Poland’s Buying Spree: An Opportunistic Strategy or A Clear Will to Bypass Europe?
(Source: Defense-Aerospace.com; posted Oct. 04, 2022)

By Tim Maxwell
Poland has ordered the South Korean FA-50 lightweight fighter, developed by KAI and Lockheed Martin from the T-50 trainer, to replace its legacy MiG-29 and Su-22 fighters, ignoring European alternatives which might have appeared more suitable for combat. (ROKAF photo)

Poland has dramatically increased its defense acquisitions during the past few months, mainly from US and South Korean suppliers. Principally driven by the situation in Ukraine, this recent shopping spree is nevertheless in line with the strategy implemented during the past decade, as Poland has been almost systematically allocating 2% or more of its GDP to defense since 2015. But the recent situation also confirms that the country does not intend to rely on European partners to modernize its armed forces.

A goal of Polish military resurgence

In many ways, 2022 will be recognized as a crucial year for Polish Defence reinforcement, mainly driven by the large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine started in last February. However, a closer look reveals that Warsaw never really decelerated on its military efforts.

While most European countries enjoyed the so-called “peace dividend” at the end of the cold war, Poland kept on investing steadily for its defence. According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s (SIPRI) data, Polish military expenditures have grown at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 7.16% for the 1991-2021 period.

It was way more than France or Germany with CAGR of 1.53% and 1.37%, respectively. Overall, Poland is one of the few European countries that consistently allocated a significant part of its GDP to defense, with 2.12% in 2021 (amounting to $14,391million), a bit less than the U.K. but more than France, Germany or the Netherlands, for instance.

Most new orders go to United States….

In the past couple of years, several major orders had been unveiled by the Polish Ministry of Defense, among which: (indicated costs are estimates)
--$4.6bn order for 32 F-35As from Lockheed Martin;
--$5bn order for 250 M1A2 SEPv3 Abrams battle tanks from General Dynamics;
--$27 million for 300 second-hand Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) Cougar 4x4 valued from the U.S. Army;
--$270 million order for 24 Bayraktar TB2 UAVs from Turkey’s Baykar; and
--$$2 billion for three Babcock’s Arrowhead 140 (AH140) frigates.

The Polish authorities have always considered their country to be at risk, especially on its eastern flank. This perception is certainly explainable by the very conflictive history Poland has born with Russia or the USSR as well as by the situation that had prevailed in Ukraine since the Maidan revolution of 2014 and Russia’s under-the-threshold armed response. Even more critical was the diplomatic crisis with Belarus at the end of 2021, in a sort of hybrid conflict hinged on migration flows manipulated by Minsk at the border of the two, threatening the internal security of Warsaw.

But since the launch of Moscow’s infamous “special military operation” against Ukraine, Poland investments in defense have skyrocketed.

Orders skyrocket since Ukraine war

On the one hand, the government of President Andrzej Duda keeps acquiring US military equipment:
--43 additional new Abrams tanks (26 M88A2s and 17 M1110s) in April and 116 second-hand M1A1s added in July;
--an order for 500 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) missiles launchers (following a $414 million order for 20 pieces back in 2019, under the Polish WR-300 HOMAR program) combined with the purchase of ATACMS missiles with a range of 300 km was announced in May;
-- 96 Boeing AH64Ev6 Apache Guardian were ordered a few days ago at a total costof $12bn, to replace the old Mi-24 Hind.

South Korea wins huge orders

On the other hand, Poland seeks to diversify its defence imports and (surprisingly) extend its commercial relationship with South Korean suppliers:

--Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) was thus awarded a €3bn contract for the purchase of 48 F/A-50 and F/A-50PL Golden Eagle aircraft (“PL” standing for Polish specifications) to replace its old MiG-29s and Su-22s, which will be used for air policing missions instead of its F-16 and F-35A;
--1,000 K2PL Black Panther battle tanks for an unknown amount.
--Hanwha Defense landed contracts for 648 K9A1 Thunder self-propelled howitzers valued at $2.4bn, with the potential addition of several K239 Chunmoo rocket artillery systems.

Some analysts estimate that the total value of these Korean deals to reach $15 to $20bn, far exceeding the $7 billion value of all arms exported by South Korea in 2021.

Questioned about the increasing cooperation between Warsaw and Seoul, Łukasz Jurczyszyn, Director of Brussels Office of the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), suggests that the good quality of technology, the equipment price and the experience South Korean obtained in these long-term conflicts with North Korea are the main reasons for Poland’s interest in a deeper cooperation.

The fact that the South Korean weapons sold to Poland use ammunition, components and systems that are NATO-interoperable is another reason that led to this choice. For example, the K2 tank’s main armament is a 120mm smooth bore gun – as mounted on the M1 Abrams and German Leopard II, and it uses the U.S. GPS system; its transmission is German-made, and its Identification Friend or Foe/Selective Identification Feature is compliant with NATO’s standards.

