Poland’s Rearmament is Only Beginning

  • Martin Michelot, Europeum
  • 25.12.2017 11:06

Poland has just launched a significant rearmament program. Besides its traditional dissuasion policy towards Russia, Poland sees its army as a way to assume its geopolitical ambitions in Europe and to ensure its special relationship with the U.S.

In the years following the collapse of Soviet control, like most Central European countries, Poland had significantly decreased its military expenditures. This aligned with the “Peace Dividend” theory – a popular concept in the nineties held by leaders such as George H.W. Bush and Margaret Thatcher – which postulated the decrease of defence expenditures would result in long-term economic benefits. Coupled with the potential NATO integration of Central European countries in 1999 (2004 for Slovakia), U.S. protection and relative geopolitical stability were the main factors contributing to the decline.


Polish retention of operational capabilities proved to enable the rapid recovery of the Polish armed forces, unlike other V4 countries


Compared to other countries, primarily its Czech and Slovak neighbours and Hungarian all – which all experienced larger declines – Poland nevertheless sustained substantial capacities (based on the share of the defence budget in relation to GDP, which was at 1.75% lower in 2008), even if below of their pre-1989 numbers. Their retention of operational capabilities (and human expertise) proved to enable the rapid recovery of the Polish armed forces as demonstrated since 2014. The three other members of the Visegrád group (V4) witnessed a steady degeneration of their military capabilities, causing an almost irreversible loss of stocks and skills that have consequences today on the ability of these countries to implement the necessary modernization of their armed forces.

Unlike many NATO countries, the modernisation of the Polish armed forces was planned before 2014 and the illegal Russian annexation of Crimea. In 2012, the "Technical Modernization Plan of the Polish Armed Forces 2013-2022" was introduced, detailing the need for the three military branches – the army, air force and navy - to upgrade their fleet in order to free themselves from their dependence on Soviet-era equipment that were inadequate, costly to maintain, and provided little response to the need for interoperability of NATO forces, in which Poland has strong ambitions. The significant deterioration of the security situation on NATO's eastern border and the perceived rise of the Russian army have boosted these modernisation projects.


Effects of the upgrading will only become apparent around 2021 when the first deliveries will take place


However, these processes must be understood within a long-term context: any purchase of military equipment from American or European suppliers must meet precise and extremely sensitive rules, with delivery deadlines spread over several years. Thus, since 2013, only $4 billion of contracts have been signed, while the 2017 Polish defence budget rises to around €9.3 billion annually. Effects of the upgrading will only become apparent around 2021 when the first deliveries will take place, while completion is expected for 2030. Over the next fifteen years, it is calculated a total of 55 billion dollars spent on modernisation of the armed forces, resulting in a doubling to 2.5% of GDP defence budget.

U.S. suppliers are leading the competition for the rearmament of Poland.


Therefore, it is fair to argue that the rearmament of Poland is still in its infancy, however, has sharpened a fierce competition between major industrial groups willing to take advantage of the financial windfall promised by Poland – a race U.S. suppliers are currently leading. Successive Polish governments have politicised the modernisation project in order to maintain its relationship with the U.S., which remains the chief security provider on the Eastern flank. Politicisation also aims also to forge links with Britain, Germany and France, given the dominance of their defence industries within Europe. In this respect, France has taken a particular interest in the Polish market and has contended for several projects, such as seen in 2016 regarding Caracale helicopters, but ended in a diplomatic crisis between Paris and Warsaw due to the sudden call by the new Polish government for the cancellation of €3.1 billion worth of tenders. Despite this, the possibility of a major submarine contract and/or on-board cruise missiles made possible a rapprochement in the autumn, and discussions should be initiated to reflect on a Franco-German heavy tank project. The industrial interests of both can help to overcome the spring and summer political tensions.


Poland’s good standing in defence expenditure offers important political levers that allow it to be in a position to ask for renewed security guarantees by the U.S.


