For over a quarter of a century, the Polish Army has undergone constant restructuration, which was and still is intended to adjust it to operate in diverse and variable geopolitical and military conditions in country and/or abroad. This process has been carried out simultaneously with the ongoing technical modernisation of the land forces.
However, insufficient funding and other various budgetary problems, which resulted from, among other things, the political will of following governments to retain significant numbers of men and women under arms during peace time up until the past decade (that generated high staff expenditures) have hampered the procurement of new weapon systems and the modernisation and upgrade of already operated platforms. As a result, over the past 25 years, many procurement programmes of the Polish army, some of which were designated as having a crucial impact on the country’s defence capabilities, have had to be either abandoned or rescheduled.
The end of the Cold War and the fall of the Warsaw Pact suddenly reduced the risk of an outbreak of a conflict on a global, or at least continental scale in Europe. Therefore, a number of European states decided to commence on a year’s long process of reducing their armed forces, which in some cases lasted until the latest outbreak of conflict in Eastern Ukraine, which resulted in the diminishment of relations between the West and Russia and, therefore, worsening of the security system on the continent. Over the past decades, many of the Western European NATO member states transformed their armies from static, typically defensive formations dominated by heavy, tracked armoured vehicles to lighter but more mobile, quick reaction forces with the capacity to engage in combat or peacekeeping operations far from the homeland.
As an outcome of this transformation, a number of military equipment, mostly heavy, armoured vehicles, was declared as obsolete in the post-Cold War era, and, therefore, had to be either stored in reserve or simply phased out and eventually dismantled or sold to third party users. These processes were associated with a reduction of the sizes of the armed forces of many European states, resulting in limiting the number of men and women in uniforms serving on active duty. Many of them were put in reserve, while others simply had to end their careers and move into civilian life. The Polish Armed Forces were no exception to this situation, especially the Army, which through over a quarter of a century was subjected to a number of reforms, reorganising its core structure, reducing the number of troops, although on a smaller scale than other NATO allies and modernising, at least to a point, its combat equipment.
The Polish Army’s Current Structure
In its current structure, most of the Polish Army’s units are grouped in three divisions: 11th “Lubuska” Armoured Cavalry Division, 12th Mechanised Division “Szczecin” and 16th “Pomeranian” Mechanised Division. These formations are composed by ten general service brigades: 10th Armoured Cavalry Brigade, 34th Armoured Cavalry Brigade, 17th “Wielkopolska” Mechanized Brigade, 2nd Mechanized Brigade, 7th “Pomeranian” Coastal Defence Brigade, 12th Mechanised Brigade, 1st “Warsaw” Armoured Brigade, 9th Armoured Cavalry Brigade, 15th “Giżycka” Mechanized Brigade and 20th “Bartoszycka” Mechanised Brigade as well as a number of auxiliary units such as air defence and artillery regiments. Additional operational support is provided by four independent brigades: 1st Aviation Brigade, 6th Airborne Brigade, 21st Podhale Rifles Brigade and 25th Air Cavalry Brigade.
Each of the general service brigades has a typical, ‘triple’ structure of its combat sub-units, which is composed either by three mechanised/motorised battalions or a mix of tank and mechanised battalions in proportions of 2:1, depending on whether it is a heavy or light formation. This is also supplemented by auxiliary units, like air defence and artillery regiments.
Two divisions, which are stationed in the Western Poland, the 11th Armoured Cavalry Division and 12th Mechanised Division, are formed by three combat battalions, when at the same time the 16th Mechanised Division, the sole, eastbound division has four battalions at its core. In general, this provides for 30 combat battalions, either mechanised/tank or motorised.
A New Division in the East
However, this ‘typical’ divisional/brigade structure will not be applied to the new 18th “Żelazna” Mechanised Division, which will be formed according to a decision taken by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) nearly a year ago. “In accordance to the decision of the minister of national defence, we commence the process of forming of the 18th Mechanised Division, which command will be settled in Siedlce. However, its area of responsibility will reach as far as the Bieszczady region. We intend to expand the subunits which are currently stationed in the Eastern Poland, up to a size which will guarantee their high combat readiness”, announced the MoD back in autumn 2018. “Forming of such a big tactical formation is a very complex process, which will be spread over time. It will be finalised in several phases up until 2026, when its conclusion is expected”, the MoD added.
