a hazardous “modernization obsession,” but rather to a more balanced approach toward Polish operational engagements which should be based on a smart equilibrium between interests and values.

This posture leads to a third strategic conclusion. Poland has always been and remains convinced that Article 5 of the Washington Treaty is the cornerstone of transatlantic security. If there is any song that could become the anthem of NATO, it would be a show tune from the musical Carousel — “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Some have argued that this defensive strategy could lead to an introvert security policy approach. Yet, collective defense commitments and out-of-area operations are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the modernization of the Polish Armed Forces, when completed, will ensure that Poland is capable of effectively participating in both.

The Recurrence of Deterrence

If one could name one unique novel element in the Polish strategy, it would be the recurrence of deterrence. Once a backbone of many national security strategies, with time it has almost vanished from the vocabulary of strategic debate. Yet, from a Polish perspective this concept has not become obsolete, as it provides a viable solution to the strategic problems laid down by Minister Sikorski in his annual address. Indeed, deterrence is a strategy for addressing two competing goals: countering a potential enemy or threat, and avoiding war.

On June 3, 2013, Prime Minister Donald Tusk together with the Minister of National Defense Tomasz Siemoniak announced the initiation of a project called “Polish Fangs.” Its goal is to develop the essential military capabilities necessary to implement a deterrence strategy. In practice, “Polish Fangs” will be comprised of cruise missiles for both the F-16 fleet and the conventional submarines, combat drones, special operations forces, as well as the Polish Navy Coastal Defense Missile Battalion system. Moreover, it is likely that this project will be supplemented by both defensive and offensive cyber-weapons, as cyber-defense capabilities will become a priority in the next strategic planning cycle.

Currently, only two pillars of the deterrence strategy are operational. First, the special operations forces, which have become an indisputable flagship of the Polish Armed Forces and their professionalization. Second, the Coastal Defense Missile Battalion that became operational in June 2013. To begin with, it is equipped with 12 Norwegian Naval Strike Missiles, which can serve both as an anti-ship and a land-attack weapon. Ultimately, the Coastal Defense Missile Battalion will be equipped with 48 missiles.

Another particularly noteworthy undertaking in the upcoming years will be the attempt to acquire cruise missiles for the F-16 fleet. Following the example of Finland, Poland will seek to purchase advanced Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles (JASSM) from the United States. The combination of F-16 fighters and semi-stealthy missiles will provide a new and important capability for the Polish deterrence strategy. In fact, if Poland is successful in its negotiations, the transaction will be much more than an arms deal — it will have, as was the case in Finland, significant political and regional military implications.

The “Polish Fangs” initiative, along with the air and missile defense system, will provide Poland with game-changing capabilities. They should be perceived as a good example of the leading edge of so-called anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) systems, which are raising the costs for potential adversaries to project power and pursue their objectives.

Finally, as Richard K. Betts accurately underlines in his article “The Lost Logic of Deterrence” published in Foreign Affairs: “Deterrence is not a strategy for all seasons. It does not guarantee success. There are risks in relying on it and also in rejecting it when the alternatives are worse.” In other words, deterrence can easily go astray. Therefore, Polish policymakers will need to relearn the basics of deterrence and rediscover its promise as a strategy in the right circumstances, while recognizing its drawbacks in others.

The International Context

The modernization of the Polish Armed Forces will not take place in a strategic vacuum. Indeed, any isolationist’s attempts will prove to be ineffective, as the modernization cannot be conducted by the Polish defense industry alone. Accordingly, Poland needs to seek partners able and ready to support the modernization effort in a reciprocally beneficial manner. What does this mean in practice? Three rules of thumb apply.

From a political perspective, being an ally is not enough. In fact, a crucial factor is a similar threat perception, as well as a comparable level of sensitivity in security and defense policy. Specifically, this stance implies a factual strengthening of Article 5 commitments (e.g., preparations for all possible threat scenarios, active participation in joint NATO exercises, etc.), inclusiveness (i.e., openness to different configurations of regional cooperation) and readiness to be actively engaged in the neighborhood of Poland.

From an economic perspective, the level of engagement of the Polish defense industry in a given defense modernization project will play a decisive role. Of course, this also means that a considerable part of the manufacturing process should be transferred to Polish factories. In addition, the possibility to export the manufactured ordnance and military equipment to third countries will weight in the tenderer’s favor.
Finally, from a technological perspective, a critical issue will be the transfer of technology to the Polish defense industry. This would serve not only as a boost for the entire sector, but also as a means to strengthen Polish engagement in the effort to enhance the European Defense Industrial and Technological Base by increasing investment, competition and cooperation.


The stalemate over the Syrian conflict has revealed that the international community — including many Western powers — is looking for a strategic pause in their international military exposure and operational activity. This could give rise to laziness of military thought. Therefore, a new strategic narrative that prevents mental and factual disarmament will be needed.

The modernization of the Polish Armed Forces offers a sound basis to counteract this trend. This initiative has become a crucial political-military project with a projected positive impact on the Polish economy. If successful, the modernization effort can prove to be a strategic game-changer for Warsaw. In fact, its overall impact can significantly increase both Poland’s defense potential — necessary to make the deterrence strategy a reality — as well as the competitiveness of the Polish defense industry. Moreover, if Warsaw engages the right partners — preferably with a comparable level of sensitivity in security and defense policy — the modernization process will result in a stronger and more stable transatlantic partnership, as well as a more effective European Common Security and Defense Policy. It would be a shame if Poland misses the real opportunities the defense modernization initiative offers.

This article first appeared as an Issue Brief at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) on September 5, 2013.

The opinions, findings and conclusions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Security Bureau of the Republic of Poland.



Dominik P. Jankowski

Dominik P. Jankowski is a security policy expert, diplomat, and think-tanker. Currently he serves as Political Adviser and Head of the Political Section at the Permanent Delegation of the Republic of Poland to NATO.