Will the crisis induced by the COVID-19 pandemic change the plans made by the Polish Ministry of Defence? “If a necessity as such emerges, we would tailor our plans. We have a pool of top spending priorities, of course. These include the Harpia, Wisła, Narew, Orka gap-filler, and a couple of other programmes”, stressed Mariusz Błaszczak, head of the Polish MoD, as interviewed by Defence24.pl. In the interview, he also mentions the conclusions made after the analysis of Nagorno Karabakh conflict, the efforts aimed at establishing the Armament Agency, implementation of the National Security Strategy, and preparatory steps tied to new legal acts regulating the military service.
Jędrzej Graf: 2020 has been a special year. On one hand, it was required to continue work on the tasks related to the development and modernization of the Polish military, on the other, a response to the COVID-19 pandemic was necessary, with an active part that the Polish Armed Forces played. The Polish Armed Forces got involved deeply in combat against the pandemic, but didn’t that limit their defence capabilities and the scope of preparation for the primary tasking - defending the country from potential aggression?
Head of the Polish MoD, Mariusz Błaszczak: The pandemic does not respect the borders, and it does not choose the time to strike. The crisis concerns everybody, covering all of life’s domains. The Polish Armed Forces have been facing a difficult challenge during recent months. On one hand, I recommended that the soldiers are actively involved in the fight against coronavirus, on the other, the commanders had to maintain clearly defined combat and mobilization readiness norms. Looking for a balance between pandemic-related safety and a necessity to maintain defence capabilities has become a top priority for us. Thus, support activities in fighting the virus, as well as exercises, training, and training operations, had to be taking place simultaneously. Despite the pandemic, we have not been changing our operational standards. We have maintained a proper level of training for our military, also carrying out the most important military exercises: Anakonda, Brilliant Jump, Tumak, Defender, and Astral Knight. We have been able to maintain the continuity and readiness of our detachments abroad. We have also accomplished our activities within two NATO initiatives: VJTF and the NATO Response Force. Earlier on, our fighters remained on station in the Baltic States, within the framework of the Baltic Air Policing operation.
This shows that the key capabilities of the Polish military have not been subjected to any destabilization, I could even say that some of them have been developed further.
The duty to effectively defend the country is not suspended in any crisis circumstances, even in case of a global pandemic. This is also a kind of test for the adaptability of the military, and flexibility of the command chains. We have learned to transfer a major portion of our activities into the realm of conference calls, online. Thanks to the above we have been able to combat-test the communications and security of these communications. And when it comes to the contribution that the Armed Forces have made in the battle against the pandemic, huge thanks should be made to all of the soldiers - both of the operational units, as well as the Territorial Defence Forces.
The Territorial Defence Forces have been struggling to overcome the narrative of its opponents, questioning their usability. The branch has passed its test with flying colours. The pandemic-induced crisis has shown that this branch can take over a major burden, associated with support for the civil system, and caring about the weakest, ill senior part of the population. Up to 10 thousand soldiers daily work at hundreds of hospitals, nursing homes, epidemiological stations, and private homes, ready to provide any support.
The necessity to re-establish a full profile medical university to meet the needs of the Armed Forces is an important matter stemming from the pandemic experiences, somewhat confirming my previous decisions. Thus, we are working on bringing a Military Medical University to life.
Back in 2020, the National Security Strategy has been published. The strategy assumes that an Act on National Security Management would be created. When that Act is going to take shape? To what extent the experiences gathered during the COVID-19 pandemic would be taken into the account here, including the military involvement?
Starting from October, the National Security and Defence Affairs Committee of the Council of Ministers has been active, it is led by Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński. The plan for the work of the committee has been already arranged, also when it comes to the preparation of the legislation. The experiences gathered by the Polish military resulting from the involvement during the pandemic will, obviously, be put into use.
During the Defence24 DAY conference back in September, you have presented a concept and assumptions associated with the establishment of the Armament Agency. We are coming close to the end of the ear, yet the Polish Ministry of Defence has not presented a bill on that matter? When would that bill be presented, and would the final project differ from the presented assumptions (Armament Agency focused on the whole lifecycle)?
I would like the Act on the Armament Agency to become a part of a legislation bundle discussed by the Committee of the Council of Ministers for National Security and Defence Affairs. The bill that would bring the Armament Agency to life would not depart from the assumptions that I have presented during this year’s edition of Defence24 DAY. My plan assumes that the phase of actual changes would begin next year. This process needs to be harmonious, well thought out, and safe. We cannot allow ourselves to face a risk of disruption of supplies, plans, or payments, related to the existing programs.
Coming to the issue of armament, procurement of the F-35 in the Harpia program has been the most prominent modernization programme finalized in 2020. We are entering the year 2021 in a changed reality though, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Are you not worried that the implementation of the Harpia programme, fused with the pandemic-induced crisis could limit the financing of the national defence, thus stopping the other modernization programmes?