The relationship between Poland and the United States goes far beyond industrial interests. The priority given to the purchase of U.S. systems is the necessary, but not exclusive, precursor for a decision of U.S. troops’ presence playing a role in population reassurance and deterrence efforts against Russia in the region. It is due to the excellent quality of Polish-American relations that Trump visited Poland in July 2017. Trump’s visit aimed to personally offer Polish leaders the guarantee that Washington remains politically and militarily tied to its mutual security commitment provided by Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty. For the U.S., Poland is a "good student" as Warsaw spends more than 2% of its GDP on its defence budget (only the United States, Greece, Estonia and Great Britain do the same, while France is at 1.8%). Donald Trump’s campaign and first acts as President were marked by frequent admonitions to “free rider” countries that do not meet these targets, despite their agreement at the 2014 NATO summit to reach this goal by 2024 (although, Emmanuel Macron predicts this goal will be achieved in 2025). Poland’s good standing in defence expenditure offers important political levers that allow it to be in a position to ask for renewed security guarantees by the U.S.


By way of its geographical position, Poland is ideally positioned to serve as a base for the strengthening of the Eastern flank and has played host to the new mini-logistics headquarters of U.S. troops present in Eastern Europe since the beginning of the year. Symbolically, the headquarters – responsible for coordinating the presence of approximately 5,700 American soldiers as part of the operation “Atlantic Resolve” – was moved from Germany, where most American forces in Europe are stationed, to be relocated in Poznan located in the west of the country. These soldiers, however, are not only on Polish soil but also train with the armed forces of all Central and Eastern NATO countries. It is important to note that this presence is based on a nine-month "rotational" period. Indeed, the NATO-Russia founding treaty prohibits "permanent" presence of troops from other NATO member states in the countries of the Warsaw Pact.

The same is true for NATO-led troops in Poland in the context of the “Enhanced Forward Presence” program (eFP), which involves the deployment of four multinational battlegroups in Poland and each of the Baltic States. Each battle group is led by a different country, and again symbolically it is the U.S. that coordinates the battle group based in Orzsyz, in the north-east of the country. About 1,000 American soldiers configure most of this force, supplemented by 71 Croatian soldiers, 120 Romanian soldiers and 150 British soldiers, intending to dissuade Russia from possible adventurism on Polish territory. Additionally, it is to strengthen rapid response capabilities in the Baltic states in the case of an incident.


A new Territorial Defence Force of 50,000 to be ready by 2020


In parallel, to escort the rise of the Polish armed forces, the new government decided to create a "territorial defence force" of 50,000 active troops to be added to the current 100,000. This new line of defence is intended to be operational within three years, by early 2020. It would be equipped only with Polish equipment, focused solely on the defence of their communities rather than on operational manoeuvres, and would not formally be part of the military structure but would remain under the auspices of the Polish Ministry of Defence. Sometimes criticised as a "private army" and detached from the military needs and realities of deterrence against Russia, concerns were raised to highlight the dangers of politicisation of the Polish armed forces. Suspicions were further reinforced by the poor relations between Defence Minister Antoni Macierewicz and his cabinet.

Illustratively, Poland is therefore only at the beginning of the reinforcement and modernisation of its army, and may already claim to be in a position of political force regarding its commitments vis-à-vis  NATO and the U.S. Even if the Polish priority remains squarely on the deterrence of Russia and its participation in NATO's territorial defence and collective security activities, the rise in power should eventually allow Poland to participate in possible military peacekeeping or stabilisation operations in Africa or the Middle East (the army is still present in Afghanistan, like other V4 countries), as it has already done in Iraq in the international coalition against the Islamic State. This participation has clear strategic aims, such as to highlight the role of Poland in the settlement of international conflicts, to create political leverage with other European countries, and, to a certain extent, demonstrate that Poland is able to show solidarity with its European neighbours.


Martin Michelot is the Deputy Director at the EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy in Prague.


About author: Martin Michelot, Europeum


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