Modernizing the Polish Military

03/07/2015 10:14 am ET | Updated May 07, 2015

By law, Poland must spend at least 1.95 percent of its GDP on its military. That's just a shade under the 2 percent that NATO asks its members to devote. Aside from Estonia, however, Poland is way ahead of the rest of the region in military spending. And when President Barack Obama visited Poland in June 2014, Poland committed to upping its allocation to 2 percent, with an expectation that it will rise to 2.5 percent in 2015. The situation in Ukraine - a divided country, with Russia backing separatists in the East - is fueling security concerns in Poland and the Baltic countries in particular.

Even before the Ukraine crisis broke, however, Poland stood out in the region for its commitment to modernizing its military. "The attitude of Polish politicians is very unique and interesting," Marcin Piotrowski, of the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), told me in an interview in August 2013. "They usually are counting every zloty when it comes to other issues. But with the modernization there was and there is a consensus."

This consensus was strengthened by the short war between Russia and Georgia in 2008. That conflict was a wake-up call for many Poles that the security situation to their east remained unstable. "Poland was one of the leading forces pushing to change some assumptions within the new NATO strategy concept, which was approved at the Lisbon summit," Piotrowski pointed out. "We actively lobbied for emphasizing contingency planning in NATO and preparing for the worst-case scenario. Georgia, of course, was a main factor here."

Although the acute concerns generated by the Georgia crisis subsided, Poland remained committed to a substantial military modernization. "Compared to the situation after Georgia, and the reactions of politicians and the public at that time, we are much more confident about ourselves," he continued. "We might not be satisfied with all the aspects of the relationship with whole NATO. But we're satisfied with bilateral military relations with the United States."

Piotrowski dismissed concerns that Russia finds Polish modernization a threat. "It's probably not so much irritating for Russians," he explained. "They have some obsolete equipment. And we clearly have obsolete air defense systems - delivered during the Warsaw Pact period - so we must change this military equipment. Probably if the Georgians or the Azeris would start this kind of investment, we would see a strong Russian reaction. Also they recognize that since 1999 Poland is a serious member of NATO. Russia may recognize that Poland, like Turkey, must take this aspect of military security very seriously because of our specific geographic position."

Polish attitudes toward NATO missions have been divergent. There was initial support for the war in Iraq, but considerably less for the war in Afghanistan. In 2009, more than three-quarters of Poles wanted their troops withdrawn. "In Poland, even when we lost 30 soldiers in Iraq, this war was not so controversial in public opinion," Piotrowsky pointed out. "In Afghanistan, since the time when we increased our troops in 2007, public opinion has been largely negative. It became even more skeptical with the Obama policy and the surge. And now we have 41 soldiers who died in Afghanistan."

Still, he concluded that the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan were useful for the Polish military. "We have through the experiences of these expeditionary missions gained a certain amount of capital," he pointed out. "Even if we could imagine a worst-case scenario of military crisis in East-Central Europe, this kind of interoperability, getting to know American soldiers, and working under real combat conditions has been very useful for the military.

We talked about Polish-Russian relations, the shift in emphasis in Polish foreign policy toward Brussels, and the role of Polish peacekeeping.

The Interview

All the other countries in NATO are cutting their military budgets. Washington is trying to encourage its allies to increase spending, but they are ignoring Washington. NATO talks about "smart defense," but that seems like putting the best face on these cuts. Some of this is the financial crisis, but the trend began before then. How long can Poland buck this trend?

The attitude of Polish politicians is very unique and interesting. They usually are counting every zloty when it comes to other issues. But with the modernization there was and there is a consensus. In the Polish media, these national security issues are not prime time or on the front page of newspapers. We have a lot of portals, websites, blogs, and expert trade journals, and that's the place where the experts and politicians exchange opinions. But up to now national security issues are not a major topic in the mainstream media.

This wide consensus is a positive surprise for me. These expensive plans and this high level of military spending have support in the Seym and among the mainstream political parties. That's why the government has had the luxury to think in the long term about these investments into weapons and equipment. There's no panic, like we saw after 2008, but politicians are taking seriously this worst-case scenario. We have no interest in taking Minsk or Kaliningrad. Also, people who are in charge of this defense reform know more about the intentions and capabilities of Moscow.

The main investments should be in air defense. And that's an interesting topic: the competition between offers to sell us air and ballistic defense systems. Still, we have this luxury of a separate bill approved last year along with a decree by the president supporting long-term plan for military modernization. If our economy will still be in good shape, if there are no radical changes in the political landscape, which is of low probability, I am sure these plans will go smoothly.

Korea has been boosting its indigenous military manufacturing capacity to substitute for traditional imports, particularly from the United States. Has that been a debate here in Poland as well, to create an indigenous capacity?

We inherited a quite a big defense industry after the Communist period. It's clear that we cannot produce or design some types of weapons. For instance, when I was going to Washington, there was a contract with a Finnish company for armored vehicles for Polish land forces. Now we are producing these vehicles for export. The Finnish company sold us a license for this model. Now their factories can't produce it while our factories can. And we're selling them to different markets.

Americans provide licenses to allies - for tanks, for instance - for national security purposes. It usually doesn't make sense commercially. Why would the Finnish company undercut its own market by giving Poland the license?

Probably they didn't expect to undercut their own production. It's an irony.
Especially in our trade journals, there are clear concerns about lobbying from military industry companies. But it's also obvious, especially for politicians from districts where the factories are located, that this kind of equipment, like air defense or ballistic missile defense, is above our technical knowhow. One aspect of future contracts will be technical cooperation and production of some parts of this system in Poland.

Let's turn to Afghanistan. I don't remember where we are with Polish contributions.

We are still one of the biggest contributors - at least from Central Europe. We have 1,300-1,500 soldiers in Afghanistan. They moved to one or two bases in Ghazni province in eastern Afghanistan. Like many other NATO forces, they are focused on advising and supporting Afghan national forces. We had almost 3,000 soldiers in Afghanistan during the surge of 2010-2011. As I mentioned, I was responsible for the greater Middle East when I was in Washington, and I focused then on the American debates over Iraq and Afghanistan. There was an interesting paradox toward the two conflicts in Polish public opinion but also among political elites. Without conducting some sociological research or public opinion polls, I couldn't really understand why public opinion supported for such a long time the engagement in Iraq, which was criticized so strongly for instance in the United States. And yet, since the beginning, Poles always were skeptical or criticized the increased presence in Afghanistan. This would be a good topic for a political scientist or social scientist to explain this paradox in details.

In Poland, even when we lost 30 soldiers in Iraq, this war was not so controversial in public opinion. In Afghanistan, since the time when we increased our troops in 2007, public opinion has been largely negative. It became even more skeptical with the Obama policy and the surge. And now we have 41 soldiers who died in Afghanistan.

Does it have something to do with the somewhat comparable nature of the regime change in Eastern Europe and Iraq?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.