MSPO 2023: USD 24 Billion Air Defence Revolution in the Polish Armed Forces

Photo. M.Mitkow/

The signing of the agreements regarding the second phase of the Wisła air defence programme, and the Narew SHORAD system missiles and launchers, launches the key phase of the air defence revolution in the Polish Armed Forces. Following the implementation of those contracts, Poland would make a generational leap in the air defence domain. This is a major opportunity, and a challenge at the same time, both for the Armed Forces, and the industry. It would also entail a giant cost, however, some of that cost would be covered by establishing the capabilities through Polish industrial involvement.

During this year’s MSPO two sets of major contracts were signed, on the acquisition of air defence systems for the Polish Armed Forces. The former one, three Letters of Acceptance, concern delivery of launchers, missiles, and radars, and support systems for the second phase of the Wisła air/missile defence programme. The agreement includes equipment for six batteries integrated with the IBCS system, while some elements of IBCS would be procured within the framework of the second agreement.

Based on agreement with the United States, Poland would procure 48 M903 launchers, along with several hundred (probably 644) PAC-3 MSE missiled, and 12 LTAMDS (Lower Tier Air and Missile Defense Sensor) radars offering 360 degrees coverage, and support components. All of those elements would be tailored to share the data with the IBCS battle management system. The Armament Agency did not list the official agreement value. Original Congress Notification issued by the State Department mentioned the amount of USD 15 bn. The signing of the delivery agreement was preceded by conclusion of offset agreements with the manufacturers of the key equipment pieces - the PAC-3 MSE missiles (Lockheed Martin), and the LTAMDS radar, launcher, and the Patriot integration (Raytheon). These agreements, valued at PLN 1 bn., are expected to establish competency for manufacturing elements of the LTAMDS radar, along with C2 technologies- and missile technologies-related know-how. The deliveries would begin in 2026-2027 and end in 2029.

The finalization of this agreement, along with the contracts planned to be signed, regarding the IBCS deliveries, and equipment directly delivered by the Polish industry, would make it possible to fully equip the Polish air defence units with the Wisła system, within the scope assumed by the programme. Thus they would obtain a capability to counter ballistic targets, and challenging air-breathing threats, at distances of up to 100 kilometres. The equipment for the first squadron (two batteries) with sector-scan radars, procured back in 2018, has been delivered already, with training being currently underway. Let us add, that the act that an FMS request was sent to the United States with regard to the second phase of the Wisła programme was announced by Minister Błaszczak during the last year’s edition of the Defence24 DAY event.

The second “grand air defence” contract (divided, in fact, into two execution contracts) signed in Kielce refers to the delivery of tyhe primary elements of the Narew system (SHORAD). The PGZ Group, namely the PGZ-Narew consortium is the key contractor. The agreements signed follow the framework contract signed back in 2021. The agreements envisage delivery of equipment for complete 23 batteries (first agreement), including 138 launchers, and more than 1,000 CAMM-ER missiles (second agreement) and extra equipment, along with a transfer of technologies to manufacture both missiles and launchers in Poland. These are the first execution contracts concerning the key phase of the Narew programme, with deliveries expected between 2027 and 2035. Within the framework of further contracts, other components would be procured, radars included.

Wyrzutnia iLauncher na Jelczu 8x8 wchodząca w skład systemu OPL Mała Narew.
Photo. Adam Świerkowski/Defence24

What remains relevant, the agreements assume industrial potential would be established in a number of PGZ Group businesses, including PIT-RADWAR, Mesko, and WZE. After the grand Narew system contract is finalized, the Polish Armed Forces would operate 46 fire units (23 batteries). The Polish industry, meanwhile, would become the manufacturer of this system. A broad transfer of technologies is expected. That includes the CAMM-ER missile with a range of 45 kilometers and a capability to attack targets flying at a ceiling of around 20 kilometres. As a result of this costly programme, not only would the Polish Armed Forces obtain operational capabilities, as the Polish industry would also join the elite group of air defence systems manufacturer (which I will discuss in detail below).

As in the case of Wisła, agreement on elements of the IBCS system remains to be signed, along with agreements concerning the remaining elements, such as radars, logistics support vehicles, and the C2 system. Thanks to the use of the IBCS network, Wisła and Narew would in fact act as a single IAMD systems. Thus, they will be able to conduct operations as a single unit, making use of all sources of data (LTAMDS and Sajna radars, early warning radars, and, in the future, the F-35 MRCA). Thanks to the above, the best shooter could be selected to counter the given threat, so threats that may be neutralized with the cheaper CAMM-ER missiles would be engaged with the use of the CAMM system, to conserve the PAC-3 MSE missiles for the more demanding targets. And those include Iskanders, aeroballistic Kinzhal missiles (expected to be further developed based on combat experiences from Ukraine). Looking at the prospect of commissioning the Wisła system, one needs to be ready for that. Meanwhile, Narew system would also include domestic elements of the C2 system, also the ones developed within the framework of the “Little Narew” and Pilica+ programmes.

The combined value of those contract signed today for Air Defence Systems exceeds PLN 100 billion (approx. USD 24 billion).

Let us add that the commissioning of Wisła and Narew systems would also entail structural changes in the Polish Air Defence units, as it was pointed out by Brig. General Michał Marciniak, deputy head at Armament Agency, during the Defence24 DAY event. New tactical elements would be established, subordinated at the operational level, using Wisła and Narew system for protecting the critical infrastructure, as well as the Army bases or gathering points. No rigid subordination to a specific branch would be valid. The Army, however, would still use organic (accompanying) air defence assets of its own.

