Analysing international policy processes and Lithuania’s role in them
Review Dec 06, 2023

Poland as the new European military heavyweight


As NATO returns to its roots, founded on the unshaken principle of collective defense, allies situated on the eastern flank face both opportunity and an existential challenge stemming from the resurgence of Russian revanchism. Seemingly inexhaustible political will coupled with unprecedented social support open the door for massive increases in defence spending that could make these countries a foundation of the alliance’s conventional deterrence. Blessed by 3 decades of stupendous economic growth and strong, albeit dwindling demographical potential, Poland seems well positioned to take up a leading role in developing a proper deterrence by denial posture against ever-more brazen and unpredictable Russia.


The article will attempt to merge a rich practical and academic experience of a retired general with a fresh and well-researched take of a Polish student and young professional. Having deep interest and investment in the evolution of the armed forces we believe that the changes that are currently taking place have a potential to redefine European security architecture. The transformation from the military dominated by Soviet era platforms to the all-encompassing embrace and adoption of NATO standards is about to gain momentum not seen in 30 years. Owing largely to the conflagration in Ukraine, Poland seized the opportunity to chart the way for other allies in how to prepare for a coexistence with the Russian Federation, that is set to evolve into a state of constant rivalry. In truth, in the space of recent years this relation has started to resemble something akin to a neo-Cold-War contest. The change in mindset towards Russia that occurred in the last couple of years has been truly remarkable, impacting political circles, as well as all strands of the Polish society. This comprehensive national and whole-of-governments sea change demands a closer analysis. Poland should be followed with particular focus as its example could portend the future direction of travel for NATO alliance writ large.

Poland as the European military center of gravity?

2022 has been a crude wake up call for all those still tied to the idea of the “end of history” and the attendant downfall of authoritarian tendencies around the world. Last year therefore will be treated by historians as a watershed for defence policies in Europe and beyond. Although most of the ambitious pledges and announcements are yet to be filled with substance some countries have already started walking the talk. Unlike other European powers, such as France or Germany, Poland’s political leadership seems much more inclined on taking the leading security and defence role on the continent. In the long-term, provided that political momentum is maintained, Warsaw could advance its status as the main security provider on the eastern flank. Concomitant with the growing defence bill, Poland alongside other countries in the region like the Baltics will start demanding a bigger say in European affairs. Warsaw, which boasts the largest economic potential among the regional powers not only aims to protect its borders but also shape the regional security architecture. The eagerness to expand the presence of American troops, or a decision to transfer a tank company to Latvian multinational NATO battalion manifest Polish determination to advance cooperation within the alliance. Furthermore, the war in Ukraine and Poland’s involvement throughout the conflict have been the clearest example of its regional ambitions. By becoming a logistical hub and a steady supplier of weapons it continues to marshal and mobilize other allies to follow suit. This proactive stance stems from a deep-seated apprehension towards Russia, which now appears to be entrenched across Polish political spectrum. Historically, relations between Moscow and Warsaw have always been dominated by security concerns and regional rivalry. Mutual hostility is only reinforced by political history which shapes attitudes of both nations, making any détente an unlikely prospect. With relations deteriorating steadily over the years, the war in Ukraine has nonetheless marked a violent turning point. Countries on the eastern flank are especially wary of the threat looming from Russia, fully aware of Moscow’s historical predilection for imperialism.

The current defense planning, which is based largely on the 2020 National Security Strategy has been thoroughly updated to reflect the lessons learned from the Russo-Ukrainian war. By 2035 at the latest the current government of Poland reckons that its ambitious plans should come to fruition. The most important capabilities are to become operational by the end of this decade. Such time horizon is motivated by the perceived Russian ability to rebuild its potential. By modernizing and expanding its military, Poland aims to develop a deterrence by denial posture, which follows closely on the NATO directives. Same approach has been  advocated by other regional leaders, such as Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas. The sharp increase in manpower potential, which is sine qua non if the armed forces are to effectively employ the new platforms might prove the most challenging. The official objective is to increase the number of troops from roughly 170,000 to 300,000 personnel, including 250,000 in the professional service and 50,000 in the Polish Territorial Forces (Wojska Obrony Terytorialnej – WOT), which was formed back in 2015. Grouped into regional brigades WOT can be considered as a light infantry formation due to its suite of capabilities and type of training. Acting predominantly in the role of first responders in the event of crises they would likely fight in concert with conventional troops and be tasked with supporting the rear areas. In all, Poland plans to bring the number of its army divisions from 4 up to 6. Notwithstanding, the difficulties with attracting more able-bodied volunteers the sheer financial cost of putting up a new mechanized division has been estimated at around 50 bn PLN or 12 bn USD.