According to the MoD, the future division will eventually consist of three brigades, including the 1st “Warsaw” Armoured Brigade, which is currently subordinate to the 16th Mechanised Division and the 21st Podhale Rifles Brigade which, as has already been stated, currently operates as an independent brigade. The future structure of the 18th Mechanised Division will also be supplemented by the future 19th Mechanised Brigade in Lublin, which should be established in the coming weeks and reach full final operational capability within the coming years.
The MoD declared that “the new brigade is expected to be certified by the 1st half of 2022, which simultaneously will confirm its [combat] readiness. On the other hand, the command and staff of the 18th Mechanised Division should reach combat readiness in the 1st half of 2021, while auxiliary units, like the reconnaissance battalion, as well as the artillery, air defence and logistical support regiments, should be completed in the 3rd phase of forming of the new division (…).” The general cost of this process could be as high as PLN27Bn (Polish Zloty) over the next decade.
The future 18th Mechanised Division will differentiate itself from the currently existing division-level formations due to the number of combat sub-units divided between particular general service brigades, which it will be composed of. In this regard, the 1st “Warsaw” Armoured Brigade is supposed to be equipped with four (not three) combat battalions, including two tank battalions with LEOPARD 2 MBTs and two mechanised battalions (at first armed with the legacy, soviet-era BWP-1 infantry fighting vehicles, which eventually should be replaced by more modern platforms).
The new 19th Mechanised Brigade is expected to be composed of two tank battalions, including one new and one that will be transferred from the 21st Podhale Rifles Brigade (equipped with T-72 MBTs that will be modified in the coming years) and two mechanised battalions (BWP-1). At the same time, the 21st Podhale Rifles Brigade will most likely be reorganised and eventually be composed of three motorised battalions (equipped with Rosomak/Patria AMV 8×8 wheeled armoured vehicles) and one specialised mountain infantry battalion. As a result, the 18th Mechanised Division will consist of 12 combat battalions, which in theory will make it the strongest and most operationally capable division in the Polish land forces.
The Future of the Polish MBT fleet
As much as a decision about reorganisation and increase of the size of the Polish land forces is reasonable and was long awaited, it may prove to be fruitless, if will not be accompanied by a significant boost of the army’s combat capability, which will have to be achieved by modernisation of its MBT fleet, most of which is composed of legacy Cold War-era platforms.
The tanks that are currently in the Polish army inventory are not able to successfully operate on the modern battlefield. Mostly due to their age and worsening technical condition but also because they were designed 30 plus years ago, when the requirements of operating such platforms on the battlefield were different from today.
As a move in seemingly the right direction, the MoD has recently decided to overhaul and slightly modify over 300 T-72M1 MBTs. Under the terms of the agreement signed at the end of July with a consortium composed of the Polish Armaments Group (Polska Grupa Zbrojeniowa, PGZ), Zaklady Mechaniczne Bumar-Labedy and Wojskowe Zaklady Motoryzacyjne (WZM), the process should begin this year and run through to 2025. The programme is worth PLN1.75Bn and a number of other public and private defence companies, like PCO or OBRUM, will also take part in the process.
The programme calls for overhaul and modification of up to 318 T-72M1 MBTs – which is an equivalent of five combat battalions – each equipped with 58 tanks plus two reserve companies with 28 vehicles. However, according to Wojciech Skurkiewicz, the Secretary of State in the MoD, only 257 T-72 MBTs are currently in the possession of the Polish Armed Forces, which means that the process will also include vehicles being kept in reserve, or rather phased out and stored by the Military Property Agency (Agencja Mienia Wojskowego, AMW).
