Preparing for the Worst: Poland’s Military Modernization

No one needs to remind Poland of the strategic dangers arising from its geography. Often sandwiched between great European powers, Poland has been invaded, carved up, and occupied for over two centuries. During World War II, its mostly flat and open terrain made it particularly vulnerable to the mechanized armies of Germany and the Soviet Union. Today, Poland’s position is less tenuous, but still fraught. While its western and southern borders are anchored by friendly NATO countries, its eastern border abuts Russia’s military stronghold of Kaliningrad, Belarus (a close Russian ally), and Ukraine (a country riven by Russia).

Russia’s New Military Challenge

Unfortunately for Poland, the last decade has seen the emergence of a militarily stronger and more aggressive Russia, despite Western economic sanctions against it. Much of Russia’s new-found strength can be traced back to its long-running “New Look” military reforms, which assumed a new sense of urgency after its lackluster war against Georgia in 2008. The reforms sought to streamline Russian combat units, outfit them with new military equipment, and most importantly boost their training and readiness.

The reforms turned Russia’s once-lumbering military into a more nimble fighting force, one far better able to fight modern conventional wars as well as leverage “hybrid warfare” techniques.[1] Several of Russia’s airborne and “New Look” brigades can now go into action within 24 hours of an alert.[2] Russia demonstrated that capability in 2014, when it swiftly deployed its special forces, airborne, and naval infantry units to Crimea on short notice. Soon afterwards, it massed another 40,000 to 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine.

Rising to the Challenge

Russia’s military success in Ukraine convinced an increasingly anxious Poland of the need to be prepared to fight across the entire spectrum of operations. Fortunately for Poland, its briskly growing economy has enabled it to fund those preparations. Over the last three years, its regular armed forces have grown from 100,000 personnel to over 130,000. By 2025, Poland’s Ministry of Defense expects that number to reach 200,000. It also plans to expand the Polish army’s force structure from three divisions to four. In 2017, it even established a new armed service called the Territorial Defense Force (Wojska Obrony Terytorialnej or WOT). Separate from the regular army, the WOT’s wartime role will be to counter Russian airborne and special operation forces behind the frontlines. The WOT will eventually field 17 light infantry brigades, one in each of Poland’s provinces (two in the largest province), with an authorized strength of 53,000.[3]

Poland has also accelerated its military’s modernization. Rather than wait for new-build acquisitions, the Polish military chose to buy off the shelf and update its existing kit. Thus, Poland not only acquired 105 retired Leopard 2A5 tanks from Germany in 2015, but also began to upgrade its 142 Leopard 2A4 tanks with improved armor and combat systems a year later. Likewise, it laid plans to modernize its T-72 and PL-91 tanks and may purchase more second-hand Leopard 2A4s. Poland also expects to procure a full range of short-, medium-, and long-range anti-tank guided missiles for its regular army and the WOT.[4]

In its modernization drive, Poland has not overlooked its combat support arms. In the summer of 2017, it took delivery of the first 14 of 96 Krab 155-mm self-propelled howitzers and the first eight of 64 Rak 120-mm self-propelled mortar systems. And, to enhance the mobility of its mechanized forces, it has begun discussions to acquire new mobile bridging equipment. Finally, to counter Russia’s deployment of 9K720 Iskander ballistic missiles and Su-35 fighters in Kaliningrad, Poland has decided to buy U.S.-made MIM-104 Patriot air defense systems and as many as 48 new multirole combat aircraft.[5]

But perhaps the most telling sign of Poland’s earnestness has been the repositioning of its combat forces. Notably, Poland has shifted its best armored forces eastward. Last year, it transferred the PL-91 tanks of the 1st Armored Brigade on the eastern edge of Warsaw to the 15th Mechanized Brigade in Giżycko, near the Polish border with Kaliningrad and the strategic Suwalki Gap that links Poland to Lithuania. Replacing the PL-91 tanks will be two battalions of Leopard 2A5 tanks, which will be transferred from the 34th Armored Cavalry Brigade on Poland’s border with Germany.[6]

