Poland’s Military Might and Hopefully Will

Photo:  Tuesday, December 28, 2021, the head of the Ministry of National Defense participated in handing over the Krab self-propelled gun howitzers to the soldiers of the 18th Mechanized Division. The first battery was received by the 14th Self-Propelled Artillery Squadron from Jarosław. The squadron operates within the structures of the 21st Podhale Rifle Brigade, which is one of the three brigades - newly created in the east of Poland - of the 18th Mechanized Division. Credit: late Wojciech Król CO/MON
Photo:  Tuesday, December 28, 2021, the head of the Ministry of National Defense participated in handing over the Krab self-propelled gun howitzers to the soldiers of the 18th Mechanized Division. The first battery was received by the 14th Self-Propelled Artillery Squadron from Jarosław. The squadron operates within the structures of the 21st Podhale Rifle Brigade, which is one of the three brigades - newly created in the east of Poland - of the 18th Mechanized Division. Credit: late Wojciech Król CO/MON

It is one thing to announce a huge expansion of the armed forces, and another to make it happen.

Polish deputy prime minister (and the de facto head of Poland’s governing PiS party), Jarosław Kaczyński, late last year introduced a homeland defense bill to more than double the number of Polish service personnel from the current 110,000 to 250,000, plus 50,000 reservists. If reached, this would give Poland one of the largest armed forces in Europe, by personnel, with only France, Greece, Italy, and Turkey topping that number.

The proposal also creates a new military branch, the Cyberdefense Forces, and includes provisions for the Polish military to purchase high-capability defense equipment made in the US and in Europe.

In one sense, the announcement was unsurprising. Central Europe has been a dangerous place historically and Poland’s neighbors have more than once wiped it from the map. In recent years, the increasingly bellicose behavior of the old enemy, Russia, has made clear to most politicians that the threat is real. Indeed, the 2017 decision to raise defense expenditure to at least 2.5% of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2030 (well above the NATO target of 2%) was supported across much of the political spectrum. The plan allowed for the purchase of advanced kit, including 32 F-35 combat aircraft, Patriot missile systems, new submarines, and frigates for the Baltic Sea, plus the personnel to crew them.

The new expenditure commitment came from Polish Defense Minister Marius Blaszczak in late October. He stated that a special financial vehicle, the Armed Forces Support Fund, would finance the expansion, with money furnished through government-secured bonds. This funding system is outside the normal budgetary funding process and has been criticized by the national auditor as lacking in transparency. It was initially used to combat the economic fallout from the covid pandemic — bonds are issued by the Polish national development bank (Bank Gospodarstwa Krajowego, BGK) and the state fund (Polski Fund Rozwoju, PFR), both secured by the state. The coronavirus produced a clear and urgent crisis, language that the armed forces bill supporters want to adopt, but which opposition says is over-hyped and unnecessary.

World Bank data shows that Poland’s military expenditure at 2.22% of GDP is now higher than it has been since 1994, when the country was paring back its Warsaw Pact-era forces. That puts it in the small and exclusive European NATO 2% club: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, France, and the UK are also members.

Poland may not be one of the big three European defense powers (France, Germany, and the UK), but its rising expenditure and determination to take the issue seriously is unarguable. Not only it is raising defense spending as a share of government outlays, but the country’s economy has grown sixfold since 1990: As Poland’s economy expands, even a static GDP commitment buys more.

That answers at least one of the questions raised by the government’s ambitious plans — are they affordable? The response would appear to be a cautious yes. The question as to whether the spending is needed has been answered for many Poles by history and by Russia’s menacing president. National security is not a game for Poland. On the same credit side of the ledger, it’s also worth noting that Poland is setting a good example to older NATO members like Belgium (1.1%), Germany (1.4%), and Italy (1.6%.)

But there are other issues to confront, like political opposition. Although non-governmental parties supported the 2017 increase, the opposition has been more critical this time. While the PiS coalition has a slight advantage over the opposition in the Sejm (226-224), the opposition has a slight majority over the PiS coalition in the Senat (52-48).

Critics say that not only is the bill financially ill-considered, but that PiS purged the Polish military of many high-ranking officers and slowed the modernization of the armed forces. After all, it is one thing to have a growing budget and another to spend it wisely (As an excellent report from Polityka Insight makes it plain, the only investment that was started and finalized between 2014-19 was the purchase of five Boeing VIP jets.)

Even more seriously, a large-scale military exercise last year is reported to have raised troubling issues. The drill, named Zima-20 (Winter-20), exposed the strategy of fighting east of the River Wisła (Vistula.) Even using all the newly purchased equipment scheduled for deployment by 2030, the Polish armed forces were unable to hold out for the target of 22 days. Russian forces would have been outside Warsaw in just four days and would secure a complete victory on day five. The Polish air force and navy would have been destroyed (notwithstanding support from NATO.) The exercise was said to have included complaints by some field officers that orders from above were incomprehensible.

Poland has much to consider. Russian forces have spent much of the past year massing close to Ukraine, the failures of the Belarusian dictatorship have drawn it ever closer to the Kremlin and to the possible permanent deployment of Russian forces on Poland’s border, and the Lukashenka regime’s use of developing world migrants has exposed the country to hybrid warfare.

Kaczyński quoted the old Roman adage when recommending the government’s plans: “If you want peace, prepare for war” and then added a more modern rider. “It is better to be safe and a little bit more in debt.”

Cordelia Buchanan Ponczek is a Clarendon Scholar and doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford, where she is researching public-private investment into extractive industries.

January 5, 2022