The pandemic-related crisis had not been taken into account previously, as a risk factor, and it caused a global slow-down, a business stagnation, and serious limitations within the scope of logistics and manufacturing - and this cannot go by without any market reactions, changes in budgets and changes at the state level. We are following this closely, preparing scenarios for potential changes.
Nevertheless, it is a fact - this year comes to an end with a really satisfying level of defence expenditure. As the budget of the Polish Ministry of Defence was increased by 3 billion zlotys, never before was the defence expenditure so high. 33% of the current budget has been allocated to the so-called material expenditure, focused on development. Next year, despite the analytical documents taking the new reality into the equation, is going to see a budget at a high level of 2.2% of GDP. I cannot see any serious threats to the implementation of the key modernization programmes. Neither when it comes to Harpia, nor in the case of other programmes. The Polish economy, thanks to the reasonable policy adopted by the government, finds itself in a relatively good condition. And if the situation persists until spring, then we would maintain the assumed growth tempo in the area of armed forces’ development and modernization.
The Armament Inspectorate announced, towards the end of the year, that recommendations have been made, concerning the Narew programme. When can the final decisions on the shape of the programme be expected, along with the launch of the implementation phase?
The Narew programme is one of the strategic Polish modernization programmes. The decision here would determine the direction of development for years, or even decades. An effective “closure” of the short-range air defence layer at several kilometers is a capability that we simply must possess. Narew is also a serious opportunity to make a technological leap and secure profitable deals for our industry. I want the Narew system to be created in Poland - to the maximum possible extent. This has operational and economic justification. The requirements exceed the financial capacity, thus we arrange the priorities very thoroughly.
The Navy is also waiting on decisions on modernization - apart from the Ślązak vessel, the build of which took several years, the branch has not received new surface combatants for years now. Are there any chances for us to see resolving of the matters tied to the Navy modernization in 2021, especially when it comes to the Miecznik coastal defence vessel programme, where recommendations have already been prepared and the decision by the Polish Ministry of Defence is expected? And what about the acquisition of the second-hand submarines from Sweden – can we expect an agreement concerning the procurement of these to be signed in 2021?
Launching of the “Ślązak” vessel has been the most important, yet not the only element of Navy modernization that happened in recent years. Two new warships were commissioned over the last couple of days. The last of three Kormoran II MCMVs, and the last tugboat, of a series of six.
During recent years we have been modernizing some of the warships, and the naval helicopters. I know that the Polish Navy needs more funding and investments. I hope that the matter related to submarines will be successfully finalized next year. We have the Swedish offer on the table, concerning two A17-class vessels.
This is not the final “Orka”, as it shall be viewed as a gap-filler making it possible to maintain operational capabilities and levels of training for the crews. I treat the Miecznik requirement with a similar level of seriousness - it is aimed at the introduction of multi-role frigates. I know how important this programme is, not only for the Polish Navy but also for the Polish shipbuilding industry. We are currently making progress towards creating a relevant solution.
ZSSW-30 unmanned turret system and new Borsuk IFV have also undergone extensive testing this year. The tests yielded very positive results. When can we expect further steps concerning procurement of both these systems that bear key importance for the land component - both the turrets, that are going to be installed on the Rosomak platform first, as well as the new IFVs?
Borsuk is the future of our land forces. It could be said that it would be a start of a new era, after the obsolete BWP platform. The field tests that we are witnessing create a feeling of optimism. This makes it possible to assume that this flagship project that the HSW pursues, would come to completion next year. One of the conditions here is to develop a remote control ZSSW-30 turret system. The work progress here is quite advanced. After the project comes to completion, the system would first be integrated on the Rosomak platform. Successful integration of the turret o Rosomak would translate into paving the way for Borsuk.
I hope that Borsuk would bring new capabilities to our infantry, for instance by improving its firepower. By allowing for better cooperation in fire control and command systems. The first batch would be handed off to the 18th Mechanized Division, stationed in the east - not without a reason. It is in the east, where we want to base the best, and the latest assets.
Over the last two years, new procurements made with the involvement of the defence industry were based primarily on the continued delivery of equipment already built, such as the Grot rifles, or Rak mortars. Equipment developed earlier on, such as the Poprad air defence systems, was also being delivered. Are any new R&D projects going to be assigned to the domestic industry next year, so that we can introduce new types of domestically developed armament in a few years?
This year the military units received several examples of Rak, Krab, Rosomak, Aero, and Poprad platforms, while the troops received hundreds of Grot rifles and Spike ATGMs, modernized Leopard and T-72 MBTs were also commissioned. All of the above happened thanks to the Polish defence industry that is receiving more than 60% of our orders, concerning military equipment. We are driven to acquire products from Polish facilities, and factories. First, this provides us with equipment autonomy, second, we are realistically supporting the Polish economy doing so.