Besides, Poland, has to renew the legacy equipment it has donated to Ukraine. So far, military aid to Kyiv has encompassed well over 300 armored fighting vehicles (AFVs), including over 230 T-72M and T-72M1(R) battle tanks, as well as several PT-91 MBTs, and some 110 pieces of self-propelled guns and multiple rocket launchers, amongst a host of other weapon types.

Europe not totally missing out but remains a distant third

European manufacturers have not been totally neglected, as Italy’s Leonardo will provide 32 AW-149 helicopters for €1.1bn (jointly with its local subsidiary PZL), the French company CNIM won a €320mn contract for an undisclosed amount of PFM F3 military floating bridges, and MBDA is currently working with the Polish Armaments Group (PGZ) on the “Mala NAREW” air defense system, whose initial delivery takes place today.

During a ceremony this morning, the Polish Army’s 18th Anti-Aircraft Regiment took delivery of the initial components of the "Mała Narew" air-defense system, which uses MBDA’s CAMM missiles. A second regiment will follow in the first half of 2023.

Still, some European companies will nonetheless have a bitter taste in their mouth when thinking of the contracts or discussions with Poland, for instance as regards the procurement of helicopters or submarines…. And, on a broader scale, Poland’s recent acquisitions clearly show that the country is not exactly showing a passionate involvement with Europe…

Poland’s ambition is to become a leading military land power able to deal with the numerous threats that could come from its neighbors. In the North East, Warsaw faces the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad Region, heavily saturated with military equipment (S-300 and S-400 air defense system, long-range missile, tanks, light armor and a permanent force of around 15,000 members), while on the East the country shares more than 400km with Belarus, strongly militarized and with which tensions never really decreased.

Between the two, the Polish “Suwałki Gap” is the only ground corridor linking Central Europe with the Baltic countries, and so making it a prime target for invasion in the framework of an open conflict.

It should be noted that the current Polish weapons buying spree is not particularly in line with any European Defence policy. Poland remains primarily attached to NATO and believes that European nations should not duplicate a new operational military alliance.

A reliable NATO partner

Within NATO, Poland has been a reliable partner, and was one of the first countries to increase its defense spending close to 2% of its GDP, an achievement often praised by former U.S. President D. Trump during his term. The country’s attachment to NATO and its compliance with its budgetary rules have allowed it to benefit from the rebalancing of the American presence in Europe, even as it was reduced by 30% in Germany, and resulting in the U.S. V Corps' Forward Operating Station to be resettle in Poland.

In terms of procurement, Boeing’s Apache attack helicopter was recently preferred to Leonardo’s AW249 brand new attack helicopter to replace Poland’s fleet of obsolete Mi-24 Hinds as part of the Kruk program. In spite of having selected Italian M346 fighter trainer in the mid-2010, Poland does not really see any interest in buying European, maybe because it has long been sidelined in terms of common industrial programs.

Warsaw even pulled out from NATO’s Multinational Multi-Role Tanker Transport Unit, meant to pool and share a common fleet of air-refueling aircraft, and an idea that Poland had initially promoted. However, Warsaw does see an interest in diversifying its sources of supply.

In the long term, it is expected that Poland’s massive investments will also result in an increase of the country's capacity to produce and export war material. In this respect, the orders placed with Korean KAI include the short-term delivery of equipment (12 FA-50s Block 10 aircraft by 2023 and 180 K2 tanks between 2022 and 2025) as well as licenses to produce the rest (36 FA-50PLs Block II and 820 K2PLs) directly in Poland.

Polish Minister of Defense Mariusz Błaszczak mentioned that these deals go beyond merely “filling the gaps we have in our armed forces,” and represent a “strategic approach” including technology transfers that will see Poland build many of the South Korean weapons and cooperate with Seoul in the long run.

In a part of Europe under constant pressure and with important protection needs, this future capacity can be very profitable. Warsaw has also taken note of the needs expressed by the general staffs of the Alliance, among which the shortening of production times, larger-scale arms production, duplication of equipment, production of mass stocks… while providing support to Kyiv as long as necessary.

Polish defense industry set for boom

The current discussions between a consortium of American manufacturers, including Lockheed Martin, and Poland on the establishment of a “made in Poland” missile production plant is a step toward this direction. And Poland could soon act as a major industrial and logistics hub for the whole region.

Warsaw does not intend to stop there: the country plans to increase to 3.1% the share of its GDP it spends on defense by next year, more than doubling the amount allocated in 2021, from €12bn to €29bn (€20.63bn from general budget plus €8.4bn from the Armed Forces Support Fund through the Bank Gospodarstwa Krajowego).

The idea of reaching 5% share of GDP by the middle of the decade is being seriously considered.

However, one should not underestimate the political aspect of these announcements as well as the range of obstacles that could hinder the proper execution of all these contracts.

Next year, legislative elections will take place in November and the victory of an opposition party could call into question some of these very costly announcements, especially since some elements do not seem to have been particularly taken into account, such as the bottlenecks in 20 to 30 years when the acquired equipment today will have to be replaced.

Also, a new government may question Poland’s position in relation to its European allies, and its alternating between the desire to fly solo or to have a more reasoned and cooperative approach.


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