The acquisition of new armoured vehicles, particularly Armoured Infantry Fighting Vehicles (AIFVs), is among the top modernisation priorities for the Visegrád Group, comprising:
Each member of the Visegrád Group, also known as the V4 (Visegrád Four), has its own political priorities and agenda, but at the same time they all share some similarities. For instance, this includes not only a strategic culture and history, but also a relatively common strategic outlook. They have all suffered from a very similar modernisation urgency – to phase out outdated equipment, which dates back to the times of the Warsaw Pact. They are all member states both of NATO and the European Union, where they cooperate (it is sufficient to mention the EU’s Visegrád Battlegroup).
However, despite many initiatives and plans – for instance regarding joint procurement efforts (assault helicopters or AIFVs) – the level of collaboration among the V4 States is relatively low. As noted in a Central European Policy Institute’s report entitled “Towards a Deeper Visegrad Defence Partnership”, “while there is general trust among the four countries on the highest political levels, the bureaucratic and military establishments are much more suspicious of collaboration (…) The Czechs see defence industrial collaboration with Poland as a potentially valuable way to assimilate new technologies and win a foothold in the (much larger) Polish market. But the Czechs have been frustrated by the Polish government’s protectionist attitude.”
Financial constraints represent another obstacle hampering prospects of deep V4 military cooperation. The militaries of Czechia, Slovakia and Hungary, which are smaller than the Polish Armed Forces, have been affected by past economic crises, including the last one, a result of the COVID pandemic. Moreover, there is no consensus when it comes to strategic vision. Although, as mentioned earlier, they share the same principles, the V4 States differ when it comes to Russia, with Poland being the most vulnerable to the Russian threat, while Hungary remains essentially a pro-Kremlin state, even despite the war in Ukraine.
Both Czechia and Slovakia seem to be somewhat detached from the current tensions.
Nevertheless, joint procurements would still offer potential benefits, including lower unit costs and savings in maintenance and logistics support. Moreover, the V4 would then accomplish a goal declared on numerous occasions by political leaders in Warsaw, Prague, Bratislava and Budapest – to integrate more closely, also in a military dimension, which would give them a chance to reduce their dependence on Western Europe (this is one of the goals set by the “Bucharest Nine” – a group founded by Romania and Poland in 2015, which also includes Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Romania, and Lithuania). Closer collaboration is coherent with visions promoted by two initiatives, namely NATO’s Smart Defence initiative) and the European Union’s Pooling & Sharing concept.
Although Poland, with an annual defence budget of €12.44Bn, has the largest military among all V4 members (110,000 troops), its Ground Forces (Wojska Lądowe) have still suffered from the absence of a modern tracked AIFV. Nevertheless, in recent years Poland has introduced some new equipment (including LEOPARD 2A4/2A5 tanks, KTO Rosomak APCs or ŻMIJA long-range light reconnaissance vehicles).
However, its mechanised battalions are still equipped with approximately 1,000 ageing Soviet-era BMP-1s (locally known as BWP-1, which stands for Bojowy Wóz Piechoty). The first batch of BMP-1s arrived in Poland in 1974 (as a replacement of the Polish-Czechoslovak 8×8 wheeled OT-64 SKOT APCs) and the last one in 1988 (altogether more than 1,300 vehicles). Due to the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, Poland has never had an opportunity to acquire a newer version – known as the BMP-2, not to mention the BMP-3. Despite several attempts of the Wojska Lądowe in the 1990s, Polish BMP-1s have never been upgraded, despite the fact that over the years several projects were proposed by Polish industry (including these known as BWP-2000 and PUMA).
Given the fact that Poland has a relatively large industrial base, the Ministry of National Defence decided that instead of procuring an off-the-shelf product from a foreign company, Wojska Lądowe would acquire the BORSUK (BADGER) AIFV, designed and due to be manufactured by the Huta Stalowa Wola (HSW). The whole project, codenamed NPBWP Borsuk (Nowy Pływający Bojowy Wóz Piechoty Borsuk – New Amphibious Infantry Fighting Vehicle Borsuk) was launched in 2013 in cooperation with:
- Rosomak SA
- Wojskowe Zakłady Elektroniczne (WZE)
- Wojskowe Zakłądy Inżynieryjne (WZI)
- Wojskowe Zakłady Motoryzacyjne (WZM)
- Akademia Obrony Narodowej (AON)
- Wojskowa Akademia Techniczna (WAT)
- Wojskowy Instytut Techniki Pancernej i Samochodowej (WITPiS)
- Politechnika Warszawska (PW)
It was initially planned that the vehicle would be ready to order in 2017, but this deadline was not met. Before production is launched, the HSW still needs to accomplish another phase, namely the qualifying examinations.
