Against the backdrop of Poland’s tragic military history, the government plans expenditures of PLN 131 billion over the next decade. But is the modernization plan realistic?
by Remi Adekoya
On June 6, 1794, Polish forces waged a battle in Szczekociny against a combined Russian and Prussian army. Legendary Polish freedom fighter Tadeusz Kościuszko, back in Poland after lending a hand to the American revolutionaries, commanded an outnumbered Polish force in a futile effort that ended after a few hours.
While the lack of manpower was a contributing factor in the defeat, the Poles took only 33 cannons into battle, while the Russians and Prussians faced off behind 134.
The defeat ultimately led to a final partitioning in 1795 by the Russians, Prussians and Austrians, as Poland disappeared from the map for the next 123 years – perhaps the most bitter of many bitter experiences in the history of Poland’s security.
Small wonder, then, that modern, independent Poland takes defense matters seriously.
In contrast to the general trend in Europe, Poland’s military spending has increased by roughly 50 percent over the last decade, according to figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. One of the reasons is that the Polish constitution stipulates the country spend no less than 1.95 percent of its GDP on the military, and thus, as the economy has grown over the years, so has the defense budget.
Along with the budget increases comes a shift in strategy, as outlined by President Bronisław Komorowski in August of last year.
“[We want to] end an overzealous, reckless . . . expeditionary policy of sending our troops to the other side of the world,” Komorowski said – no oblique reference to Poland’s having sent troops into operations like those in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past decade. Instead, Poland’s military will concentrate on national security, pursuing a defense policy that will “not exceed Polish capacities, Polish interests and Polish needs.”
In 2014, the Polish defense ministry will have a budget of PLN 32 billion and has announced it will spend over PLN 8 billion of this money on a general modernization of the army, the highest amount in the last two decades.
Meanwhile, Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak announced that PLN 131 billion has been earmarked for the next decade to replace outdated weaponry, much of which dates back to the communist era. Planned purchases include tanks, a missile-defense system, ships for the navy, military training aircraft, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles and modern equipment for ground troops.
Do the figures add up?
So what do industry experts think of the modernization program?
“This is only a plan, not an obligation. The ministry exploits the fact that the public doesn’t really know how its budget is structured to pull the wool over their eyes,” said Maksymilian Dura, a former naval officer and now a journalist for the military online portal Defence24.pl.
“The ministry’s budget is divided into two parts: operational expenditure and capital expenditure, so when the ministry says that PLN 8.1 billion will be spent on modernization and new equipment in 2014, that is misleading. In actual effect, just over PLN 3 billion has been guaranteed this year for that purpose,” said Dura. “To realize the announced program, the ministry should be spending at least PLN 9 billion a year on modernization,” he added.
However, Krzysztof Krystowski, former head of Polish Defence Holding, the biggest producer and supplier of arms in Poland, is more upbeat on the army’s financial capacity to carry out the program. “I think the feasibility of the program depends on many elements, but is realistic. However, it is based on the assumption that the 1.95 percent of GDP rule will be adhered to and that GDP grows in line with forecasts, in which case the funds could be available,” he said.
A second assumption is that the share of the defense ministry’s budget currently earmarked for personnel costs will shrink while the share of the budget destined for modernization will increase, Krystowski added.
“My biggest concern is the defense ministry’s capacity to spend that money. The administrative efficiency of the people in charge of tenders and negotiations has not been up to par for many years now,” said Krystowski.
Meanwhile, the defense ministry confirmed to WBJ Observer that in the upcoming years at least 20 percent of its annual budget is going to be devoted to capital investments, including the “technical modernization of the Polish armed forces and the development of military infrastructure.”
It also pointed out that the PLN 8.1 billion it will be spending on capital investments this year represents 26 percent of its total budget, although it did admit that the amount which would actually be spent on “new” equipment in 2014 would amount to “just” PLN 3.5 billion.
Who’ll get the money?
The ministry, however, has not had the best track record in recent years when it comes to efficiency in spending the money it has, Krystowski said. At the end of 2012, it had to return funds allocated at the beginning of the year to state coffers because it was unable to spend them. The same happened in 2011, and in 2010.