Despite hurried announcements proclaiming the “death of the tank” 18 months on war in Ukraine with its insatiable attrition of armour seems to underscore and not downplay the importance of AFVs on the modern battlefield. To aid Ukraine Poland decided to send its stocks of Soviet T-72s and PT-91 Twardy. This year it expanded its contribution by sending 14 Leopard tanks. To fill the gaps, it will receive 116 American Abrams tanks retired from the US Marines Corps. On top of that Poland is about to undergo a revolution in the composition of its armoured forces, by acquiring up to 1000 Korean K-2 tanks and further 250 M1A2 SEP v.3 Abrams that are set to arrive by 2026. The Ukraine contingency has only added to the urgency of revitalising the armoured forces. It is the logistical and technical domain that might pose the toughest set of challenges, as Poland starts fielding 3 distinct types of platforms simultaneously, including American Abrams, German Leopards and Korean K2s. Only in the long run is the Polish army going to shift to 2 types of tanks, in line with most armed forces in Europe. Apart from getting battle-proven American tanks Poland struck several lucrative deals with South Korea, which will diversify the line-up of Polish defence partners. In July 2022 MoD signed orders for 980 K2 MBTs and 672 K-9 self-propelled gun-howitzers. The underlying goal is to try to merge the industrial and defence policy, by streamlining the production of Polish AHS Krabs with its Korean K9 counterparts to develop domestic industrial capacity. The Polish variant of the gun-howitzer called K9PL is supposed to enter production lines in 2026. It is worth noting that the Polish Krab is among the most numerous self-propelled artillery systems featured in the Russo-Ukrainian war. Some estimates point to the figure of 72 Krabs sent to Ukraine so far, with about a third of them lost in action. High attrition rate does not take away from the fact that they continue to play a vital role in sustaining Kiev’s war effort. To sustain the domestic defence-industrial complex after retiring T-72s and shrinking the Leopard 2s force, the MoD wants up to 820 K-2 tanks to be built in Poland, under the label of K2PL. The industrial dimension of the deal with Seoul and openness to allow for technology transfer are key factors determining Warsaw’s decision process. On the other hand, by selling to Poland South Korea might wish to create a jumping off point to other European markets for its defence companies. With rash proclamations of  the death of the tank being quickly dispelled on the battlefield, Warsaw rightfully believes that modern MBTs are here to stay as a crucial component of any serious land forces. The proliferation of advanced top-attack anti-tank weapons coupled with the emergence of the “battlefield of sensors” complicates the effective employment of tanks. That being said, if used in concert with other arms such as air force, dispersed mobile infantry units, other AFVs and drones, they still constitute the indispensable capability to conduct manoeuvre warfare. In sum, by 2030 Polish MoD estimates that it will possess well over 1000 modern tanks, made up of American and Korean platforms. Furthermore, Poland will be retiring its old Soviet-era BMP units to adopt the domestically built Borsuk (Badger) IFVs and up to 400 new Rosomak APCs.