This trend I am going to maintain, I also place a major emphasis on supporting our research projects. Poland has a major defence industry heritage and high technological culture. And our engineers remain in possession of both ideas, as well as knowledge. This, along with the manufacturing potential, should lead us towards new, satisfying projects. We have mentioned the Borsuk IFV already, and the IFV is a result of a successful R&D project done within the framework of the National Centre for Research and Development. The fact that I have brought the so-called Department of Innovation to life is the best testimony to the importance of new concepts and R&D. That department would comprehensively deal with the coordination of new defence projects. I will stress it once again, that more than 1 billion zlotys is spent on research and development in the area of national defence - which constitutes 2.5% of the defence expenditure. I expect specific actions and tangible results here.
Speaking of modernization, one needs to mention the effects that the pandemic had. It created an economic crisis - in Poland as well. Extra 3 bn. zlotys was the sum allocated to the Armed Forces Modernization Fund, but in the long run, the expenditure may be growing slower than it was assumed, due to the slower tempo of economic growth.
Is the Polish Ministry of Defence ready for cuts as such? What areas could be subjected to those? On the other hand - can we expect extra financing beyond the statutory limits, also in the upcoming years, considering the provisions of the National Security Strategy mentioning the accelerated tempo of reaching the level of 2.5% of GDP when it comes to the defence expenditure?
There is a saying, that no crisis should go to waste. One should learn the lessons, and get ready for the future. We must be ready to act effectively during relatively peaceful times, and in a crisis as well, and, analogously, during prosperity, and in the period of financial limitations.
If a necessity as such emerges, we would tailor our plans. We have a pool of top spending priorities, of course. These include the Harpia, Wisła, Narew, Orka gap-filler, and a couple of other programmes. And financing of those would be at the top of the spending list. The situation is similar when it comes to the spending tied to the quantitative expansion of the Armed Forces, and the investment related to this year’s agreement signed with the United States of America. This is what we committed to, and we are certainly going to deliver on those commitments. I do believe that the Strategy provision of 2.5% of GDP devoted to Armed Forces financing would become reality as early as 2024.
The conflict in Nagorno Karabakh has been quite surprising for many of those who have been following the unfolding events, especially when it came to the scale and methods of employment of different unmanned systems. What scope of analysis of that conflict has been adopted at the Polish Ministry of Defence? Are any adjustments to the Technical Modernization Plan being considered, towards accelerated procurement of unmanned systems, and means for countering and camouflaging them?
Obviously, we have been observing the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh - both when it comes to politics, as well as within the operational dimension. The broad employment of UAVs there has two sides. The first comes from the benefits stemming from the offensive use of these, while the second one refers to the defensive capabilities. We are analyzing both of those aspects and I think that this would result in a certain operational adjustment. Unmanned systems are a standing part of the inventory of the Polish military units, and the modernization plans. We are currently operating a couple of UAVs - FlyEye, for instance, or, soon, the Orlik UAV. Both made in Poland. Procurements of mini-UAVs - Wizjer and Ważka, medium-range UAVs - Gryf, and tactical VTOL UAV - Albatros, are all a part of the future plans. Next, we are planning to launch the operational MALE UAV acquisition, known as Zefir. It is also worth to mention the talks that we’re engaged in, within the “Loyal Wingman” programme. It assumes that UAVs would be used to directly support the 5th generation MRCA - the F-35s, recently procured for the Polish Air Force.
The enhanced defence collaboration agreement has also been signed with the United States, in 2020. What would be the next steps in the implementation of that document? And isn’t there a risk that, as the authorities in the United States of America are changing, with imminent cuts of the US military budget expected in the light of the pandemic, that implementation of that agreement may be under threat?
Change at the White House, with a new POTUS would not have an impact on the changes happening in the US-Polish relations and on the implementation of the agreements concluded. The US administration, even facing a change, maintains continuity of good initiatives. The US military presence in Europe has even received extra funding, hence, I do not expect any cuts. Over the course of numerous meetings in the United States of America I have been talking to both sides of the political scene, and I was being assured that Poland, its interest, and security, remain incredibly important for the Americans. We are forming a strategic alliance, and arrangements made this year and ultimately contained in the enhanced defence cooperation agreement are quite beneficial for our country.
The United States of America would increase the number of US troops on the Polish soil soon, up to more than 5.5 thousand. We have obliged ourselves to create conditions proper for the reception of up to 20 thousand extra troops. We are already developing the infrastructure that would serve this cooperation. We need warehouses, bases, and training centres. We have inaugurated the functioning of the V US Army Corps forward command in Poznan, a few weeks ago, which would be responsible for coordinating the presence of the US forces in the European theater. This is the only command at this level in Europe, which is proof of the trust that Washington and the Pentagon have towards Poland. We are working on the expansion of bases in Mirosławiec and Powidz.