Commitment to Deterrence

In the coming years, Poland’s total defense expenditures will likely exceed two percent of its GDP—well above what most other NATO countries are spending. Even so, Poland’s military modernization still has gaps. A big one lies in its small Soviet-era attack helicopter fleet. Though Poland is upgrading its 23 Mi-24 attack helicopters with new sensors and guided missiles, it needs a next-generation attack helicopter and far more of them.[7] A recent war game demonstrated that even with 120 attack helicopters, Poland would have trouble holding back a determined Russian assault before NATO rapid reaction forces could arrive.[8]

Ultimately, what is most notable about Poland’s military preparations is not how complete they are, but rather the scale and speed with which they are being made—which for a European country are extraordinary. While other NATO countries make excuses for their plodding attempts to enlarge or modernize their armed forces, Poland has done both, at the same time. Surely, Poland hopes for peace. But Poland also seems committed to building a stronger military to help preserve it.

[1] Andrew Monaghan, “The ‘War’ in Russia’s ‘Hybrid Warfare,’” Parameters 45(4), Winter 2015-2016, pp. 65-74.

[2] Gustav Gressel, “Russia’s Quiet Military Revolution and What It Means for Europe,” European Council on Foreign Relations Policy Brief, Oct. 15, 2015, p. 4.

[3] Remigiusz Wilk, “Polish Territorial Defence Force expanded to 53,000 personnel,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Nov. 17, 2016; The Defence Concept of the Republic of Poland (Warsaw: Poland Ministry of National Defense, May 2017), pp. 46, 53; Remigiusz Wilk, “Poland to stand up Territorial Defence Force,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Mar. 22, 2016.

[4] Remigiusz Wilk, “Poland seeks short-range ATGM,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Oct. 9, 2017; Remigiusz Wilk, “Poland reinforces armour,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Jul. 12, 2017.

[5] Bruce Jones, “Russian Duma confirms Iskander-M Kaliningrad deployment,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Feb. 8, 2018; Nicholas Fiorenza, “First Polish Army unit receives full complement of Krab SPHs,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Aug. 4, 2017; Remigiusz Wilk, “Poland receives first Rak 120 mm mortar vehicles,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Jul. 3, 2017.

[6] Remigiusz Wilk, “Poland relocates Leopard 2A5 tanks to the east,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Apr. 21, 2017.

[7] Charles Forrester, “Thales, Poland to integrate rocket launchers onto Mi-24s,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Sep. 6, 2017.

[8] Reuben Johnson, “Baltic conflict simulation concludes Poland is wasting valuable time,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Sep. 21, 2017.

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Bear at the Door: Poland Ponders its Strategic Environment

Russian behavior has long influenced how safe Poles feel. Centuries of fending off or being subjugated by Russia (or, its 20th-century incarnation, the Soviet Union) have left them with an abiding mistrust of their big and often unfriendly eastern neighbor. Needless to say, Russia’s recent aggressiveness in Eastern Europe has put many Poles on edge. Adding to their unease have been worries over the reliability of Poland’s principal security partners: NATO and the United States. At times, both have appeared either slow or unprepared to counter Russia’s actions.

Strategic Differences with Russia

Even without its deep-rooted anxiety over Russia, Poland has good reason to regard its neighbor with suspicion. After all, the two countries have very different aims in Eastern Europe. For generations, Russia has sought to create a sphere of influence over the region and control its ports on the Baltic and Black Seas. To that end, Russia has backed pro-Russian regimes in Belarus and Ukraine, and lately harassed the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania with airspace incursions. In contrast, Poland has viewed westward-looking governments in Eastern Europe as in its national interests. Hence, Poland supported Ukraine after that country’s “Orange Revolution” (which toppled a pro-Russian leader) in 2005 and Belarus’ opposition following a government crackdown on it in 2010.

Unfortunately for Poland, things have not gone its way in the last half decade. Russia successfully annexed Crimea (along with its Black Sea port of Sevastopol), sponsored separatists in eastern Ukraine, and survived Western economic sanctions against it. Russia also bolstered its forces in Kaliningrad, a Russian military stronghold on Poland’s northeast border, with new K-300P Bastion coastal defense missile systems and S-400 air defense systems. Topping it all off, the Russian military conducted large-scale exercises that resembled thinly veiled rehearsals for operations against Poland and the Baltics. The most recent of these exercises took place in September 2017.

