As NATO-Russia Relations Stagger, Poland’s Military Modernization Programs Pitch Up

Within one week, Warsaw signs deals for jet trainers and Patriot missiles, and the new fighter jet program gains traction.

American Patriot system in Lithuania during an exercise in 2017.
Mindaugas Kulbis / AP Images

Within one week, Warsaw signs deals for jet trainers and Patriot missiles, and the new fighter jet program gains traction.

The last few weeks have been marked by a mounting political crisis between NATO members and Russia as the former expelled Russian diplomats in the wake of the poisoning of an ex-spy and his daughter in the U.K. In response, Moscow ejected diplomats from those countries, including 60 Americans, the New York Times reported.

As these events play out, Poland, a member of NATO, continues to modernize its military forces. This includes the recent signing of the largest weapons deal in the history of the country.

On March 28, Warsaw signed a $4.75 billion deal with the U.S. for the acquisition of Patriot soil-to-air missiles, Reuters reported. Polish president Andrzej Duda classified the event as “historical.”

This deal implies the delivery of two batteries containing two launchers each by Raytheon, the system’s manufacturer, by 2022.

However, Warsaw’s plans go even further, and there are negotiations ongoing for the eventual delivery of more Patriots, a 360º radar, and even low-cost missiles. This represents the Phase II of the air defense modernization program, which Warsaw expects to be finalized by the end of the current year.

A day before the signing of the Patriot deal, Poland had also decided to exercise its option to acquire four more M-346 jet trainers from the Italian weapons manufacturer Leonardo. According to Flight Global, this $143 million deal will bring the total fleet to 12 aircraft.

Leonardo M-346 trainer during the 2010 Singapore Airshow.
Poland will add four additional M-346 trainers to the eight already ordered. Wong Maye-E / AP Images

Modern-day Poland is caught squarely in the middle of an escalating arms race between NATO and Russia, which has been described several times as a new “Cold War.” The recent diplomatic squabbles have reinforced those memories from the frozen conflict that dominated much of the second half of the last century.

Russia was seen as a waning power after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, the rise of Vladimir Putin allowed Moscow to recover some of its political and economic stances, albeit over shaky foundations.

Moreover, NATO and the European Union have been pushing eastward, encompassing much of the old Soviet empire. This made Moscow grow paranoid about being surrounded. The establishment of anti-missile systems across Eastern Europe and Asia only added to that feeling, hence why Russia has been trying to break through in Syria, Ukraine, Georgia, and elsewhere.

Placing Patriot missiles in Poland would be seen as one more layer in the “siege” of Russia. The fact that these systems keep appearing across the region in spite of Moscow’s complaints may have been one of the reasons why it invested on new weapons to counter them, like the hypersonic missiles President Putin boasted about.

This new trend is compounded by Poland’s complex political environment.

According to the EU Observer, when Warsaw broke away from the Soviet Union, it sought greater integration with Western Europe. However, the politics behind this integration not always befitted the interests of the Polish, which led many to become disenchanted with the European dream.

The authoritarian Law and Order party came to power in 2015 in part due to this reality. It was a backlash against betrayed hopes.

Moreover, Poland also harbors a deep distrust of Russia, which is currently fueling the nation’s push for the modernization of its military. It should be noted that Poland has been invaded many times in the past, and even carved apart and divided among the neighboring states.

Poland’s geographic position also makes it a prime element in defense of the Baltic States, small nations stuck between Russia, Belarus, the Russian enclave in Kaliningrad and the Baltic Sea. These nations cannot afford complex defense systems, however, hence their dependence on Poland and NATO in general.

Within this context, one can see how the arrival of the Patriot missiles could improve the defense of the Baltic front for NATO and threaten Russia.

Additionally, Warsaw is also seeking to improve its jet fighter force, which still contains large numbers of Soviet-era MiG-29s and Su-22s. Flight Global suggested that the Harpia fighter tender may be launched within the next weeks.

Also this week, Leonardo strengthened its promotion of the Eurofighter Typhoon air superiority fighter for this tender, hoping to add what will undoubtedly be a multi-billion-dollar deal to the M-346 sale. It is competing against other important manufacturers, like Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, and Saab, so the result of this contest is still up in the air.

Whichever model ends up being chosen will join the 36 Lockheed-Martin F-16C/D already serving in the Polish Air Force.

In the end, Warsaw is taking significant efforts to modernize its military in a context of great international unease. It is yet to be seen if the Polish economy can withstand such expenditures, but it is also evident that the Polish civilians and leaders see them as necessary.