The Polish army: New armor for a new mission

Polish soldiers are withdrawing from Afghanistan with no plans for another mission abroad in the near future. But this won’t mean rest and relaxation for the troops – Poland has big plans in store for its army.

Foto: Creative Commons/ Defense Images


Polish politicians have signaled a shift in their strategic military policy, moving away from an expeditionary force model to assist in operations abroad towards a focus on national territorial defense and modernization of the army. On August 15th the Polish President Bronisław Komorowski stated: “We are definitely leaving the expeditionary policy that was all too eagerly announced in 2007 behind. Today marks the end of easily sending Polish soldiers to the antipodes,” choosing a notable occasion for the announcement, August 15th being the Day of the Polish Army, a national holiday in Poland. His remarks were a public statement of the prepared shift in policy for an army that has had a significant international presence for over a decade.

The Polish army has been at the forefront of international cooperation in peace-keeping operations with its allies and global partners around the world, including fighting in the front lines in the NATO mission in Afghanistan, the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the U.S.-declared war on terrorism. But, this is all about to change.

Doves should not rejoice prematurely, though, as the proposed army reforms and changes to mission policy do not amount to a rejection of using armed force nor, even, do they include a reduction in overall military spending despite the shift. On the contrary, Poland is one of the very few European countries that has been increasing and will continue to increase its spending on the armed forces. Unlike all other Polish ministries’ budgets which have suffered from cuts – due to austerity measures enacted to manage the effects of the world financial crisis – this year’s defense budget has grown by 7% compared to 2012. In fact, the Polish armed force’s budget is fixed statutorily at 1.95 % of GDP and so long as the Polish economy continues to grow, so too will the overall defense budget. Out of this over 30% is going to be spent on new weapons and equipment, or twice as much as before. Poles plan to buy new ships, helicopters, tanks, and a missile-defense system among other items and upgrades.

Patrycja Bukalska sat down with Professor Roman Kuźniar to ask what this change in military policy means for Poland and its position in NATO and the European Union. Prof. Kuźniar heads the Strategic Studies Department at Warsaw University. In 2005-2007 he was the director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM). Currently, he is an international policy advisor to the Polish President Bronisław Komorowski.

President Komorowski has said that “We are leaving the expeditionary policy behind”. The need to lessen Polish participation in missions abroad has been discussed for a while, but still the announcement by the President seems to mark a significant policy change.

Although it might have sounded like that, because of the expression the President used, it’s not really a big change, The President has always thought in this way about our soldiers’ participation in foreign missions. He does not reject the idea of sending Polish soldiers abroad where they are needed for peace-keeping operations or the dispensing of humanitarian aid. But he does stand against a reflexive expeditionary policy, one in which we go as soon as we’re asked.  Our participation in international missions has to be thought over, and above all else, it has to be connected with our national security interests. The decision to start a mission should be taken by international organizations. If the United Nations authorizes it, if it is conducted by NATO or the European Union, then Polish soldiers should and will take part in it, as long as they are needed. Furthermore, as mission participants, we feel we should also have an influence on it – both political and operational.

Our mission in Afghanistan is approaching its end as Polish soldiers are set to return home at the end of next year. We also took part in the mission in Iraq. You were rather skeptical about both of them.

I was against the attack on Iraq. But my skepticism about the mission in Afghanistan arose only after a few years when it became obvious that its political and military strategies were mistaken, and its operational aspect was very controversial, yet we lacked the influence to change it. Many NATO soldiers were deployed to Afghanistan, peaking at 150,000, and the mission has been ongoing for over a decade. During this time there have been a huge number of casualties, especially among civilians, and in my opinion that is unacceptable in a mission of this sort. What is important is not only the reason for starting a mission, but how it is conducted, its consequences and if it is related to realistic and fair political solutions. This is why I have been critical of our Afghanistan mission.

Now the mission in Afghanistan is being phased out. It is sometimes mentioned that among the benefits of Polish participation in such missions is the opportunity for Polish soldiers to test themselves in real combat situations and to learn how to cooperate with other soldiers.