And so, if the officials at Poland’s defense ministry don’t get their act together, irrespective of whether the money is available or not, the modernization push will remain largely on paper.
So what are the criteria for selecting who gets to win the juicy military tenders that are already – or soon will be – up for grabs? Many European countries now practice the concept of Best Value, which is a procurement system that looks at factors other than just price, such as quality and expertise, when selecting vendors or contractors.
“Poland doesn’t always go for best value, it goes for the cheapest price. The procurement law is written in a way that favors the cheapest bidder,” said Adam Kapitan Bergmann, the COO of IN2KNO and former Director of the Polish office of Lockheed Martin for Poland’s F-16 program. “There is a lot of concern about corruption, and determining Best Value is generally considered too difficult to quantify. This is not unique to Poland” he added.
Asked whether politics is a factor in determining who wins major contracts, Bergmann said, “in defense procurements in every country, and specifically Poland, politics is involved because we are talking about a national security issue with geo-political implications.”
There are skeptics
According to Krystowski , while Polish defense companies stand a chance to benefit from the planned military shopping spree, some of the key acquisitions such as a missile-defense system “cannot be handled by Polish firms alone, but they must forge partnerships with foreign partners.”
Dura remains skeptical about the feasibility of much of the spending. Though the ministry is likely to realize the programs that are “easy,” such as the acquisition of used Leopard tanks from the German army, “there will be a problem with the helicopters and submarines, because there is conflict in the ministry on what kind exactly to buy,” he said.
Krystowski echoed this opinion, saying the disagreement is “not only over who supplies the helicopters, but also over what kind of product is needed.”
Currently, three companies are still in the running for the tender to supply 70 helicopters: the American Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation with its S-70i Black Hawks; British-Italian AugustaWestland with its AW149; and Eurocopter of France, which makes the EC 725.
The tender requires that the winning supplier “cooperate” with Poland’s defense industry, meaning the entire aircraft or its parts must be manufactured in Poland. Regarding the planned missile defense system, Dura said this will “definitely” be realized “because there will be pressure to do that from politicians and the media.”
“But the Russians will be watching closely as they do not want the status quo to change, so this will be both a technical and political challenge,” he added.
Don’t expect Robocop
Then there is the program meant to create a new generation of battle uniforms and tactical equipment. It also aims to develop new electronics and optics technologies and new communication systems, along with modernizing existing equipment and conducting research on new-generation ballistic shields.
The sum of PLN 40 million has been set aside for research on the equipment program this year, with the development phase expected to wrap up in 2016. The army will spend some PLN 600 million on modern equipment for soldiers between 2016 and 2018.
Dura is optimistic about this particular program, saying “its elements can be built in Poland by domestic firms so there will be plenty of pressure from the ministry to realize the program, but we are not about to produce a Robocop, as some might think.”
“The program will be realized in stages,” Dura added.
US President Barack Obama has cited the need for Europe to transform itself into a “security provider” rather than just continue being a “security consumer.” Today, most of Western, and increasingly Eastern Europe (with the notable exception of Poland) are fully dependent on the NATO alliance for their security.
But NATO is an example of European freeloading at the expense of the American taxpayer. Without US firepower, the alliance would be the archetypical toothless tiger. But with the US government and ordinary Americans increasingly focused on America reducing its own debt burdens, the status quo seems politically untenable in the long-term. Hence, Obama’s urging that Europe spend more to beef up its defense capabilities.
It is good that Poland, at least, is heeding that call. Although it is a fully-fledged NATO member, it still has a rather difficult and often aggressive neighbor in the shape of the Russian Federation.
And the mindset of the Russian leadership has not changed all that much since the Soviet era, when Poland was one of its satellite nations. After all, this is the same country that attacked Georgia in 2008 and still occupies large chunks of Georgian territory. The Kremlin has now embarked on a massive $640 billion rearmament program planned to run up until 2020. In 2014 alone, Russian military spending will rise by 25 percent to some $52 billion.
Poland cannot match Russian defense spending dollar-for-dollar, but that doesn’t mean it should fold its arms and stake the future of its sovereignty solely on American security guarantees.
If, knock on wood, Poland ever has to take part in another large-scale war to defend its sovereignty, having a modern, well-equipped army would certainly come in useful.