Don’t Mess With Poland

Warsaw’s military may be the only thing standing between Putin and Europe

Four years ago, Poland was set to become the staging ground for advanced U.S. ballistic missile interceptors. But after the plan collapsed—and seeing defense budgets in the rest of Europe on the decline—Polish political leaders decided they needed their military to fend for itself.

And now with an aggressive Russia bearing down on Ukraine, Warsaw is getting even more worried—and prepared.

“The world stands on the brink of conflict, the consequences of which are not foreseen,” Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said shortly after Russia’s Feb. 27 invasion of Crimea.

Most of all, this means that Poland’s steady military growth—an outlier in Europe—could grow even more in the years ahead.

The Poles are taking their already sizable tank force and making it bigger. They’re buying new fighter planes. And Poland wants to develop an anti-air and anti-missile system of a kind the U.S. would have installed before the Obama administration attempted to restart relations with Russia—and failed at it.

There’s another reason for Poland’s emphasis on defense: a traumatic history. During the lifetimes of some of the country’s political leaders, and certainly during their parents’ lifetimes, Poland had—for a time—ceased to exist.

Last month, Ukraine experienced a Russian invasion. There’s a possibility Ukraine could experience another one, but much larger and involving the east or even the whole of Ukraine.

“Although few in Poland would argue that there is an imminent threat of aggression from Russia, Poles continue to see Russia as the principal threat to Poland’s security and sovereignty,” noted Andrew Michta, a professor of international studies.

If you were the prime minister sitting in the Warsaw chancellery, would you be worried?

Polish troops on exercises near Szcezcin, Poland. Polish army photo

Mo’ money, mo’ weapons

Poland is a unique member of NATO, where defense budgets among most member states have either stalled or declined in the past decade.

But during the same time, Warsaw doubled its annual military spending—emerging as one of the continent’s leading military powers in terms of funding compared to gross domestic product. Not necessarily in terms of equipment, though. Much of Poland’s military technology is old and dates to the Soviet era.

Poland spent about 1.8 percent of its GDP on its military in 2013, according to data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

This is higher than most European countries. It’s nearly twice that of Ukraine. The United Kingdom, Estonia, France and Greece spend more relative to GDP—although this amount is declining in most cases. Russia, of course, spends enormous sums on its military by European standards.

But in 2014, Poland’s defense spending is expected to rise to around 1.95 percent, or roughly $10.4 billion as required by a 2001 law. Poland’s GDP is much smaller than Britain and France, of course, but that amount puts it in the same per-dollar league as Taiwan.

However, these numbers conceal Poland’s extra funds for new weapons. According to Defense News, the country set aside more than $28 billion for “new helicopters, air and anti-missile defense systems, vessels, submarines, UAVs and other types of armament” through 2022.

That’s twice Israel’s entire annual defense budget just being spent to modernize its equipment.

Poland is also planning to reduce its overseas presence. Warsaw deployed some 2,500 troops to Iraq—but withdrew in 2011—and also stationed around 1,600 troops in Ghazni province, Afghanistan.

This second group of soldiers are now coming home. In its place is an ambitious—and territorial—strategy known as the “Komorowski Doctrine,” named after current Pres. Bronisław Komorowski.

This is a plan to structure and train the armed forces in the event of another conventional war against Poland. This means Poland factors another major European conflict—and a potential invasion of its territory—into its defense plans. “There’ll be no more easy sending of our troops half a world away,” Komorowski said in August.

Instead, it means fighting Russians.

Polish tank on exercises. Polish army photo

Lots of tanks

Poland has huge numbers of tanks. Its armed forces is one of the few in Europe—the Russian army being another one—that still invests a substantial sum maintaining, upgrading and buying tanks.

This might seem antiquated in age of counter-insurgency warfare, precision weapons and drones, but in short, Warsaw still believes in armored beasts.

To be precise, Poland has 901 tanks as of December 2013. More than half of this number—541 tanks—are older T-72s dating to Poland’s membership in the Warsaw Pact, when it had the second-largest military in the communist alliance.

Poland also has another 232 PT-91 tanks, which are considerably more modern Polish-designed versions of the T-72. The army’s remaining 128 tanks are modern German-made Leopard 2A4a.

Altogether, this means Poland has the largest tank force in Europe west of the Bug River. In comparison, France has around 400 total tanks and has plans to reduce its armor force to half that size. Poland’s armor force is also twice the size of the British Army’s tank force.

Poland also has nearly 1,800 armored fighting vehicles, mostly aging BMP-1s and 500 modern Polish-made KTO Rosomaks. These are not tanks, but fast, light-weight vehicles designed to both carry soldiers and shoot.

Poland also wants more tanks. Warsaw has cut deal with Germany to deliver 119 Leopard tanks in two variants. It’s developing a new light tank called the WPB Anders to replace its BMP-1 fighting vehicles. This vehicle is capable of being fitted with a large 120-millimeter gun, packing much more firepower than the BMP-1. The Polish military could end up buying the Anders in the hundreds.

There’s also the PL-01, dubbed by the media as a “stealth tank” for its distinctive, angular appearance designed to hide from radar. The PL-01 also has adaptive armor which can adjust to the temperature of its environment, which help conceal the tank from heat sensors.

It’s also considerably lighter than a conventional tank, at only 30 to 40 tons, meaning the PL-01 is closer in weight to a BMP-1 than a heavy main battle tank. More properly, it should be called a light tank.

But there’s no guarantee the Polish military will buy it. The tank is still a concept, developed by domestic tank-maker Obrum and BAE Systems. But if PL-01 works as promised, it could be one of the most advanced ground warfare vehicles in the world.

The Polish MEADS anti-aircraft system. Illustration via Defense Industry Daily


If there’s one area where Poland is hurting, it’s aircraft and—more importantly—air defense.

There’s a troubled history here.

In 2008, Poland and the U.S. agreed to a deal that would place 10 American ballistic missile defense silos in Polish territory. The plan, crafted by the George W. Bush administration, was intended to provide a defense against long-range missiles launched from Iran. Obviously, these interceptors could also be used to counter Russian missiles.

After the election of Pres. Barack Obama and a shift to “reset” relations with Russia, the U.S. scrapped the plan, replacing it with a scaled-down version putting an Aegis missile-defense battery in northern Poland by 2018.

But Warsaw never gave up on the idea of a more expansive system. The result is a new anti-air and anti-missile system called the Shield of Poland. And there’s no doubt who—Russian president Vladimir Putin, of course—it’s designed to defend against.

First, Poland has been developing shoulder-fired Grom missiles, based on the Russian SA-18 missile launcher. Shield of Poland also calls for creating an anti-aircraft and anti-cruise missile system called NAREW. This won’t be able to stop ballistic missiles, let alone intercontinental ballistic missiles. That kind of defense is incredibly difficult—if not impossible—and expensive.

But Poland is also shopping around for weapons to serve in the planned WISLA system, which is intended to defend against short and medium-range ballistic missiles. The U.S. Patriot missile is rumored to be one contender.

In the meantime, Poland also needs fighters. Warsaw has some obsolete Su-22 fighters dating to the Cold War—no match for modern Russian planes. It does have considerably more modern F-16s and MiG-29s, and the air force is considering buying advanced fifth-generation fighters. One idea? Possibly acquiring Eurofighter Typhoons.

It’s certainly much more ambitious. It might be too ambitious—bordering on paranoia. But is it paranoid if you’re within striking distance of Russia?

Correction 3/29: I incorrectly described the Polish air force as mainly using Su-22 fighters. These planes are not Poland’s primary fighters—the air force also uses F-16s and MiG-29s.

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