Polish Vice-Minister of Defence Wojciech Skurkiewicz announced that the first squadron of 16 Lockheed Martin F-35 fighters will be acquired during the current planning period, while a second squadron would be procured after 2026. Even though this solution has some advantages, it also entails some risk, as acquisition constitutes only about 30% of total lifecycle costs, so the total cost of ownership could be three times higher than the procurement cost.
Skurkiewicz made his statement during a heated debate in parliament, when MP Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska, queried the combat effectiveness of the air force, whose MiG-29 jets have recently been grounded several times due to the accidents. According to the Polish Press Agency, Kluzik-Rostkowska also suggested that only 40% of the Polish F-16s are ready to use.
Responding to the questions, Skurkiewicz said that the decision to extend the MiG-29’s service life for another decade was made back in 2011. Mariusz Błaszczak, head of the MoD, recently decided to instead accelerate the Harpia program, whose goal is to replace the Soviet-era aircraft.
However, the most important quote pertained to implementation of the Harpia programme itself.
“For implementation of the Harpia programme, we are buying 5th generation aircraft. This is a breakthrough decision that will entirely change the Air Force’s operational capabilities. The first F-35 squadron would be procured during the current planning period, which covers modernization until 2026. The second squadron would be procured after 2026,” Wojciech Skurkiewicz, Secretary of State at the Polish Ministry of Defence, told Parliament.
This means that, at least until the new Technical Modernization Plan is adopted, the MoD can acquire a single squadron - such is the Harpia programme budget. It should be strongly emphasized that the above does not exclude asking the US to launch acquisition of two squadrons in line with the FMS procedure, as LOA intergovernmental documents can be signed with regards to a certain portion of the equipment to be acquired.
At the same time, there is no doubt that all MiG-29 and Su-22 airframes should be replaced. Considering the cost of the F-35 and of the infrastructure investments it requires, a question arises: would it not be better to place the Harpia programme outside the PMT planning document, as proposed by Andrzej Duda, the Polish President?
This would obviously require additional legislation and extra expenditure. In exchange, Warsaw would be able to stretch the acquisition across a longer timeline, as the MoD plans, with an ability to place the order concerning all 32 aircraft at once which eliminates division of the deal into smaller pieces.
Harpia funds earmarked until 2026 could then be used to acquire another F-16 squadron and to expand the operational capabilities offered by the existing fleet (modernization and reinforcement of the maintenance schemes that would render a higher availability of the airframes).
It is probable that new F-16Vs would achieve combat-ready status much quicker than the F-35, thus acting as an asset that could lift off some of the operational burden from the Harpia jets. Contrary to the F-35, the F-16V is available as a twin-seater variant with some of the systems derived from the F-35 directly, which would make it easier for the pilots to transition from the Soviet aircraft to the new airframes.
Notably, the new generation MRCA should be treated as an element of a wider combat system. That element shall be fused with the F-16s that Poland owns, the ground-based air-defence assets, long range artillery or the electronic warfare elements. The drive towards accelerated replacement of Fulcrums and Fitters is necessary, but it should not overshadow the other requirements, including the ones concerning the reconnaissance, C2 or anti-tank defence projects.