Armed Forces

Poland to Purchase Mobile Air Defence System for the Armored Forces

Photo: kpt. Katarzyna Sawicka/Polish Armed Forces
Photo: kpt. Katarzyna Sawicka/Polish Armed Forces

Polish Ministry of Defence is willing to introduce the SONA system into the inventory of the Armed Forces. SONA is to provide the armoured elements of the Polish military with a complex set of VSHORAD capabilities, along with C-RAM capabilities as well. The Armament Inspectorate of the MoD has launched a technical dialogue within that scope. The launching of this programme could be viewed as a chance for the domestic industry, as it creates an opportunity for it to deliver a comprehensive solution, or at least most of its components.

According to the announcement published, the procedure is aimed at executing a dialogue involving entities “that have comprehensive solutions included in their offer, or solutions that could be integrated within the scope of VSHORAD systems”, to obtain information required to prepare terms of reference for the SONA procurement programme. The talks would involve companies that manufacture both the air defence solutions, as well as individual components (such as cannons, radars, missiles, or platforms).

Detailed description (preliminary requirements) of the SONA system would be passed on to the entities qualified into the technical dialogue. We do know, however, that the solution shall “have an ability to act against artillery and mortar rounds, and rockets throughout their trajectory (C-RAM) manned offensive air assets and UAVs”.

The dialogue is aimed at assessment of the possibility of the preliminary requirements to be met by the offered products. It would also involve a preliminary estimation of the cost and programme schedule. Furthermore, the process's goal is to obtain relevant information making it possible to assess the lifecycle costs and the logistics support system. The adopted procedure is also to make it possible to identify the limitations and conditions involved in the technology transfer and the risks associated with the programme. Secondly, it would address the matter of the method that could be used to confirm the requirements-compliance as well.

The dialogue submissions would be accepted until 19th June this year. The procedure, meanwhile, is scheduled to take place between 1st October and 18th December 2020. The procedure could potentially be extended if the goals are not achieved. The dialogue shall be carried out by a task group designated by the Head of the Armament Inspectorate. However, the involvement of representatives of other MoD departments, working together with that group, is also a plausibility here.

The Inspectorate emphasizes the fact that the aforesaid technical dialogue shall not be viewed as a competitive one, in line with Article 60a of the Public Procurement Act, while involvement in the dialogue shall not be viewed as a circumstance excluding the given entity from the process of seeking the given order.

SONA - What is it? What is its purpose?

Even though the announcement does not provide the readers with exhaustive information, in practical terms it can be said that SONA is to replace the legacy Shilka/Biała systems and, to some extent, other VSHORAD systems as well. In early 2017 the MoD responded to our questions as follows: Yes, there is a plan to introduce a replacement of the ZSU-23-4 Shilka/Biała systems into the inventory of the air defence component. The requirements that shall be met by the new system have been included in the Operational Requirement known as “Achieving VSHORAD protection capabilities for the armoured forces, including C-RAM, aka “SONA”.  The number of systems, financials, and timelines are all a part of the requirements - confidential.

Two years later, when we asked the MoD whether the programme would become a part of the Technical Modernization Plan reaching the year 2026, the MoD responded that the programme is considered to be "prospective", but its implementation would depend on the finances.

Launching of the technical dialogue means that finances have been allocated to this programme within the currently valid Technical Modernization Plan (reaching out to the year 2035) and that the task is planned to be accomplished. The SONA system itself is to provide the Polish military with an entirely new set of capabilities.

Apart from the ability to act against manned air platforms (fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters), it is going to be designed, from the ground up, with acting against the UAVs in mind, and also to work in the C-RAM domain. The latter issue is important as, on one hand, it could be viewed as a response to the threat posed by the Russian rocket artillery units, and on the other, it requires a proper set of know-how and expertise, with proper technical solutions expected to be implemented in the effort to create a system as such. The above refers primarily to programmable ammunition (and, in a longer run, to directed energy weapons possibly).

Another important element is seen in ensuring that mobile armoured (and maybe - mechanized) elements have a proper protective means at their disposal. Biała systems are used for that purpose nowadays, in fairly limited quantities. They are also gradually becoming obsolete, despite the introduced upgrades. Meanwhile, Poprad systems, that are becoming a part of selected brigades that have been or are planned to be equipped with the Rosomak APC, given the platform limitations, can be used to protect the elements away from the frontline. They could also be deployed in areas where the military forces gather. However, they ultimately cannot be viewed as a tool that is optimized to protect frontline motorized/mechanized units.

At the same time, as the experience shows (from Libyan or Syrian conflicts) the armoured assets are exposed to airstrikes and need to be protected from such engagements by the air defence systems that would follow them around on the battlefield. In any other case, they could be neutralized long before they meet the enemy in their native domain - on land. This is even more pronounced, as alongside combat aircraft or attack helicopters (that, more and more often, have standoff weapons at their disposal), the enemy could also employ UAV assets.

At the same time, the potential loss of a drone is less costly than in the case of manned assets. Not only due to the lower price of a UAV but also since the loss of a UAV does not involve the loss of the valuable personnel. Even though Turkey has lost several UAVs in Libya, including several tactical and some MALE systems, the operations involving the UAVs have not been suspended and are still being conducted, with successes. The airborne threat is more and more pronounced, especially when it comes to armoured units. It requires an adequate response.

Similar conclusions have been reached by some of NATO's leading nations - Germany, or the USA. Following years of the backlog, they are focusing on recovering the VSHORAD capability associated with the mobile units. In both cases (M-SHORAD and NNBS programmes), the capabilities are being recovered steadily, so that a certain potential is already available before the maturity of the technology is achieved. Paradoxically though, the circumstances in which Poland finds itself are slightly better since air defence elements have already become a part of the land forces (air defence squadrons in brigades), along with some modern VSHORAD assets (Grom/Piorun MANPADS). However, mobile tracked systems are also necessary to effectively protect the armoured/mechanized elements, so that they can directly accompany those units during the engagements.