A specialist Combat Training Center in Drawsko is also gradually becoming a tangible element of infrastructure. The Americans are working on a missile defence facility in Redzikowo. All of these initiatives and investments, fused with the current US presence in Poland - such as the Armored Brigade Combat Team in the West, and Enhanced Forward Presence measures in Orzysz, create a qualitatively refreshed Polish deterrence power.
A recruitment system reform in the Polish military has begun to be introduced in 2020, being coordinated by the plenipotentiary for the “Become the Soldier of the Republic [of Poland]” programme. How do you assess the results so far? What are the key future directions, for expansion of the common defence system, and of the reserves?
The users of the system can provide us with the most objective rating of the new solution. And despite the problems occurring in the infancy period, the general assessment is very positive. The candidates are satisfied with the way that the military recruitment centres function, and we have recorded a higher number of candidates for service, than in the previous years. The candidates no longer spend months waiting to be drafted, rated by more committees, and receive documents submission deadlines.
We are providing them with the comfort of a single, brief visit, at a special military recruitment center. At that facility, the candidate would comprehensively handle all of the formalities, and then he/she would be redirected to receive basic military training. Encouraging the commanders to onboard the candidates in a more efficient manner is another matter that needs to be regulated. The reform is a part of the “Become the Soldier of the Republic” programme.
The programme has been going for a couple of years now, bringing us, consistently, recruitment and PR success. We have brought a new bureau to life, fusing programmes that promote military service, with recruitment initiatives. “Become the Soldier of the Republic” is fused with the “Academic League” programmes for University students, and programs for the youth – Units of Military Preparation, Certified Military Uniformed Classes, and “Cyber.mil z klasą” programmes. This forms a certain holistic picture when it comes to the establishment of the future Polish military potential. The actual increase in the number of troops in the Polish military is one of my primary goals. We have a large number of positions available and a broad offer for potential candidates. We are creating the 18th Mechanized Division in the East, we are continuously expanding the potential of the Territorial Defence Forces, we are gradually approaching the moment when the Cyber Defence Forces would be formed. The Polish military is a stable employer providing the employees with a great capacity for self-development and self-fulfillment.
I would like to finally ask, what are the most important goals that the Minister of Defence has set, for the year 2021?
Handling the coronavirus epidemic is at the top of the list, along with a return to normal, in every aspect of our lives.
This is why the Polish military would stay involved in fighting the epidemic all the time, with all of the forces that would be needed. We will still provide help in testing, at hospitals, in transport operations, but we will be also delivering vaccines and vaccinate at 13 military hospitals.
Temporary hospitals and up to 20 thousand soldiers are ready for operation as well. Next year, obviously, we would still be reinforcing the condition of the Polish defence system, and the capacity of the Polish military. We must protect Poland and deter aggressors. We are waiting for training activities and exercises, in national and allied settings. The Dragon exercise of ours would be the most important task. During that exercise, the command of the new division of the Polish military - the 18th Mechanized Division, would be, I hope, successfully certified. We will also return to the broad programme aimed at training the reserves. We will be modernizing the Polish military and establishing the Armament Agency. This reform would be the key, for modern procurement.
In 2021 we would also begin the second stage of establishing the Cyberdefence Forces. This is yet another step towards the development of defence capacity in that domain.
We are continuously building operational capabilities of the Territorial Defence Component. We are conducting training and recruitment, readying the personnel to cooperate with the operational forces. Our goal, next year, would be for the Territorial Defence Brigades to achieve III stage of initial crisis response readiness.
When it comes to international relations, I will not surprise anybody with an announcement that deepening the alliance with the United States of America and establishing a strong position in NATO would still be our priority. We want to consistently, and without any conflicts, implement the EDCA agreement provisions, also intensely getting involved in the NATO deterrence and defence activities.
This is not going to happen just on the eastern flank, but in every NATO strategic domain, through the alliance’s “360-degree” security principle.
We are also working on comprehensive legal solutions specifying the military matters, as we broadly understand them. Here I am referring to the military service act and the act on the Armed Forces of the Republic of Poland. Both Acts are to make the legal framework concerning the soldiers and the Armed Forces more contemporary and focused.
The Polish Armed Forces enjoy record-breaking levels of trust this year. As an institution, the military enjoys the greatest support among the members of society. This is a result of hard work and the high standard adopted by the soldiers themselves. In the upcoming year, I would like to maintain this indicator high. This is my wish for all the soldiers, also wishing them health and Merry Christmas, and a lot of successes for the next year! I would like to wish the same to the Defence24 editing team, and the readers.
Thank you for the conversation.