The BORSUK AIFVs will serve alongside the ROSOMAK wheeled multi-role armoured vehicles (Patria’s AMV). Both vehicles are expected to be equipped with the ZSSW-30/Zdalnie Sterowany System Wieżowy (Remotely Controlled Turret System), which is jointly produced by WB Electronics and HSW. The main armament of the ZSSW is the ATK Mk44 BUSHMASTER II 30 mm cannon with a co-axial UKM-2000C 7.62 mm gun and two SPIKE-LR ATGMs. Poland has also faced a large setback in this project – with production of the ZSSW-30 delayed by several years. It has not been launched yet, but early this year the HSW informed that it was finishing preparations for full-scale production. A total order could be for up to 1,400 ZSWW-30s. When deployed, it will be Poland’s first advanced remotely controlled turret system. A full introduction of the ZSWW-30s is one of Poland’s modernisation priorities.
Ten mechanised battalions of the Wojska Lądowe are expected to receive up to 588 vehicles in AIFV configuration by 2035. This means that it will be some time before all BWP-1s are retired. In the meantime, Polish defence companies are offering interim solutions until a new AIFV is fully introduced. For instance, in 2021, the WZM from Poznań presented a modernisation package for the BWP-1. The original 73 mm 2A28 GROM low-pressure smoothbore short-recoil semi-automatic gun was replaced by the Cockerill 1030 remotely-controlled station integrated with the BUSHMASTER Mk44S 30 mm gun and a 7.62 mm machinegun. The same facility also presented a concept of a tank destroyer mounted on the BWP-1’s chassis. WZM hinted that it could be integrated with ATGMs such as the SPIKE, which are already in Polish service. It is widely expected that the Ministry of National Defence will sooner or later announce a decision to modernise its BWP-1 fleet. Initial works in this regard were launched in 2020, but no decisions have yet been made.
With a defence budget worth €1.95Bn (2.1 per cent of GDP) and with roughly 18,500, Slovakia has an ongoing plan to phase out its BVP-1 (Bojové Vozidlo Pechoty), BVP-2 and BVP-2M vehicles. The Slovak Land Forces (PSSR, Pozemné sily Slovenskej republiky) has approximately 177 of these vehicles in five mechanised battalions within the 1st Mechanised Brigade in Topoľčany and the 2nd Mechanised Brigade in Prešov. A replacement of Soviet era vehicles was recommended by the Slovak General Staff and is among the top modernisation initiatives. New AIFVs are also a core element of a deep modernisation strategy, which has been pursued by Slovak Defence Minister Jaroslav Naď. Thanks to a technical upgrade, Bratislava expects to achieve two goals: to increase national defence capabilities and to meet the country’s commitments to its NATO allies.
Bratislava launched a procurement procedure for tracked AIFVs in late 2021. During the first phase (by 2026), the PSSR is expected to receive 152 – not yet selected – tracked vehicles, which are to be acquired via a G2G (Government-to-Government) agreement. The estimated value of the procurement is €1.74Bn out of which €1.45Bn will be devoted to vehicles in several variants:
- 131 AIFVs (with a turret armed with 30/40 mm automatic cannon and ATGMs, most likely from Israel)
- 15 command vehicles
- three mobile workshops
- three recovery vehicles
An additional 72 vehicles in various versions are expected to be acquired between 2027-2030. A key intent of this procurement is underlined by the fact that these vehicles are expected to become a core element of a new heavy mechanised brigade, the construction of which is one of the basic commitments of Slovakia to NATO. This elite formation will be based upon the current 1st Mechanised Brigade and will have three battalions of mechanised infantry, one tank battalion, one self-propelled howitzers battalion, one ISTAR battalion and several auxiliary units.
