Jędrzej Graf: Not only has the COVID-19 pandemic had an impact on the people and the healthcare sector, as it has also created a turbulent period in our economy. We are hearing that there is a need to cut spending in many areas of state activities. What impact those cuts could have on the MoD? The Polish defence budget is, by statutory law, tied to the GDP. The scenarios assuming a fast growth of GDP over the upcoming years will need to be reviewed. Which of the programmes could be plausibly delayed, for reasons of financial nature, which ones, meanwhile, would be implemented with utmost priority?
Mariusz Błaszczak, head of the Polish MoD: We can see it already, that not only did the epidemic bring a health and social crisis, but it can also disrupt the economic balance. Certainly, the crisis will influence all of the sectors to varying degrees, but the effects will be visible everywhere. Thus it is so important to rapidly and effectively counter the epidemic and to restart the economy. In the current circumstances, in which the government allocates huge sums to healthcare and to saving of the businesses and jobs, it remains difficult to assess what the defence budget is going to be in the future. It all depends on the degree to which we will be able to successfully amortize the effects the epidemic may have. The defence budget needs to be tightly correlated to the requirements of the military, but it also needs to be in sync with the state’s financial condition.
So far it’s been too early to speak of the impact that pandemic may have on the functioning of the Polish Ministry of Defence. I can assure you though, the key procurement processes will be brought to a closure. Here I am referring to Harpia, Wisła, and Homar, among other programmes: correspondingly: the F-35, the Patriot system, and the HIMARS launchers.
In circumstances of a pandemic, supporting the economy of our own is going to have a key meaning. Is the Polish Ministry of Defence, should any shifts or cuts occur, going to prioritize the procurements that are to be completed domestically, so that the domestic defence industry potential is protected?
A tendency as such, in the activities that we undertake, is not a novelty of any sort. The numbers are the best proof of the fact that we have placed our bets on the Polish defence industry. Last year the contracts awarded to the Polish industry had a value of 6.8 billion zlotys. This is twice as much as during the preceding years. We are still going to rely primarily on the Polish industry, while in the segments where it is impossible to procure equipment manufactured by our facilities, we would be acquiring the best foreign-made armament available. Thus, the reports showing that some of the epidemic-struck states are prioritizing the domestic industry, are not surprising to us, we have a decision as such far behind us already. The situation around the world today only confirms the justifiability of our decisions.
My job is to reinforce the military through reinforcement of the Polish enterprises, and thus, we have been and will be willing to, place the majority of the orders with the domestic facilities, PGZ Group facilities primarily. I have been hosted at numerous military units where the soldiers have been receiving new equipment or equipment that has been modernized at the Polish factories. Apart from the Rak, Krab, Rosomak, and Poprad systems, we are also looking into the future, as we are getting ready to introduce the Borsuk IFV and as we are working on the Wilk concept - a new generation MBT.
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The pandemic is having an impact on blocking the equipment acquisition processes, such as negotiation, but also of the tests and handing off of the equipment already manufactured. Domestic and foreign travel and field testing have been subjected to major limitations. Is simplification of the handing off procedures being considered, so that these can be accomplished timely, or is any consideration given to cancellation of penalties associated with potential delays caused by the pandemic, shipment problems or supply chain disruption?
As I said, everybody is going to feel the effects of the epidemic. Thus, it is important to be ready for the worse scenarios, here and now. We are aware of the fact that delays may occur, in agreements and deliveries. The production facilities had to limit their manufacturing output and work. Thus, potential delays and derogations would be subjected to a case-by-case analysis. This would be even more pronounced, as the governmental legal regulations concerning the fight against coronavirus allow us to introduce changes in the agreements. This is a major facilitation.
Let’s remember, however, that in case of multi-million contracts, frequently preceded by negotiation lasting a couple of months, we cannot take a shortcut. We need to be principled when it comes to the quality of the equipment - the money belongs to all of us after all. However, the most important task, for now, is to hamper the epidemic and to keep the Polish businesses from drowning. And for us, the defence sector companies are a priority.
Is buying into intervention being considered, with regards to additional, yet required, military equipment, with involvement on the part of the Polish industry: such as means of communication, modern ammunition, and guided missiles, unmanned systems, protection systems?
The requirements tied to the fight against the epidemic are being continuously analyzed, however, as for now, no need emerges to make any sudden moves. We have accelerated the procedures pertaining to ambulance vehicles and decontamination sets. We also take care of equipping the military with protective measures. This pertains to the availability of face masks, disinfection agents, and suits. One can say though, that we did not have to review our plans in this area, looking for ad hoc solutions. The equipment has been available and the units were well trained when it comes to procedures.
A major contract, concerning the deliveries of the F-35 fighters, has been concluded in January. It is to provide capabilities of very high importance, but the effects will become visible only during the second half of this decade. At the same time, the programme in question, despite the cost, does not entail direct industrial benefits. Are renegotiation, spreading of the payment, or even resignation from the acquisition of the jets being considered then?