The lessons from the Russo-Ukrainian war indicate that when faced with well-defended positions and without air-superiority neither side managed to achieve a large-scale breakthrough using armoured columns. This reality stems from the overwhelming effectiveness of precise artillery fires enabled by drone surveillance. These takeaways mean that Poland’s deterrence posture cannot rely solely on the potency of its armoured fist. With that in mind, modernization programs of the Polish Armed Forces include a plethora of capabilities, with air defence being the main priority. Poland’s plans extend to a multi-layered anti-air infrastructure, composed of the long-range Wisła, medium-range Narew and close-range Pilica pillars. 8 patriot batteries are to be supplemented by British CAMM systems, 22 PSR-A Pilica and up to 3000 Piorun MANDPADS which proved their worth in Ukraine. The effectors are to be coordinated and linked by the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System (IBCS). This critical core of the AA infrastructure will cost up to 10bn USD. The main set of objectives includes protecting critical infrastructure, C2, major cities and air bases. The biggest challenge for the system concerns the threat from Russian ballistic missiles which outmatched most of the Ukrainian defence systems. Another important realisation influencing army’s modernization process concerns the effectiveness of precision rocket-artillery systems for conducting deep strikes. For years, the range of Polish artillery was limited to about 40km, rendering it literally shorthanded against a potential Russian threat. The eye-catching figure of nearly 500 HIMARS listed in the Poland’s letter of request provides an unambiguous message that it aims to become the foremost artillery-rocket force in Europe. The early reports suggest that the cost might reach around 10 bn USD. First batch of 20 American systems that had been purchased back in 2019 was delivered in May. From the operational standpoint alone, the firepower provided by 500 HIMARS seems like an overkill. The manpower and ammunition required to field such an overwhelming force are serious challenges in and of themselves. Sustainment and training on these systems will incur further expenses required to keep them operational. It suffices to say that one M-31 rocket costs around 100k USD. The US Army, as the biggest user of this system currently fields around 400 HIMARS. In any case it is unlikely that the United States would be able to provide so many of its highly sought-after systems to one of its allies. Industrial capacity is unlikely to pick up pace soon enough for these plans to bear fruit, as Lockheed Martin announced that it plans to ramp up the production rate to  just 96 units per year. Matériel constraints have likely led the MoD to again seek alternatives in South Korea, which agreed to sale 288 of its  K239 Chunmoo rocket artillery systems in a deal worth 3,55 bn USD. These orders make up a broader “Homar ” program which is meant to bolster Polish rocket artillery units, which have atrophied since the Warsaw Pact era. The “polonization” of the acquired systems thus constitutes the crucial part of the Homar program. Planners want both Korean and American launchers to operate on domestically produced chassis, whilst using Polish battle-management system. In truth, since the 90s did not have a comparable platform, dwarfing its deep-strike capability. With new capability the army is expecting to extend its range up to 300km, gaining an invaluable ability to degrade enemy logistics and troop concentrations. If acquired, manned, and integrated with advanced ISR platforms the Homar program alone could represent the central pillar of the highly coveted deterrence by denial posture.

Apart from long-range strike capability army is also expected to acquire a potent close air support cover. In September of 2022 Poland sent a letter of request for a staggering  96 AH-64E Apache attack helicopters equipped with longbow radar that are to replace aging Mi-24s. Proponents of the American helicopters stress their superior range that would allow to inflict heavy losses on Russian armour, obstructing their mobility. The biggest and potentially insurmountable problem concerns the cost of purchase, which could hover around 12-15 bn USD. That figure does not include the maintenance expenses expected in the long run and purchase of expensive munitions or training new pilots. If the price offered to Australia is to provide any guidance, Poland would have to splurge around USD 12,5bn for 96 units that it plans to obtain. The financial side of the equation thus seems especially daunting. However, as some experts have already suggested Poland will likely purchase around 30 platforms. This year the army is set to receive 8 AH-64D versions. The war in Ukraine is a clear indicator that attack helicopters are being successively outmatched in the role of close air support by smaller more expandable units such as drones or loitering munitions. Therefore, looking into the future Poland will have to put a bigger emphasis on introducing drones of all classes, whilst shifting the priority towards heavy-lift capabilities that could provide logistical support on the operational and strategic level. Such investments, we believe would provide better bang for the buck, instead of investing in offensive and vulnerable rotary-wing platforms.

