Years of change
August 1, 2014
Polish Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak talks to Andrzej Jonas and Witold Żygulski.
It’s been 15 years since Poland joined NATO. This seems the perfect moment to reflect on the past and on what the future will bring…
First and foremost, it needs saying that this was a very special period in NATO’s history, unlike any other. I remember March 1999 very well—just after Poland joined NATO, the operation in the former Yugoslavia began. It was a very quick and tough reality check.
Poles will very strongly associate the 15th anniversary of our presence in NATO with the participation of our soldiers in operations abroad, first in Kosovo and later—though that was not a NATO operation—in Iraq, and finally in Afghanistan. During the several decades before Poland joined the alliance, NATO was very strongly focused on collective defense. No out-of-area operations were conducted then. The past 15 years have changed that completely.
The Cold War ended…
That was certainly one reason. The Cold War drew to a close, but despite rumors from the 1990s, that was not the end of history. It turned out not to be true that military force was no longer an option used in international politics. The West has to use force to combat terrorism or impose peace in different regions and situations.
The past 15 years were also a period of radical change in the Polish armed forces. This was related not only to participation in missions, but chiefly to adopting NATO standards, our officers’ involvement in NATO structures. I am privileged in that I’m able to make comparisons, because it so happened that I was working at the Defense Ministry at the time Poland joined NATO. I can therefore say in all honesty that the Polish armed forces—generals, officers and soldiers—are completely different than they were in 1999. There is a different structure, different people with a completely different mentality. There is practically no senior commander who has not served in NATO structures or on foreign missions. These missions have a common command system in which people from different countries serve. Operating in an international environment means huge value added for Polish military people.
Of course, we must not forget about those who were killed. For the first time since World War II, Poles had to confront the fact that somewhere in distant countries, our soldiers are being killed in attacks. Summing up the past 15 years, we have to remember that.
The moment marking 15 years of Poland’s presence in NATO is food for thought not only for us. Today there is a huge ongoing debate on NATO’s future. For this year’s NATO summit, planned in Britain in September, this is one of the main items on the agenda. All NATO members sense that we need to talk about this. The end of the Afghan mission is a very good time. This debate is accompanied by joint reflection about transatlantic ties, about the United States’ role in Europe. Everyone feels that the United States, which is reducing its defense budget, considers Europe to be a safe region and is turning its eyes toward Asia and the Pacific, expecting changes in NATO that would also mean a more balanced distribution of spending. Today the United States accounts for almost 75 percent of NATO’s spending. When we compare that to the demographic potential or GDP of the other members it becomes clear that the United States is bearing a disproportionate burden in connection with NATO’s functioning. No NATO operation is possible without the United States—this was recently shown by the Western operations in Libya and Mali. Even those European countries that have large armies and substantial traditions of out-of-area operations are unable to continue with these without the United States.
What are the reasons for such a state of affairs? Are they psychological, financial, technical?
This is, above all, a question of assessing danger and the perception of threat. The dangers are perceived to be terrorism, the influx of refugees, collapsing countries or humanitarian disasters in different corners of the world. The financial crisis has also had a substantial impact. Many countries have radically reduced their defense budgets. Spain, for example, spent less than Poland last year in nominal terms. In practice, this meant that it was unable to make any purchases for its armed forces.
A negative impact on the activity of Western European countries within NATO is also exerted by the ambiguous evaluation of the Afghan operation. In many countries, the public’s support for operations in Afghanistan has severely diminished over time.
We can see, then, that the direction in which NATO should go is not clear to everybody. The British—the hosts of the September summit—very much want this to be a significant meeting, one giving a new impetus to NATO. This did not happen at the last summit in Chicago because the main topic there was still Afghanistan. Now, in Newport, there will be far more talk about the future.
What should the future of NATO be, according to Poland?
Poland is trying to put forward as strongly as possible the suggestion that we should maintain the “good old NATO,” based on collective defense. This position is well received in many member states. Recently we have actually had an excellent example of this kind of operation: the German-Dutch anti-missile system support provided to Turkey in the face of the threat of a potential attack along its border with Syria.
We would like to see NATO organize training exercises, we support the idea of combined forces. We are present in all areas where NATO’s activity leads to strengthening its defense capabilities.
We are also active in the European Union on defense matters. During our turn at the presidency in 2011, one of the priorities was a common security and defense policy. We provided an impetus in this area that is still felt today. We presented our stance in December 2013 at the European Council summit. It was a tough discussion, though: each of the 28 EU countries has its own interests and circumstances, and then there is the problem of budgetary restrictions stemming from the crisis. A common defense policy is not, unfortunately, treated as a priority in the EU today.