Poland’s growing concern over Russia can be seen in the shifting tenor of its official national security strategy papers, particularly after Russia’s military interventions in Georgia and Ukraine. Whereas the papers’ 2003 and 2007 iterations supported the notion that cooperation with Russia was the surest way to ensure Polish security, Poland’s 2014 national security strategy paper declared Russia to be a “challenge” and stressed its need to respect international law and the territorial integrity of its neighbors.[1]

(Un)reliability of NATO and the United States

Meanwhile, Poland has become less confident in NATO and the United States as reliable security partners. A decade ago that was not the case. American commitment to Poland’s security seemed rock solid. As Russia backed away from its conventional and nuclear arms control commitments in Europe during the latter half of President George W. Bush’s administration, the United States suggested stationing interceptor missiles for its Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, an advanced anti-ballistic missile system, on Polish soil. Despite some popular misgivings, Poland’s leaders welcomed the proposal as a tangible sign of American reliability.

But that changed with the election of President Barack Obama. He hoped to “reset” U.S. relations with Russia on friendlier terms. To remove a source of friction, the United States cancelled the deployment of the GMD system. The unilateral American decision left Polish leaders feeling jilted. As a consolation, the United States offered Poland the less-robust Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system. But soon after the Obama administration backpedaled on that too, scrapping its original plan to outfit the system with the latest SM-3 missiles.[2] Clearly upset, former Polish President Lech Wałęsa grumbled: “It wasn’t that the [missile] shield was that important, but it’s about the way, the way of treating us.”

In the following years, Poland would also find cause to question NATO’s dependability. In contrast to Russia’s swift and decisive intervention in Ukraine, NATO struggled to form an effective response. Even after its member countries agreed on economic sanctions against Russia, many remained hesitant. NATO again appeared flat-footed after Russia intensified its harassment of NATO’s Baltic members in 2015 and again after it deployed nuclear-capable 9K720 Iskander ballistic missiles to Kaliningrad in 2016. It would take NATO over a year to “enhance” its forward presence in the Baltics with a deterrent force of three multinational battlegroups (essentially reinforced battalions). A fourth battlegroup, formed around a U.S. mechanized infantry battalion, deployed to Poland in mid-2017. By comparison, Russia’s nearby Western Military District alone can muster over 22 armored, airborne, and motorized infantry battalions, along with ten battalions of artillery.

But possibly most worrisome to Poland was its recent realization that much of the critical infrastructure that the Alliance needs to deploy and sustain its frontline forces either fails to stretch far enough eastward or is no longer fully functional. And while Poland can take some comfort in the presence of a U.S.-led battlegroup, it does not fully allay Polish concern over the long-term commitment of the United States, given its continued distractions elsewhere in the world and its growing reluctance to act as the “world’s policeman.”

Greater Self-Reliance

How Poland has reacted to the changes in its strategic environment was evident in its 2017 defense concept white paper. The paper’s tone was strikingly different from those that preceded it. It pointed out Poland’s past “wrong conviction that the risk of an armed conflict in [Eastern] Europe was marginal.”[3] Rather than urging cooperation with Russia, it asserted that Russia is “a threat . . . for Poland and other countries in the region.”[4] The paper also intoned in its opening sentence that “The Polish Armed Forces remain the best guarantor of the security of Polish citizens.”[5]

Poland has much to do before its military can adequately deter Russia. While NATO and the United States remain key parts of Poland’s defense plans, Warsaw has come to realize that it must do more itself. As Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski summed up: “In recent years, we have found out once again that defense of principles and values is sometimes effective only when supported by force—not only moral force, but also by military force.”[6]

[1] National Security Strategy of the Republic of Poland (Warsaw: Poland National Security Bureau, 2014), p. 22.

[2] Andrew A. Michta, “Polish Hard Power: Investing in the Military as Europe Cuts Back,” in A Hard Look at Hard Power: Assessing the Defense Capabilities of Key U.S. Allies and Security Partners, ed. Gary J. Schmitt (Carlisle, PA: United States Army War College Press, July 2015), p. 150.

[3] The Defence Concept of the Republic of Poland (Warsaw: Poland Ministry of National Defense, May 2017), p. 23.

[4] The Defence Concept of the Republic of Poland, p.6.

[5] Ibid.

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