In terms of fixed-wing aircraft, Warsaw has already signed a deal to buy 32 F-35As, followed by the purchase of 48 Korean FA-50s in 2022. The reasons for the acquisition of Korean jets include replacing Soviet-era MiG-29s and filling the critical gaps. It remains unclear however how 5th gen F-35s will operate alongside Korean jets largely designated for training missions. In July Polish MoD also announced a purchase of 2 Swedish Saab 340 AEW&C Erieye. It is worth noting that Polish air force thus far has never possessed a proper AWACS platform. Aerial ISR will be further enhanced by the use of FlyEye drones. In the same way as the navy, the Polish air forces have seen significant cuts over the last decades. By fielding 2 F-35 squadrons it will join the ranks of other NATO allies in possessing the 5th gen fighters.

Looking at the procurement plans and changes to force structure one can see that Poland aims to create units by taking inspiration from the US Army. In truth the 2nd Polish Corps is to be based on the structure of the 5th US Army Corps. Moreover, the formation of the unit will be supervised by the US General. The 18th mechanised division which will be composed of 6 armored battalions equipped with Abrams tanks in the words of Polish defence minister is also to draw heavily from American expertise. Based on the eastern approaches to Warsaw the formation will provide the biggest deterrence factor provided by precision and saturation of rocket-artillery fires and stopping power of an armoured fist composed of Korean and American tanks.

In his Atlantic Council speech Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that he desires for Poland to become a transatlantic bridge. The reality is that Warsaw for years stood in staunch opposition towards the trajectory of European integration advocated by France and Germany. This animosity and lack of mutual trust represent major obstacles for developing stronger and lasting relations within the UE’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). With a couple of exceptions procurement decisions indicate that Warsaw has largely given up on European platforms in its ambitious modernization plan. From the 2015 the ruling party was promoting close ties with the United States, which reached peak during the Trump presidency. With a democratic successor in the White House the room of manoeuvre in Warsaw’s foreign policy appeared to be shrinking. The war in Ukraine gave Poland a new sense of identity and a spotlight on the transatlantic stage. Currently, thanks to its uncompromising stance towards Russia it could be considered as a conveyer of American strategic interests in Europe.

Because of an aging population and generally gloomy demographic outlook a fiscal reality check might be in the offing. Such concerns are fully warranted as the modernization process is slated to be a decade-long undergoing. Projections suggest that Polish defense spending might skyrocket up to 5% of GDP, which would be far and away the highest percentage among NATO allies. In 2023 alone the expenses are projected to reach over 4% of GDP. In the latter part of the decade and beyond the bill is unlikely to decrease with maintenance costs on the up. For instance, acquisition costs of F-35s and Apache helicopters are estimated to be just 20% of the full cost expected throughout its time in service. Building a welfare state and a European military heavyweight simultaneously poses risks to economic growth and fiscal stability. Worse still, bulk of the funding for 16 new modernization programs, that has been estimated at around 130bn USD will come from the parallel funds outside of the MoD budget. Therefore, most of the new platforms will be purchased by incurring more public debt. This year’s elections are also a notable reason behind a flurry of defence contracts. The war in Ukraine managed to get Poles to rally around the flag, stimulating public demand for more defence acquisitions. Despite considerable levels of political will, Warsaw nonetheless faces several headwinds, be it financial, economic, or demographic. Notwithstanding the feasibility assessments, the direction of travel for the Polish Armed Forces seems well-established.