In order to avoid the danger that exists of an individualization of security, we are trying to build regional security structures. Such a system was first discussed at last year’s March summit of the Visegrad group, attended by Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande. The group’s defense ministers discussed a common defense space, with the option to form joint military structures in the future. With significant armed forces, Poland can assume part of the responsibility for the region. Countries like the [Visegrad] group members, the Baltic states or Romania expect Poland to become a local leader as far as security issues are concerned. In NATO, we are perceived as a responsible partner. Remember how many countries withdrew ahead of schedule from the mission in Afghanistan, often suddenly and in haste. We keep our word, but at the same time we say firmly that NATO has to be more active in Europe; after all that’s what it was founded for in 1949.
The fundamental role of any armed forces is to defend their own country. What is our task today in this regard, bearing in mind Poland’s membership of NATO and the alliance guarantees it involves?
It is impossible to answer this question without awareness of the possible dangers, their scale and intensity. Analyzing these dangers, we have reached conclusions and defined the priorities for the development and modernization of the armed forces. A very important place among them belongs to air defense, including anti-missile systems. Our systems are largely obsolete, based on Soviet technology. The key to effective defense today is to maintain control over one’s air space. Without that all other operations will not make much sense. Hence a special law has been passed guaranteeing funding for the development of the air defense system. The sums that will be spent on this are many times greater than the zl.5 billion we spent in total on our involvement in Afghanistan.
The government has adopted a 10-year armed forces modernization program worth about zl.130 billion. How will the Polish armed forces look after they are modernized?
The sum of money to be spent on modernizing the armed forces has not been rigidly defined; it will depend on Poland’s GDP growth. According to the plan, the defense budget will equal 1.95 percent of GDP, something that many European defense ministers actually envy me for. Proportionally speaking, though, it will be the same financial burden that we bore over the past decade on programs such as the purchase of F-16 multi-role fighter planes, Rosomak transport vehicles and CASA transport aircraft. The long-term armed forces modernization program is contained in a document adopted by the government last fall. It lists all the details of the strategic directions of change.
The technical modernization program includes building an air defense system that would ensure Poland’s security in terms of dealing with a short-range missile attack and aircraft attacks. Once this program is carried out we should have several anti-missile batteries deployed in Poland, with most of the country within their range.
We will be protected from medium-range missile attacks by the U.S. missile defense shield being set up in Europe at present, which will comprise a radar station in Turkey and anti-missile batteries deployed in Romania and Poland. This system is planned to achieve operational capability in 2018. Together with U.S. ships, it is designed to safeguard Europe.
We plan to finalize a contract for 70 multi-purpose helicopters and combat helicopters in 2017-2018. This means we will have replaced practically the entire helicopter fleet of the Polish armed forces.
As part of the program, we will also have a sizable fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles.
We are focusing more strongly than before on protecting our coastline. The next item on the agenda is the comprehensive modernization of the Polish navy, which will continue until 2030. The navy’s greatest need is new equipment—it got its last new ship in 1985. There will be new minesweepers, a patrol vessel, coastal defense units and—in 2020-2022—two submarines.
Qualitative changes will also take place in equipping soldiers for the battlefield, both individual equipment and command and communications systems. Finally, though this is the least prominent and spectacular, we will also end up in a different world in terms of cyber-defense systems.
As for the air force, today it is the best equipped part of Poland’s military. We have F-16 aircraft, which will be fitted with JASSM missiles with a range of up to 400 km, to be purchased from the Americans in the coming years. We have MiG-29 aircraft, which should continue in service until 2030. The transport fleet includes 16 modern CASA planes and five modernized Hercules aircraft.
Moving on to the land forces, they will get more Rosomak advanced wheeled armored personnel carriers—we have extended the license for their manufacture with our Finnish partner. The current number—about 800—should be doubled within a decade. These will not be just combat vehicles but also command and communications vehicles.
We hope to see the completion of Huta Stalowa Wola steelworks’ program and the Krab self-propelled tracked howitzer cannon in service; these are very advanced artillery systems firing over a range of almost 40 km with precision of 1 meter, using precision ammunition. We also want to see the completion of work on a Polish medium tank, or rather a medium tracked platform.
Apart from the armed forces themselves, the Polish economy and Polish science will benefit from the armed forces modernization program. What will Poland specialize in? For example, will there be a renaissance of cryptography, which was something of a Polish specialty in the past?