Bratislava’s requirements include transparency, the involvement of local industry, as well as the best value for money. Initially, 33 potential suppliers submitted their proposals, with just four shortlisted. One of them is Poland’s BORSUK, which was officially offered to Slovakia by the Polish Ministry of Defence on behalf of the PGZ (Polska Grupa Zbrojeniowa). This is the first time the BORSUK was directly offered to a foreign customer. Other contenders are:
- the Swedish Defence Materiel Administration (FMV) jointly with BAE Systems Hägglunds (CV90 in the latest Mk IV variant)
- General Dynamics European Land Systems (ASCOD 2)
- Rheinmetall AG (KF41 LYNX, which would be co-manufactured in Hungarian facilities in Zalaegerszeg).
In order to select the best product, Slovakia asked for dynamic and static demonstrations of all submitted vehicles. The first such event was held in March 2021 at VTSU (Vojenský technický a skúšobný ústav) in Záhorie with a demonstration of the LYNX vehicle. In April 2021, similar trials were carried out with the ASCOD 2, while the CV90 was tested in June. It seems that the German offer has the highest chances of winning – Rheinmetall promised to exceed the 40 per cent requirement for direct content. The German company, which has already been cooperating with Slovak industry, has released its plans for a new factory in Moldava nad Bodvou (eastern Slovakia). The facility would be responsible for delivering the chassis and turrets for the LYNX AIFV, as well as handling systems integration, testing and paintwork. It would also provide maintenance for the Slovak AIFV fleet.
In parallel to the acquisition of tracked AIFVs, Slovakia is looking for new tanks for its 2nd Mechanised Brigade (currently it is armed with a battalion of 22 T-72M1s, located in Trebišov). Most likely, Bratislava will receive 32 tanks and 17 tracked bridge-layers based on the same chassis. It is worth adding that Slovakia initially decided not to procure 81 wheeled (8×8) vehicles, known as the VYDRA. This has also been a top priority for the Slovak military, which does not have any wheeled fighting vehicle/APC suitable for modern warfare. Initially, Patria’s AMV-XP with the EVPÚ Defence’s TURRA 30 remote-controlled weapon station was selected, but Bratislava was not satisfied with the cost and insufficient level of ballistic protection. Plans had to be changed.
The whole tender for new wheeled BOV (Bojové Obrnené Vozidlo) 8×8 AIFVs was then re-launched. Slovakia confirmed its plan to acquire 76 vehicles during the first phase (2023-2025 in three variants) for €332M and 500 in total (in 20 variants, including a combat variant with a 30 mm main gun and ATGMs). Five proposals were submitted:
- PANDUR II (Czech Tatra)
- PIRANHA-V (Romanian Uzina Mecanica Bucuresti, in cooperation with General Dynamics European Land Systems and Mowag)
- DRAGON VCR (Spanish General Dynamics European Land Systems-Santa Bárbara Sistemas)
- LAV-III (US General Dynamics)
- AMV 8×8 (Finnish Patria)
Finally, in March 2022, Slovakia… once again selected Patria’s offer.
Apart from Poland, Hungary – with a defence budget worth €2.9 billion (1.7 per cent of GDP) – has the most mature AIFV programme. A modernisation of the Hungarian Defence Forces (MH, Magyar Honvédség), which has roughly 22,700 troops, became a priority for Victor Orban, Prime Minister since 2010. A critical milestone was reached in January 2017, when Budapest launched the “Zrínyi 2026” programme. This is the most comprehensive revitalisation initiative in the history of the Hungarian military. It also covers the Hungarian Ground Forces (MSH, Magyar Szárazföldi Haderő). Budapest’s ambition is not only to procure “off-the-shelf” military systems, but also technologies to boost the indigenous defence industry.