The scope of works under the newly signed contract will be limited to the sovereign capacities of the Polish defence industry. “We are modernising the equipment, which is in the inventory of the Polish Army. Thanks to this upgrade, main battle tanks will be equipped with modern targeting, navigation and observation systems, as well as new digital comms,” said Mariusz Blaszczak, the Minister of Defence. As a result of the overhaul, T-72s full operational capability will be restored.
The overhaul and modification of T-72M1 MBTs, although long awaited, is the subject of wide criticism. Mostly because of its very narrow scope, which will result in a symbolic upgrade of their onboard equipment (although notable in regard to the current state) and no real improvement of combat strength or operational capability. As a result of its limited budget, which is the ‘victim’ of other more ambitious modernisation programmes launched by the MoD in recent years, the programme does not include, among other necessary modifications, the replacement of the platform’s engines and transmissions (through the installation of a modern and highly efficient powerpack), stabilised cannon with a fire control system, new ballistic protection kits, such as the explosive reactive armour that is mounted on the modernised PT-91s, or procurement of new and more modern ammunition.
The situation is even more controversial due to the fact that over the past few years the Polish defence industry has presented a number of modernisation proposals for the T-72M1 tank, most of which would lead to a vast increase of platform’s operational capability. During last year’s International Defence Industry Exhibition MSPO in Kielce, ZM Bumar Labedy showcased two prototypes of the modernised T-72M1/PT-91 MBT, called PT-91 M2A1 and PT-91 M2A2.
The first modernisation variant included an upgrade or replacement of the current onboard equipment or installation of new systems, such as for the chassis: 850-1000 HP engine with strengthened transmission, strengthened suspension system, Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) with DC-generator up to 10 kW, air-conditioning system with independent drive, an extended area protected by reactive armour, additional slat hull armour, improvement of anti-mine protection at the bottom of the hull, fire extinguishing and suppression system with DeuGEN agent, a driver’s passive night vision periscope, a driver’s day-night drive back camera, digital electronic supply, control and protection systems, modernisation of auto-loader system, and for the turret: modernised 125mm main gun (L48 MS-type), two-axis stabilised day-night integrated gunners sight, commander’s day-night panoramic sight (Hunter-Killer/Killer-Killer mode) integrated with 12.7x99NATO module, digital stabilisation system, digital fire control system, Soft-Kill protection system with smoke grenade launchers, additional reactive armour, fire suppression system with DeuGEN agent and a digital internal, external communication system, integrated with BMS system.
The PT-91 M2A2 modernisation proposal, which was also showcased in Kielce, presented following upgrades including chassis: 1000-1200 HP engine with automatic transmission (Power-Pack), strengthened suspension system, Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) with DC-generator up to 6 kW and air-conditioning system, additional reactive armour, additional slat hull armour, improvement of anti-mine protection of the bottom of the hull, fire extinguishing and suppression system with DeuGEN agent, driver’s passive night vision periscope, a driver’s day-night camera with additional day-night reversing camera, digital electronic supply, control and protection systems, modernisation of auto-loader system, and turret: modernised 125mm main gun (L48 MS-type or 2A46M-4 type), two-axis stabilised day-night integrated gunners sight, commander’s day-night panoramic sight (Hunter-Killer/Killer-Killer mode), commander’s passive day-night vision system (emergency situations), heavy machine gun 12.7x99mm NATO, digital stabilisation system, digital fire control system, Soft-Kill protection system with smoke grenade launchers, additional reactive armour, fire suppression system with DeuGEN agent and digital internal, external communication system, integrated with battlefield management system (BMS).
Modernisation of the LEOPARD MBT
The presented modernisation options, regardless which of them would eventually be applied, could significantly improve T-72s firepower and operational capability. However, after months of negotiations and analysis, the MoD decided to abandon its original plans and limit the scope of contract works to simply restoring the platform’s performance and conducting slight modifications of onboard equipment. Therefore, modified T-72M1 MBTs will not make a noticeable improvement to the country’s defensive capability. However, they will allow the MoD to sustain a significant number of MBTs on active duty units and reserve force, as T-72M1s will supplement a fleet of LEOPARD 2 MBTs acquired from Germany in the past.