This is not only up to the Defense Ministry but also our partners, namely industry and science. Together we have to make sure that the effects of the modernization program are not limited solely to providing the armed forces with the right hardware but also include access to advanced know-how for civilian sectors of life and the economy. Tenders for the delivery of weapons and other military technology have to be conducted in a way that ensures this; the same goes for the content of the final contracts. So far our experience has not been very encouraging. But, drawing conclusions from the past, we have developed a few tools to change this. First of all, we do not hold a tender too soon, taking advantage of the “technical dialogue” formula with bidders first. For example, we are about to start the second round of talks on modernizing the air force that in practice focuses on development and science; we are waiting to see what our partners propose.
Secondly, we intend to use intergovernmental agreements to a much greater extent than before in support of future contracts that interest us. Without the consent and support of governments, advanced technology has no chance of being made available to a foreign partner. It is impossible to achieve this solely through relations at the level of companies offering their products.
The Polish government has already approved a draft amendment to the offset law providing for greater flexibility when signing contracts and greater possibilities of making them more "Polish." Ten years ago we were happy that something was being assembled in Poland from parts supplied by a foreign partner, that there were new jobs for Poles, that the partner company paid taxes. Today we want a signed contract to mean a true strengthening of Polish potential because only this guarantees advanced products for the armed forces, on the one hand, and any kind of export opportunities for Polish manufacturers, on the other. No one in the world wants outdated equipment nowadays; that era is definitely over.
We are working to make sure that military orders influence the condition of Polish manufacturers. A factory in Siemianowice ¦l±skie is a beneficiary of the extended license agreement for the Rosomak, thanks to which it is keeping 3,500 jobs. At Poznań’s Zakłady Mechaniczne, funding from the Industrial Development Agency (ARP) was used to set up the Military Engine Center. We order trucks from the Jelcz company so as to revive truck manufacturing in Poland. The Polish Shipyard Consortium has signed a contract for minesweepers and a patrol vessel with us. In the tender for helicopters, one condition is that production takes place at a factory in Poland—two of the three bidding companies have already acquired such facilities, the third one has pledged to acquire or build a factory in Poland if it is chosen. We are determined to spend as much as possible of the money for modernization in Poland. There are essentials we have to purchase in other countries; we cannot try to do what is impossible. I always cite the example of a declaration from an arms company president, who said at a meeting with deputies in the Sejm [lower house] that if he received funding he would be able to make a Polish medium-range missile within two to three years. That is nothing but a pipe dream. We have to say firmly what cannot be made in Poland and buy those—top quality—items from international partners.
I recently also signed an agreement with the heads of technical universities. The aim is for the civilian science sector to join in our work and take advantage of the opportunity offered by the armed forces modernization.
As for Polish cryptology, it is true that this is an area we are seriously interested in, as the foundation of all systems used by the armed forces. Last year saw the launch of the National Cryptology Center. We have a great tradition in this area, to mention deciphering the Nazis’ Enigma machine or—more broadly—the traditions of the Polish school of mathematics. To our way of thinking, national cryptology is not just about secure phone conversations or transmitting coded messages but also—in the age of widespread information technology in all segments of our lives—the only guarantee of security in this domain. Today every country is trying to develop its own cryptological systems; this is an area in which tension and conflicts can even erupt between allies, as we have seen in recent months.
Without cryptology, today planes will not fly and ships will not sail. Soon enough, not even an ordinary company commander will be able to assume command without it because information transfer could be disrupted. We are working on the cryptology project with the Internal Security Agency (ABW); so far I’m happy with the progress. Substantial funding has been provided by the National Center for Research and Development.
Can you say that, after a 10-year modernization program, the Polish armed forces will become, as is the case in many countries, a driving force propelling the economy and innovation forward?
I would like that very much. Today, all of Poland’s defense industry is based on the ministry’s purchases. Without them, it would not be able to cope. This industry is undergoing a necessary consolidation process. Scattered, internally competing industry, despite having a single owner—the state, will be unable to take proper advantage of this modernization impetus. It is also impossible to effectively coordinate dozens and hundreds of businesses involved in a given project. The Polish Armaments Group (PGZ) was established in December. The government consented to its comprising 12 companies—11 overseen by my ministry plus Huta Stalowa Wola. I tell the CEOs of these companies that they now face tougher challenges than before. The Polish armed forces expect top-class equipment, while simply being a PGZ member does not mean a stream of ministry money regardless of achievements.
In the military-science-industry triangle, in each corner we seem to have the necessary strong will but also awareness of how hard the tasks are. It is important—going back to the technical dialogue with foreign bidders—that on the Polish side we are building strong companies and institutions ready for the role of partner in large projects. PGZ is also needed for export to take place.
I believe that the PGZ approach will succeed. If so, we can take the next step: taking part in the European arms sector consolidation project that has already been approved by European Union institutions.