Meet Europe’s Coming Military Superpower: Poland – POLITICO | Popgen Tech
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When a stray missile landed in a Polish border town last week, killing two people, some European leaders were as concerned about how Poland’s right-wing government would react as they were about the possibility that Russia had ordered the strike.
Poland’s long-standing distrust of all things Russian and the current government’s deep antipathy towards Moscow have caused concern from Brussels to Berlin that Warsaw might act hastily.
Instead of losing its nerve, however, Warsaw was stoic, putting its armed forces on alert while also keeping its powder dry until there was clarity about what had happened. (The conclusion is that it was an anti-aircraft missile fired by Ukraine to protect itself from a Russian attack that went astray.)
That calm was born of a simple reality that had eluded most of Europe for years: Poland has what is arguably Europe’s best military. And it’s only going to get stronger.
Poland’s paranoia about Russia prompted it to shun the ruling Zeitgeist across large parts of Europe that conventional warfare was a thing of the past. Instead, it is building up what is now on track to become the EU’s strongest land forces.
“The Polish army must be so powerful that it does not have to fight alone because of its strength,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on the eve of Poland’s independence day.
It’s a shift that has resonated with Poland’s indispensable ally.
“Poland has become our most important partner in continental Europe,” said a senior U.S. military official in Europe, referring to the pivotal role Poland has played in supporting Ukraine and in bolstering NATO defenses in the Baltics. countries.
While Germany, traditionally America’s key ally in the region, remains a pivot as a logistical hub, Berlin’s endless debates over how to revive its military and the lack of a strategic culture have hampered its effectiveness as a partner , the official said.
While Germany continues to debate the details of what it calls the “Zeitenwende,” or strategic turning point caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Poland is already making significant investments.
Warsaw said it would raise its target defense spending from 2.4 percent of gross domestic product to 5 percent. Meanwhile, Germany, which spent about 1.5 percent of GDP on defense last year, is debating whether it can maintain Nato’s 2 percent goal after exhausting a €100 billion defense fund it approved earlier this year.
The Polish Minister of Defense, Mariusz Błaszczak, promised in July that his country would have “the most powerful land forces in Europe”. It is well on its way.
Poland already has more tanks and howitzers than Germany and is on track to have a much larger army, with a target of 300,000 troops by 2035, compared to Germany’s current 170,000.
Today, Poland’s military is about 150,000 strong, with 30,000 belonging to a new territorial defense force established in 2017. These are weekend soldiers who undergo 16 days of training followed by refresher courses. They were initially seen as a bit of a joke, but Ukraine’s success in using mobile militia equipped with anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles now makes the idea seem much more sensible.
“Today those doubts have disappeared,” Błaszczak said at a recent swearing-in ceremony for new territorial troops.
Unlike Germany, which is struggling to attract new troops, Poland’s recruitment drive is getting attention.
“The Poles have a much more positive attitude towards their military than Germany because they had to fight for their freedom,” said Gustav Gressel, a former Austrian military officer and security scholar now at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “In military circles, no one questions the quality of the Polish army.”
Whether Poland’s military power will translate into political influence in Europe is another matter, however.
So far, that has not happened, largely because the centrist powers that dominate the EU distrust Poland’s government, which is controlled by the nationalist Law and Justice Party (PiS).
The ongoing tug-of-war between Warsaw and Brussels over what the EU sees as the government’s disregard for democratic norms and the rule of law has damaged the country’s reputation across the bloc.
“Poland boxes under it politically because of its internal conflicts,” Gressel said, highlighting the infighting that exists even within PiS over the country’s direction and how far to go in compromises with Europe.
However, the one thing Poland’s weak political parties can agree on is the need to strengthen the military.
While concerns about Russia have spurred that push, Warsaw also worries about the reliability of Washington. However, unlike most of the rest of the EU, their concern is not that Donald Trump will return as president, but that he won’t. Despite increasing cooperation between the US and Polish militaries to help Ukraine, Poland’s current leadership remains distrustful of President Joe Biden, who as a candidate referred to the country’s government as “totalitarian.”
Made in Korea
Even as Washington welcomed Poland’s defense spending pledges, there are also questions about whether Warsaw will actually follow through, as well as frustration that the country is turning to South Korea for some of its biggest purchases.
Poland signed a 23 billion zloty (€4.9 billion) deal this spring for 250 Abrams tanks from the US – a quick replacement for the 240 Soviet-era tanks sent to Ukraine. Its air force is equipped with American F-16s and Warsaw signed a $4.6 billion deal for 32 F-35 fighter jets in 2020. But the focus of its recent military spending has been Korea, where it has signed a flurry of deals to buy tanks, planes and other weapons.
So far, Poland has ordered between $10 billion and $12 billion worth of weapons from Korea, said Mariusz Cielma, editor and analyst at Nowa Technika Wojskowa, a military technology news and analysis website.
The deals include 180 K2 Black Panther tanks, 200 K9 Thunder howitzers, 48 FA-50 light attack aircraft and 218 K239 Chunmoo rocket launchers.
This is just the used equipment.
Poland’s appetite for new weapons is even greater.
To supplement the immediate supplies, the Koreans are expected to provide a total of 1,000 K2 tanks and 600 K9 Howitzers by the mid-to-late 2020s.
“No Western country wants to scale up its military so much and so quickly. Whoever will get Poland’s arms deals, they have decades of advantages because you have to maintain and repair the equipment,” Cielma said.
The appeal of Korea is that their military equipment is generally cheaper than American and European alternatives and they can produce it on a tight schedule. The purchases are of course a jab at French President Emmanuel Macron’s dreams of “strategic autonomy” in which he envisions a Europe that can defend itself with home-grown (probably French) weapons.
But Polish leaders have made no secret that Europe’s pressure on Poland over its controversial legal reforms and other issues also played a role in the decisions to go shopping in Seoul.
“We are ready to buy weapons in other EU countries, but they must stop their war against Poland,” PiS chairman Jarosław Kaczyński said earlier this month. “We are ready to make deals and hand out money, but not when we are told that there is no rule of law in Poland.”
Warsaw ordered Italian Leonardo helicopters for 8 billion złoty, but the agreement stipulated that the helicopters be made in Poland.
While no one questions the ambition of Poland’s spending spree, some wonder about its feasibility and the political motives driving the push. By 2035, the country aims to spend 524 billion zlotys on the military.
“Okay, we need tanks and howitzers, but do we need that many from a strategic and operational point of view? There is no clarity on why the ministry suddenly announced all those deals,” said retired army general Stanisław Koziej, former head of Poland’s National Security Bureau, a presidential office.
Given the importance of security to Poland’s voters, many suspect PiS is making the military investments with a view to next year’s national elections, as the party loses traction in opinion polls.
If there is a change of government, the new cabinet will have to ask some tough questions about Poland’s ability to finance such an enormous military expansion, Koziej said. While Poland’s economy has been strong in recent years, the level of planned military spending is unprecedented and will put pressure on the country’s budget.
“There must be a balance between military spending and the overall economic development of the country,” Koziej said. “Whatever the plans are, they better go through an analysis of what the strategic conditions of Poland’s security will be after the war in Ukraine.”
Meanwhile, Germany seems to welcome Poland’s military buildup despite the strained bilateral relationship between the two countries and the troubled history between the two. Berlin views Poland as a buffer separating it from Russia’s sphere of influence. The more tanks and troops Poland has, the safer Germany will be.
“I get the impression that the Germans see the next hammock,” Gressel said, referring to Berlin’s reputation for sitting back and relaxing while allies, particularly the US, do the heavy lifting on defense.