Back in 2002, Poland and Germany signed a contract for the procurement of 128 LEOPARD 2A4 MBTs from Bundeswehr’s stocks as well as a number of auxiliary vehicles. These tanks were delivered to Poland in 2003. Another batch of 119 ex-German MBTs was acquired in 2013, when both countries reached an agreement about the transfer of 105 LEOPARD 2A5 and additional 14 2A4 tanks, which were subsequently delivered in 2014-2015.
In late 2015, the MoD signed a contract with a consortium of PGZ and ZM Bumar-Labedy, as well as a number of other public defence companies, like WZM, PCO, Zakłady Mechaniczne Tarnów, ROSOMAK, and OBRUM, for the modernisation of the original batch of 128 LEOPARD 2A4 MBTs to the 2PL standard. The contract’s value was PLN2.4Bn. In 2018 the agreement was amended, and an annex regarding the modernisation of additional 14 2A4s, the ones which were procured in 2014-2015, was added after which the cost of the programme grew by some PLN300M.
Shortly after the original agreement was reached, ZM Bumar-Labedy entered into partnership with Rheinmetall Landsysteme GmbH. The German company was supposed to design and implement the modernisation package on the first prototype vehicles, and eventually transfer the required technology and production rights to the Polish manufacturer. According to the latest estimates, the final batch of modernised LEOPARD 2PL, MBTs should be delivered to the Polish Land Forces by 2021.
According to ZM Bumar-Labedy, the list of modifications and upgrades which will be implemented in the 2PL variant include: new/upgraded observation and aiming sites for the commander and gunner, improved ballistic protection of the turret, new electronic system for turret traverse and cannon elevation, installation of more effective fire/explosion prevention system, new command and control system, additional APU generator, additional cargo carrying equipment and upgraded evacuation/towing system adjusted to the higher weight of the platform, new fire control system, new ammunition (DM63 antitank and DM11 multipurpose) and a day/night reverse camera for the driver.
New Generation MBT
The overhaul and modification of the fleet of T-72M1 MBTs is described by the MoD as an interim solution, which is supposed to allow the Army to maintain a significantly high number of tanks in active duty units, until the new generation platform enters service. “(…) we all await and work for the start of construction of new generation tanks by the Polish defence industry,” noted Minister Blaszczak.
Under the Wilk programme, the MoD intended to develop, either independently by the Polish defence industry or in co-operation with foreign partners, a new generation MBT platform, which will be characterised by increased firepower, operability and combat capability in comparison to the currently used vehicles. “We are restoring manufacturing capabilities in regard to armoured vehicles technology. (…) Restoring this capability (…) is another step towards establishing of an industrial base for future works on the new main battle tank for the Polish Armed Forces,” admitted Witold Slowik, President of the PGZ Management Board.
In May 2019, PGZ announced its intention to work on the new Polish MBT. “PGZ is launching a research and development programme on the new MBT for the Polish Army,” declared Slowik during the European Economic Congress in Katowice. The group declared that it has the ability to develop particular equipment or subsystems of the future platform, which, in the first place, will supplement the LEOPARD 2PL/A5 MBTs allowing for phasing out legacy T-72M1/PT-91 tanks, and eventually also replacing the former platforms.
Whether Poland will be able to independently design and develop a new generation MBT remains questionable. Due to limited capabilities of its own defence industry, it seems more reasonable to enter partnership with other European allies, which already work on such a platform, like to Franco-German Main Ground Combat System programme, where Poland could make a significant and valuable contribution. The other alternative, which is also not hard to imagine, is to design a new MBT from from scratch, but based on the of shelf subsystems, like in the case of the 155mm Krab self-propelled howitzer. However, as much as in theory it would result in the development of a new combat vehicle, in reality it would still be a platform similar in performance to the ones that already are widely operated across Europe.
Michał Jarocki is is an independent, Warsaw-based defence expert who has reported on security issues and developments from a qualified “insider” position for many years.