Poland Speeds Up Deterrence Weapons Procurement
With Russian military conducting aggressive operations, Poland, which has been apprehensive about NATO's reaction in case of a low intensity conflict, decided to speed up some of its planned military procurement in order to deter potential aggression and retaliate with force in case of attack. In a few years' time, NATO's largest east flank country wants to field long range missile systems, modern attack helicopters, three-tier anti-missile shield, and even cruise-missile capable submarines.
When Poland launched its massive military spending plan last year, everyone thought it was a tool for gradually building-up the industrial and political strength of Eastern Europe's emerging regional leader, rather than for creating a ready-to-use force package. Programs - from new tanks and artillery to defensive and offensive missiles and modern submarines - were to last for years, with a clear goal of both enhancing country's military capabilities and boosting the R&D sector of the defense industry, which was hit hard by economic transformation and fourfold reduction of the Polish army.
But as the Ukraine crisis developed, the leaders in Warsaw realised that some of the military equipment and capabilities were urgently needed not only to enhance NATO's posture, but also to be able to face a limited conflict alone. The most noticeable gap in Poland's military capabilities - effective air and missile defense - was to be filled by 2022 at the cost of roughly $10 billion, making it the largest, most important and most expensive of the army modernization projects.
Initially, the Polish Ministry of National Defense (MoD) opted for the most advanced systems with significant leverage for the R&D centres and large offsets for defense industry. But after a few months of negotiations with potential bidders, and at the time when borders in Europe were changed by force for the first time since World War II, the MoD made a U-turn in its policies and decided it wants as soon as possible only surface to air missiles (SAMs) which are ready to use. This constricts their choices to the US-made Patriot missile and the European SAMP/T while other competitors, including the NATO-sponsored MEADS system, are still in the development phase.
The first mid-range air defense (MRAD) batteries should arrive by 2018 and will be complemented by two lower tier systems, all linked together in what has been called The Shield of Poland. It is likely that by 2018, Poland will also host the second US missile defense base in Europe, built under the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) program. This new base, along with the anti-ballistic cover that Poland provides to other NATO countries, is a highly valuable target for any potential aggressor and thus requires protection.
In view of Poland's military planners, the defensive anti-missile shield, which weakens or disables the enemy's first strike capabilities, will be backed up by a sword. For the first time since the Warsaw Pact was disbanded, the country aims at possessing powerful retaliatory weapons that would make any potential attack a very costly endeavour for the enemy. The MoD has already asked Pentagon for permission to buy long-range cruise missiles, the JASSMs, for its fleet of 48 highly capable F-16 multirole aircraft. Based in two sites in central Poland, they're not only dedicated to air-defense missions, but will also be responsible for striking back if the country is attacked.
What Poland's military needs the most is a stealthy, precision-guided missile that can be fired from behind the enemy's SAMs range, and that is precisely is what JASSMs are for. But air-launched cruise missile are not enough for a country whose most likely opponent is more than able to cripple the three F-16 squadrons. Poland decided to place its deterrents on mobile (and potentially) submerged platforms.
The Polish Navy, having been overlooked in military investments for decades, is no match for the mighty Baltic Fleet of Russia that is based just a stone-throw from Poland's key naval assets. The distance between Gdynia and Baltijsk in the Kaliningrad zone is just 120 km, less than 10 minute in subsonic flight for a fighter jet or a fraction of that time for a tactical ballistic missile like the Iskander-M or a hypersonic Yakhont naval missile. While helpless against these threats at the moment, the navy has moved its strike power ashore by placing the modern Naval Strike Missiles (NSMs) on trucks, making them quickly deployable and easy to hide in the forests. Until the JASSMs and other more powerful weapons arrive, these missiles are Poland's only deterrent capable of striking back at Russia.
The Polish navy is looking forward to becoming much more frightening for the enemy, if only politicians would make up their minds. The military is planning to acquire three modern diesel-electric submarines to replace the large but ageing ex-soviet Kilo-class boat and small, obsolete Kobben-class subs. The key question under debate is not the submarines however, but rather their armament: torpedo-tube launched long-range cruise-missiles. These weapons, if obtained, may change the power balance in the Baltic Sea, now dominated by Russian forces. Submarines are the most costly of the planned naval assets, with the cruise missiles on them even more so. In the shallow waters of the Baltic Sea, once these are fired, the submarines are almost certainly exposed. Decision makers are still mulling the issue of whether to invest in a weapon that may never be used, even if that is exactly what deterrence means.
However important for securing an access corridor from Western European NATO-members to the Baltic States, naval power will not be the decisive feature in a future conflict in the region. A relatively large country like Poland has realised that even with a smaller army, it must rely on land forces to defend its territory. In wake of massive force reductions in Western Europe, Poland already operates the largest tank and armoured vehicle fleet among European NATO members and is gradually replacing the remaining Soviet T-72's for more modern German-built Leopards 2A4-5s. It's also reviving its mobile artillery program (which was lagging behind for a decade) following the purchase of a license for a mighty 155 mm self-propelled howitzer. In a few years, their number is set to grow from six to 120. When fielded, they will be the second most powerful weapon of the land forces.
The most powerful weapon, however, is already in development. The Polish version of the US-designed Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS), which equipped with Lockheed Martin HIMARS missile, may be the weapon that could scare off any aggressor. It's equivalent to Russian Iskander-M missiles and capable of firing precision missiles at targets 300 km away. The design will be "made in Poland" in cooperation with a US top military contractor, but the number of launchers and schedule of deliveries have not yet been determined. A lot will depend on Poland's financial situation. Even with the announced increase in military spending to the NATO-required 2% of GDP, the country's budget is tight. But war on Ukraine's eastern border, NATO's reluctance to permanently station troops in new member states, and the American shift toward Asia may leave Poland with no choice but to arm itself quickly and with the strongest possible weapons.
Marek Swierczynski is a journalist at TVN24 and affiliated with the Polish Euro-Atlantic Society.