Editor's Note: The first piece in our two-part series on the evolving Polish armed forces focuses on Poland's geography and alliance options. The second focuses on how NATO membership is influencing Poland's military modernization efforts.
Poland needs alliance structures to guarantee its security, meaning Warsaw's primary military imperative is to maintain and increase interoperability between its armed forces and NATO. Integrating the Polish military into Western defense structures after nearly 45 years of operating within Soviet systems has been a large, expensive and protracted undertaking. The main priority in this transition is moving away from late-model Soviet equipment in favor of more modern equipment that can integrate with NATO systems on land, sea and in the air.
The Polish army has focused heavily on replacing or upgrading older Soviet hardware to become a more effective and modern army and to increase NATO interoperability. This has included upgrading and modernizing its main battle tanks, armored personnel carriers, missile systems, munitions, helicopters and more. In general, Poland is restructuring its ground troops into a smaller, more flexible force with expeditionary capabilities more reflective of NATO's defense priorities.
Poland contributes significantly to NATO's mission in Afghanistan with some 2,420 troops deployed with the International Security Assistance Force, making Poland the fifth-largest troop contributor outside the United States. Poland contributed a similarly sized force to U.S.-led operations in Iraq, with a total troop deployment of approximately 2,500. The operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have been an opportunity for Poland to be extremely active in NATO, helping facilitate its forces' transition into the alliance network and to cement security ties. Poland's contributions to both wars are far more indicative of Warsaw's need for a tight security relationship with the United States than of any common military objectives.
Poland's navy suffers from the same basic geopolitical constraints that its land forces do when they come up against much more powerful neighbors in difficult geographic conditions. Even a small naval force easily can block both of Poland's main ports, Gdansk and Gdynia, given the numerous choke points in the eastern Baltic Sea. Access to the Atlantic Ocean requires passage through the Skagerrak, the strait that connects the North and Baltic Seas that can be — and has been — blocked by Sweden, Denmark and Germany. Once past the Skagerrak, a Polish fleet would still have to traverse either the North Sea or the English Channel before reaching the Atlantic Ocean, which brings British naval forces into the equation. As such, the main priority of Poland's navy traditionally has been access denial and defense of the coast against hostile forces approaching by sea.
Poland has a large and well-equipped indigenous fleet of minehunters and minesweepers. This is a legacy of the Cold War, during which Polish shipyards produced mostly landing craft and minesweepers given the Polish navy's role under the Warsaw Pact of dominating the Baltic Sea. This role coincided with Poland's maritime geography, since Polish naval and commercial vessels are vulnerable to a blockade of the Skagerrak. Poland's resulting extensive minesweeping capabilities are a unique and valuable skillset it can provide within the NATO alliance structure.
Since joining the NATO security structure, Poland's navy has become less focused on coastal defense and instead is prioritizing increased integration and interoperability with NATO and international naval forces. Poland has invested millions in the development of advanced naval command and control, or C2, capabilities. This has allowed for the full integration of the national C2 system — including computer systems, radios and other assorted communication devices — with the NATO network. It is difficult to overstate the degree of technical overhaul required to transition C2 systems. Soviet and NATO hardware simply cannot communicate with each other.
Modernizing an air force is a slow process because it tends to be more technology-heavy than other branches and, thus, expensive. Poland has spent millions upgrading and modernizing late-model Soviet aircraft like the MiG-29 that would otherwise need to be retired, as well as procuring 48 F-16C/D fighters from the United States. Poland also has purchased five C-130E Hercules cargo planes being refurbished by the United States. Building out its transport and logistical capabilities will strengthen Poland's position in NATO, since these types of aircraft are critical for transporting personnel and military equipment in the expeditionary type of operations typical of NATO forces.
Recently, Poland announced that rather than upgrade its 38 Soviet-built Su-22 fighter jets, its Defense Ministry plans to replace the fleet with 123 to 205 unmanned combat aerial vehicles. These require more personnel to pilot, maintain, launch and track the vehicle than a manned platform, but training personnel to operate them takes less time than training pilots. The specifics on exactly what type of unmanned combat aerial vehicles Poland plans to purchase have not been announced. A fleet of unmanned combat aerial vehicles could not replace the specific capabilities of an Su-22, but the shift to more unmanned vehicles is the general trend among most modern militaries. While extremely expensive to develop, investing in this type of technology puts Poland along the path of the future of aerial combat. In the long run, this should be more cost beneficial than continuously upgrading outdated platforms. It is a process, however, that takes a significant amount of time and money and may hinder the Polish air force in the meantime.
Poland's need for an external power to guarantee its security means that the Polish military must take into consideration not only Poland's national imperatives but the imperatives of its allies as well. This applies to procuring some defense equipment and/or developing military capabilities that are not only suited for Poland's national defense needs, but also meant to endear the Polish military to its allies. Examples of this include Poland's leasing of 40 Cougar mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles from the United States to be used in Afghanistan, as well as Poland's purchase of eight Aerostar unmanned aerial vehicles, four of which are slated for use in Afghanistan as well. Poland can certainly make use of the unmanned aerial vehicles when they are no longer necessary in Afghanistan. The mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles are especially well-suited for NATO's counter-insurgency mission since they provide some of the best protection against the improvised explosive devices used to target Western forces in Afghanistan. But though mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles could be used as typical transport vehicles in Poland, it would prove expensive, meaning they most likely will be returned to the United States.
Poland continues to prioritize its "special" bilateral relationship with the United States. Most important to Poland is retaining some U.S. military presence on Polish soil. In May 2011, the United States sent a number of F-16s from the California National Guard to train alongside Polish F-16s. As of next year, U.S. forces will be stationed in Poland for the first time, though still only on a rotational basis. Poland has been hoping to secure even more of a U.S. commitment by hosting land-based SM-3 ballistic missile defense interceptors as part of a U.S.-led missile defense system in Europe. But Washington's commitment to ballistic missile defense in Europe has shifted repeatedly over the years as a result of changes in the U.S. administration, technological advances and strategic priorities regarding the U.S. relationship with Russia and Central and Eastern Europe. Consequently, Warsaw has been increasing its emphasis on the promotion of regional security groupings with various Central and Eastern European states, the Baltics and even the Nordic states, moves that attest to Poland's centrality in a number of different alliance structures.
Fortunately for Poland, the current security environment in Eurasia has created an atmosphere in which the traditional threats to Poland are more hypothetical than immediate. The longer this remains true, the more time Poland will have to develop its military capabilities. Whether it uses this time to bulk up depends upon whether Warsaw prioritizes increasing its independent military force instead of relying solely on the existence of NATO and the European Union to guarantee its security. While necessary, too much dependence on outside powers is ultimately a gamble for Poland and could leave it vulnerable. On the other hand, the resources required to create a strong military capable of independently defending Poland against its traditional geopolitical threats would require a massive expenditure of revenues, manpower and time.