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The contracts signed now include delivery of 31 batteries (62 fire units) for air defence systems, operated as a part of an entirely new system. For the sake of comparison, earlier 6 Wisła and Little Narew fire units, along with 22 Pilica+ systems had been procured before, and during this year’s MSPO Zenit-M C2 vehicles were acquired for those assets. The Polish Armed Forces will need to prepare infrastructure, and train a new generation of air defence units soldiers who would follow an entirely new set of procedures which are often yet to be developed, for instance in the case of the IBCS system. Logistics and the infrastructure also need to be prepared.

And all of that would be happening in a dynamic environment, with a major evolution of threats. Two factors overlap here - the ever-developing technologies, including the broad use of UAVs and stand-off assets, and the ongoing war in Ukraine, and further militarization of Russia, along with rapid evolution of combat - which is always the case in conflict-driven circumstances. Not only is this visible in development and use of UAVs, but also in a broader employment of low-cost PGMs by the Russians - such as guided bomb units. One should assume that these trends would grow, so the Polish defence system will also need to evolve.

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The first steps in that direction have been made already, which is exemplified by the Pilica+ procurement, or by the acquisition of the non-kinetic Ctrl+Sky counter-UAS system. However, the environment in which the air defence systems are employed is evolving continuously. So it is high time to think about procurement of systems for direct protection, with programmable munitions (counter-UAS). It would be best to adopt tactics assuminmg that AAA is used away from own air defence systems, also taking care about protecting own systems from kinetic, electronic, or cyber attacks.

The new generation of air defence specialists is facing a lot of challenges, and also opportunities and “firsts” - as the agreements signed create a foundation for establishing the most modern European NATO IADS - and this is not an overstatement. That prospect also includes interoperability with the F-35s, looking beyond the radar horizon, even in challenging circumstances, and with the new rocket artillery assets, as a so-called joint fires system. In other words, the Polish air defences are making a leap from the 1970s (technological roots of most of the Post-Soviet SAMs above the Grom/Piorun level, modernized, of course, as the C2 systems underwent upgrades), to the third decade of the 21st Century. With all of the consequences involved.

Experience gained when equipping the first Patriot/IBCS squadron in Sochaczew, or when commissioning the Little Narew system, will be very helpful in the aforesaid process, that has been prepared for years, but gaining momentum probably thanks to the extra funds provided following the start of the full-scale war in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the soldiers leaving service, but who were trained, should become a part of active reserves. Meanwhile, the jobs allocation should include ones envisaged for reserve members who had received specialist training, to man the SAM sites during operational activities. Thought should be given to examination of predisposed skills in the candidates - for air defence units in particular. Once the systems from full scale production are commisisoned, it’s going to be too late for that.

On the othert hand, the emphasis placed on IADS upgrade is a natural course of events for the strongest of the NATO frontline nations. Back in the times of the Cold War, a similar role was asigned to the Bundeswehr, with relevant equipment at hand. The Luftwaffe GBAD units involved 18 thousand soldiers, including many pre-selected conscripts. This also allows one to grasp the scale of challenges involved in maintaining an army based on professional soldiers and volunteers. But this matter should be discussed in a separate piece.

A lot of funds is allocated to establish IADS. The value of contracts has not been publicly unveiled, but the total amount associated with Phase II of the Wisła programme and the Narew system, will surely exceed PLN 100 bn. One should stress that the Polish Ministry of Defence is becoming aware of the challenges associated with the cost-effect ratio - the number of Wisła systems (expensive ones) procured is aligned with the original plans, while more Narew systems were acquired, along with Pilica+ system - the Pilica+ system was not planned to be procured prior to the full scale war in Ukraine. There are plenty of VSHORAD systems available (such as Piorun) - more than it was planned. The VSHORAD layer would be complemented with counter-UAS assets. This is a reasonable cost-requirement compromise on different levels, to prevent the potential adversary from freely employing the given class of air assets and breaking the air defences.

Considering the context of costs, transfer of the manufacturing and lifecycle maintenance for Narew system to Poland is a relevant step. That would bring new know-how to numerous companies, including PIT-RADWAR, WZE, WZU, or Mesko. In many cases we are speaking of systems that never before have been manufactured in Poland, at those facilities, and even if that happened, the scale is unprecedented. This elevates the Polish industry to major leagues.

It woulds also mean that most of the invested funds would remain in Poland. And it would also be possible to develop a Polish system, support it throughout the lifecycle. That would be a major task, given the number of air defence assets procured. As the threats evolve, further development of air defences would also be needed. One of the trends is already clearly visible. By that we are referring to the CAMM-MR missile with a range exceeding 100 kilometres. It could enter service post-2030. It could be seen as a response to development of PGMs, acting as a range extender for the IADS.

The agreements signed during MSPO 2023, regarding the anti-aircraft systems, establish a foundation for a true breakthrough in this branch of the military. This is a step in the right direction, but that development needs to be financed, fulfiled (by establishment of industrial capacity), and soldiers need to be trained, and the infrastructure - prepared. Continuous development should also be of paramount importance, as despite the expected generational leap, the threats would be continuously evolving, and combating those threats would call for a tighter inter-branch interoperability.