The speculations placing a question-mark over the F-35 acquisition are reckless, to say the least. The purchase is a symbol of a new quality in the Polish security domain, it is also a generational leap for the Polish Air Force. Since the very beginning of my mission at the MoD, I have been reiterating that I want a military that is quantitatively expanded and modern. And this acquisition is an expression of that. We are joining the elite of the states that have the ultra-modern aircraft at their disposal. This would contribute to our NATO interoperability. It is difficult to find a better recommendation for a piece of military hardware. We do not envisage any changes in the F-35 contract. We are paying close attention to the events unfolding overseas, also staying in touch constantly with a representative of the US government and industry. The Polish pilots will be flying the F-35.
Following the F-35 procurement and in the light of the economic crisis, many persons also wonder what’s next for the Wisła programme, the air defence domain. We know that offset agreement annex is going to be negotiated, for phase one of the Wisła programme. Can you tell us any more details? What about the second stage of the medium-range air defence system acquisition, and what about the Narew programme?
We are creating the national air defence system consistently. The annex to the agreement solely applies to the precise definition of the offset - the scope of involvement of the Polish industry in the production process. Thanks to the annex the PGZ Group would acquire unique production and tech capabilities, also reinforcing its position in the international arena. There is a lot to fight for, thus it is always worth to negotiate and work on solutions that would be even more beneficial.
We also remember about phase II of the Wisła programme and the Narew programme. These programmes will be implemented. For the complete “closure” of the air defence system, the Narew system mentioned here is still needed. Narew is to protect us at ranges closer than the Patriot and that is viewed as one of the priorities of the Technical Modernization Plan. We will also be driven to make Narew Polish. Both systems - Wisła and Narew - need to be complementary - only then they would constitute an effective “shield”.
The Polish military has been tasked with fighting the pandemic in early March. The troops support both the uniformed services – the Police and the Border Guard – as well as hospitals for instance. How are you assessing the efficiency of the operations undertaken by the Armed Forces, including the operational units, the Military Police [Gendarmerie], and the Territorial Defence Forces?
The Polish troops have been involved in the fight against the epidemic since the very beginning. Military aircraft were the first to take off, to transport the Poles rescued from Wuhan. As time went by, the involvement of the military was growing adequately to the requirements. At the moment, more than 9 thousand soldiers have been tasked with counter-epidemic missions. We are ready to extend the scope of support, should a need emerge.
I must admit, the troops work flawlessly with the civil administration: the Border Guard and the Police. They patrol the borders and the streets daily, controlling the persons quarantined, delivering medical supplies, food and PPE. The military medics are on alert at the hospitals, with psychologists and educators managing a special purpose hotline. Our hospitals and labs work, utilizing the personnel and equipment potential to the fullest. We also get help from a thousand officer cadets. The Air Force is involved in airlift operations with regards to PPE for the medics. We also make use of the allied SALIS programme. The troops of the Territorial Defence Forces are working hand-in-hand with the operational units and the Military Police.
Daily, several thousand of them assist the seniors, veterans and they also support the healthcare facilities, within the framework of operation “Odporna Wiosna” [Resilient Spring]. The Territorial Defence soldiers also provide support for more than 40 nursing homes. The Territorial Defence component proves perfectly useful during the crisis, thanks to its voluntary and locally-oriented nature they know who and where is in need. Appreciation also needs to go to all soldiers who are helping the Poles daily and who protect our borders. I know that these tasks are not easy, I know that soldiers and elements usually train for other tasks, thus I am even more proud of their service. It needs to be emphasized that more than 80% of the Poles trust the Polish military, supporting us in the fight against coronavirus. This shows that we are effective and that our actions are needed. We can assure that we are still going to be where needs emerge.
The military has become involved in the fight against the pandemic, which had to have an impact on standard training activities. This is understandable, but one needs to ask the question: how the current situation would influence the army’s readiness to get involved in defence-related tasks? And what form is the Defender exercise going to take - we know that some of the US units have arrived in Poland before the travel was suspended. In what way do the Polish and US units operate, including the armoured units, originally destined to participate in the Defender exercise?
When it comes to the former issue, I would like to assure that the Polish military is constantly maintaining the required level of readiness and mobilization capabilities. Our forces remain ready, on alert, as the security challenges have not been diminished due to COVID-19. Thus, while limitations and sanitary norms are taken into account, live-fire events and training are still taking part. The troops need to maintain their training habits and the readiness to act. We shall remember that this matter also pertains to our alliance-commitments and the requirements of ten foreign deployments that are going on right now. There is no space available for making even the slightest pause.
Following a consultancy phone-call I had with Mark Esper, the head at the Pentagon, I accepted the modification of the original assumptions made with regards to the Defender exercise with full understanding. Despite these limitations, the exercise involves around 4000 US troops in Poland, along with 1550 units of equipment, and relevant assumptions of that exercise become reality. Certification of the Bradley IFVs carried out recently at the Land Forces Training Centre within the Drawsko Pomorskie range area [DPTA] can be a good example here.
In the case of the US military capacity to rapidly deploy large quantities of troops and equipment to Europe and to integrate those forces has been tested, alongside the readiness of the host nations to host those forces. We have tested important elements of the logistics when it comes to that undertaking. Poland, as a host nation, is also testing the procedures, within the scope of hosting and supporting the US forces within the territory of Poland. This will be useful in coming to relevant conclusions and further enhancement of the procedures.
Thank you for the conversation.