Fortifying the east for the long haul

The 2022 Madrid summit introduced a number of changes and an ambitious plan to develop a new Nato Force Model. In essence, member states agreed on enlarging the NATO Response Force (NRF) more than seven-fold to 300,000 troops. Two distinct tiers of high-readiness forces are to be made available: 100,000 troops at up to a 10-day readiness to deploy, and 200,000 forces up to 30 days. If these plans were to become a reality, they would mark the biggest overhaul of NATO’s collective defense since the end of the Cold War. In this spirit NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced a reset of NATO’s approach to deterrence and defense for the longer-term. Despite all the fanfare associated with political commitments it needs to be clarified that all these proposals hinge on the allies’ willingness to commit their national forces and military assets to the newly designated multinational units. This year’s NATO summit in Vilnius signalised a readiness to adopt a new defence doctrine, which could be described as a pre-emptive defence. The pledges to defend „every inch” of NATO’s territory should be treated as its political label. In the post Cold-War era NATO doctrine was mostly concentrated on tackling asymmetric and irregular threats. Such operations were more akin to crisis management missions than proper military interventions. NATO’s code of conduct was based on the contingency plans, which described possible crisis scenarios and ways to mitigate them, without pre-assigning forces. Response units were to be formed only after such a need was acknowledged. Since 2014, the established order started fading away as revanchist Russia set out on making a geopolitical comeback. With that in mind the alliance started gradually adopting a concept of forward presence. The multinational forces assigned to the eastern flank were to act as a “tripwire” deterrent. Such measures now seem insufficient, as Russian way of war manifested itself by atrocities and disregard for the commonly adopted rules of armed conflicts. Therefore, elastic defence premised on the idea of trading space for time has become a no-starter in capitals from Helsinki to Bucharest. A new approach to deterrence requires tools that allow for deep, preventive strikes inside hostile territory. By signalling to defend “every inch” NATO is sending a clear message that it is not weighing in a possibility of a limited conventional war. For many years deterrence by punishment was deemed as good enough. Such a limited posture could have sufficed against a rationally minded opponent. Russia on the other hand ought to be portrayed as an irrational international actor, as its decision-making process functions on a basis of unsubstantiated and often ideological personal assumptions of the political leadership. Pre-emptive defence which is part and parcel of deterrence by denial concept therefore should constitute the ultimate goal of the NATO alliance.

The success of the new doctrine hinges on the adoption of effective early-warning systems. To defeat the enemy pre-emptively one must establish areas of enemy troops concentrations and estimate the expected moment of attack. It is paramount, if the quick reaction forces are to find their bearings in the time of crisis and react accordingly. Alternative way, focused on dislocating troops ahead of time in a linear formation along the entire border would end in a bloody operational debacle. That is why the development of early-warning capabilities ought to be the utmost priority for NATO. Other important operational requirements include adopting offensive cyber capabilities that allow to cripple enemy ISR, C2 and fire-control system, saturation of long-range precision fires and a permanent forward presence of NATO reaction forces.

In sum, the changes introduced in Vilnius are likely to be developed across conceptional, planning and organisational areas leading up to the Washington summit in 2024. A special role in the new doctrine will fall to countries situated on the eastern flank, with Poland at the forefront. With its bolstered armoured and artillery forces it would become, in the words of the Chief of the Polish General Staff gen. Rajmund Andrzejczak the “military centre of gravity in Europe”. One recommendation for NATO could be to consider displacing the strengthened NATO Response Forces (NRF) exclusively to the eastern flank where the threat of conventional warfare is the most acute. Such measures would spread the defence bill more evenly across the alliance. The “Eastern Response Forces” would help maintain a high degree of unity and operational interoperability between NATO member states. It would certainly change the calculus of any Russian leader weighing the credibility of article 5. Other countries under the eFP framework with an addition of Finland could be amalgamated into one coalition based on the Framework Nations Concept focused on improving interoperability and capabilities targeted at the Russian conventional threat. Further cooperation on the alliance level should involve enhancing early warning systems, integrating, and expanding special forces operations (SOF) units. Enhancing cybersecurity is also vital as it would bolster resilience against hybrid threats, which will remain the most potent weapon in the Russian arsenal in the short-term.

To conclude, it must be stressed that for many years already, and especially after the 2014 annexation of Crimea NATO allies situated on the eastern flank have expressed a boisterous willingness to strengthen the pillars of collective defense. Other members of the bloc unanimously started to share that sentiment only after the 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The common understanding was reflected in the communiques of both Madrid and Vilnius summits. 2022 strategic concept coupled with the new NATO defence doctrine are sound responses to the neo-Cold-War threat from Russia. By placing the strategic centre of gravity of collective defence on the eastern flank, Poland is well-positioned to take up the leading role in the enterprise of deterrence by denial.

Any opinions, findings, or conclusions expressed within this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Eastern Europe Studies Centre.

Student at the College of Europe in Natolin. He obtained his previous diplomas at Warsaw School of Economics and University of Warsaw. Has background in economics and international security. Main areas of interest include transatlantic security relations, evolution of NATO and US foreign policy writ large. He published a number articles covering issues related to security and defence policies.