Hungary has already ordered a new AIFV. The MSH, which is now being equipped with 44 LEOPARD 2A7+ MBTs and an additional 12 tanks in 2A4 variant for training purposes, will receive 218 LYNX KF41 tracked AIFVs with the LANCE 30 mm turrets. This procurement is crucial to phase out the old wheeled BTR-80 and BTR-80A APCs. KF41s were ordered in 2020 from Rheinmetall for €2Bn and will be integrated with Rheinmetall’s STRIKE SHIELD hard-kill active protection system (APS) and will replace the ex-Soviet BTR-80 and BTR-80A APCs. The first batch of 46 LYNXs, as well as nine BÜFFEL armoured recovery vehicles, will be manufactured in Germany and delivered to Hungary by 2023, while the rest (172 vehicles) are to be produced locally in Zalaegerszeg. The foundation stone of a plant worth €169M was laid in 2020, which will become operational in 2023.
A plan to build national industrial capabilities will be boosted not only by the procurement of the LYNX vehicles, but also thanks to cooperation with Turkey. The GIDRÁN 4×4 armoured tactical vehicles – based on the EJDER YALÇIN vehicles produced by Nurol Makina – will be integrated with the Aselsan SARP remote weapon station. They were selected in 2020 and the first batch of ten vehicles was handed over by Nurol Makina to the 25th “György Klapka” Infantry Brigade’s military police in Tata in February 2021. In total, Hungary is looking to acquire at least 300 vehicles with production of at least 100 expected to be carried out locally in Kaposvár. The facility will also be responsible for some additional works, such as equipping the Hungarian GIDRÁNs with radio and other electronic devices.
The Czech Republic plans to spend 2 per cent of its GDP on defence by 2025 (currently it is approximately 1.4 per cent). The Armáda České Republiky (AČR), which has 27,000 troops, has continued to use equipment mainly dating back to the times of the Warsaw Pact. Prague already has a modernised fleet of wheeled vehicles – the PANDUR II 8×8 KBVPs (Kolového Bojového Vozidla Pěchoty) has replaced Soviet-era OT-64 SKOTs. However, when it comes to tracked AIFVs, Prague has not been very successful. The AČR still has the BVP-2s, which belong to the 7th Mechanised Brigade in Hranice (BVP-1s are still in the arsenal, but only as mobilisation stock in the warehouses in Rančířov – some of which were donated to Ukraine in April this year). This unit, with two mechanised battalions, one tank battalion (with T-72M4CZs) and one light motorised battalion, is the strongest formation of the AČR. The 7th Mechanised Brigade has experience in international operations (under the NATO aegis in Latvia, Afghanistan and recently within the EU in Mali) and is expected to become fully compatible with NATO standards by 2026. New AIFVs are crucial for achieving this strategic goal.
The problems now affecting the AČR were unforeseen, as 210 new vehicles were promised as a replacement for the BVP-2s. The need to procure a new generation of AIFVs was first mentioned back in 2012 and a contract value, the largest ever in the history of the Czech military, was estimated at roughly €2.4Bn. As in the case of Slovakia, Czechia also required that at least 40 per cent of the programme needs to be carried out by local companies. In late 2017, Prague completed field trials of four AIFVs:
- ASCOD (General Dynamics European Land Systems)
- CV90 (BAE Systems)
- LYNX (Rheinmetall)
- PUMA (Rheinmetall Defense and KMW)
The winner was expected to be announced by mid-2018, however, the decision was delayed. In late 2018, three vehicles were shortlisted (CV90, ASCOD and LYNX), while in late 2021, the Czech Ministry of Defense halted the process and announced that none of three contenders met the tender’s requirements. The decision was a great disappointment for the Czech military establishment and negatively affected the national plan to boost defence capabilities. In March 2022,Defence Minister Jana Černochová, admitted openly that a delayed tender was a crucial element both for boosting the Czech military and for Prague’s contribution to NATO.
Despite some orally expressed hopes of various experts and commentators, the close industrial cooperation among the V4 States and joint procurement efforts of armoured vehicles, remain unlikely. Each member has chosen its own development path, which does not assume cooperation with the others.
When it comes to the most preferred industrial partner, Germany seems to be a leader and there doesn’t seem to be anything to indicate any change in this regard. Hungary has already ordered German AIFVs, while both the Czech Republic and Slovakia were also offered vehicles from Germany. Berlin is seen not only as an attractive political partner, but also as a valuable industrial provider of modern technologies, willing to invest in local economies, which is also one of top priorities of V4 States. L
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