Enormous means were spent on this mission, which could have been used to meet different goals, e.g. modernization of the army. I would also caution against treating a foreign mission as a training exercise. If people are being killed, women and children among them, it’s not training. Such an attitude is immoral. Even if there are benefits deriving from this mission, and I am aware of them, do not make up for the price that has been and continues to be paid, including the cost in human lives.

In the future we must know what the purpose of a given mission is at the outset. And if we want to learn how to better cooperate then we should organize collective military exercises more often. This is a much healthier way of thinking. This autumn the NATO training exercise called “Steadfast Jazz” will take place in Poland, the first such exercise to be held in many years. It took a lot of effort on our part to organize this. But these are exactly the proper ways to practice the military craft, not endless military operations in far off parts of the world.

The “Steadfast Jazz” military exercise was mentioned by the British weekly Economist in August. It is the biggest training exercise of its kind since the Cold War. 70 % of the soldiers who are participating will be Poles. According to the Economist, Poland is also planning a huge modernization of the army and, in this way, is trying to strengthen its position in NATO.

In NATO Poland is treated as a serious partner. However, this is not the reason why we have started modernization programs in the army. We simply need them, and not because of our position in NATO, but because of our security needs. At the same time we have to take into account what is going on in our immediate neighborhood. We cannot, for example, ignore the huge increase in defense spending in Russia.

In the last two decades money has been needed for other purposes, and, as a consequence, the army has been somewhat neglected. It is not that I think we should follow the U.S. example, which spends a lot of money on defense – in my opinion, much too much. Rather, it’s just the fact that the Polish army needs to modernize as our weaponry has been subject to wear and tear over the long course of recent missions. What’s more, Polish armed forces modernization is called for if the NATO alliance is to remain credible and effective.

Poland has always paid a lot of attention to the credibility of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty [the Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all]. For this article to be effective, many activities need to be better coordinated – defense infrastructure, the creation of a NATO rapid response force, contingency planning that has not been updated and training exercises that should be organized more often. All of which are necessary in case of danger to a NATO member’s borders.  In the last few years Poland has been strongly pushing for reforms to focus on providing safety for NATO members that is important rather than operations far from our borders. The reckless use of force far from home is a trap that can harm our interests and our credibility.

You have mentioned the potential dangers for NATO members. Do you think that they may be caused by the prolonged economic crisis?

The economic crisis does not create the kind of dangers that NATO needs to worry about. There are some hints that the inner stability of some states might be threatened, but I do not think this could cause real problems. There is social frustration, dissatisfaction with democracy – we know it well, and we know that we must keep a close on eye on the problem and the sources of discontent must be identified.

The economic crisis is significantly affecting the functioning of the European Union. On which aspects of European policy should Poland be concentrating?

There are a few important issues. Firstly, our target has to be an EU that does not backtrack on its present path of integration, and even integrates more deeply, especially as far as the common market goes.

Secondly, we have to be careful not to be placed on the margin of integration. There is no doubt that such integration will continue to proceed and will have an effect in the political sphere. We cannot remain aloof. We need to be in the hard core of the EU, and I believe Poland has the necessary potential to do so.

Thirdly, the EU needs to strengthen its foreign and defense policies. These issues have been neglected because of the financial crisis and the lack of EU integration. It is in our interest to strengthen integration in this sphere. The European Union has to take over responsibility for its own security and for the stability of its neighborhood. This process of policy and market integration is irreversible, and Poland should be a steadfast champion of this process.

I understand that after we limit our participation in the foreign missions we will be concentrating more on the European policy?

These things do not contradict each other. It is possible to take part in reasonable foreign operations and still strengthen the defense and security policy in the EU. The Union also runs missions, lots of them, and will be doing so in the future. This is unavoidable.

I would not like Poland to be a passive agent. If we use our potential in a responsible way, we will be an important partner in the EU, and we will contribute to strengthening it. I often talk about the Union as a shirt – as in the Polish proverb that says “a shirt is closer to the body than a coat”– because it is the Union that should be closest to us. It can be “an iron shirt” (adopting the saying of one of our commanders), but we need to invest in it and not be afraid to show initiative. This is what is expected of us in Europe.

Patrycja Bukalska

Patrycja Bukalska

is editor of the V4Revue and editor of Polish weekly Tygodnik Powszechny; writes for „Green Town” („Zielone Miasto”) magazine.