The Polish elections have been widely followed in Europe, as Poland’s strategic meaning has increased against the background of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Although any major shift in Polish security and defence policy after the election should not be expected, some revision in defence plans and priorities is possible.
On October 17, 2023 the official results of the Polish parliamentary elections were presented. According to them, despite the fact that the ruling conservative Law and Justice party gained the highest support (35.3%), the three major opposition parties are expected to create a coalition government. Liberal Civic Platform and Third Way as well all leftist “Lewica” achieved together more votes (30.7%, 14.4% and 8.61%), what gives them 248 mandates in the 460-seats lower chamber of parliament.
The Polish elections have been widely followed in the EU and wider transatlantic community as Poland’s strategic meaning has increased significantly as the result of the Russian aggression of Ukraine in February 2022. After the beginning of the Russian war of aggression Poland has become a safe haven for millions of Ukrainian refugees and one of the most important supporters of the Ukrainian war effort. According to information provided by the Polish Ministry of Defence Polish military aid for Ukraine reached $3 billion and included such advanced types of equipment as main battle tanks (in total approx. 300 T-72, PT-91, Leopard A4), MiG-29 fighters, modern Krab howitzers and surface-to-air missiles systems. Moreover, Polish territory serves as a logistical centre for military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine from all over the World as well as future reconstruction developments.
Against the background of the war at its Eastern border Poland also has been enhancing its position as the military backbone of the whole NATO Eastern Flank. In March 2022 the Polish Parliament adopted the Homeland Defence Act, which among other things increased the minimum level of defence spending to 3% of GDP and established a special fund supporting armed forces’ modernisation. It allowed to accelerate and enlarge the ambitious programme of the Polish Armed Forces’ capabilities development both in qualitative and quantitative terms.
What can the new government change?
One should not expect any major shift in Polish security and defence policy after the election and forging the new government, as there is a political consensus among major parties in this regard, which was proved by nearly unanimous support for the abovementioned Homeland Defence Act in the Polish Parliament. In strategic terms for Poland, the NATO membership and the bilateral alliance with the United States will remain the bedrock of defence policy. On the other hand, as one may expect improvement in the relations with major Polish EU partners, which deteriorated among others as the result of the rule of law issues in Poland, the new government may put more attention to security cooperation within the European Union (projects in the frameworks of PESCO and European Defence Fund). Nevertheless, it probably will remain sceptical towards any vision of European Strategic Autonomy as any kind of alternative for NATO.
No decrease in defence spending should also be expected, as there is strong popular support for enhancing security. According to the NATO public opinion research, 80% of Polish people think their country should maintain or increase its defence budget. The representatives of the opposition (eg. former Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Defence Tomasz Smiemoniak during the Warsaw Security Forum conference at the beginning of October 2023) also assured that there will be no withdrawal from the already signed contracts for military equipment.
It is important to such an extent that even before the Russian aggression against Ukraine, the Polish government has launched significant procurement programmes. They included medium-range air and missile defence system (in the 1st phase 2 of 8 planned Patriot PDB-8 batteries with ICBS, worth $5 billion, were acquired), new generation multirole frigate (3 ships based on Arrowhead 140 design built by Polish shipyards in cooperation with British Babcock), new generation fighter (32 5th generation F-35 expected to replace Polish Su-22/MiG-29) and multiple launch rocket system (in the 1st phase only one HIMARS fire unit – 18 launchers – was ordered).
After February 2022 Polish authorities decided for additional rapid military procurements in order to both enhance armed forces’ capabilities in the context of Russian threat as well as to fill the gaps coming from weapon deliveries to Ukraine. The procurements included Main Battle Tanks – 250 new M1A2 SEPV3 and 116 used M1A1 SA as well as 180 Korean K2 MBT and 219 K9 self-propelled howitzers. The Polish Air Force in turn will be strengthened by 48 light training-fighter FA-50 expected to be delivered by 2028, while the MLRS programme was significantly enlarged as the contracts for 218 Korean Chunmoo launchers were signed. In May 2022 Poland also sent a Letter of Request (LoR) for 6 more Patriot PDB-8 batteries with more advanced 360-degree GhostEye radars (the contract was signed in September 2023). As the majority of contracts for the abovementioned equipment are quite advanced in the process of implementation it is hard to imagine that the new government will simply cancel them.
However, some revision of procurement plans and priorities can be expected, as even under the current record level of defence spending one may doubt if Poland can afford all the mammoth acquisitions, without significantly getting into debt (in 2023 budget for technical modernisation nearly $16 billion was assigned, of which nearly 45% is expected to come from the market through the special modernisation fund). Thus, it is possible that the new government will not use all the options assured in the framework agreements and Congressional approvals due to financial constraints. It may concern e.g. the LoR for 96 attack helicopters AH-64E that was sent to the US government in September 2022 and framework agreements for an additional 486 M142 HIMARS launchers and K2 MBT and K9 howitzers (respectively 800 and 440 both in PL version expected to be manufactured in Poland), as these agreements demand also separate contracts to be materialised.
There are also some doubts in terms of the vision of the 300,000-strong armed forces, in which 250,000 are to be professional soldiers and 50,000 serve in the Territorial Defence Forces (a new militia-type branch of Armed Forces based on volunteers trained on a regular basis). The opposition representatives declare to maintain TDF, simultaneously indicating that a 300,000-strong AF is unrealistic in terms of demographic potential. In this context the new government may revise the plan of establishing two additional divisions in the land force, as even manning and equipping the newly established 18 Mechanised Division – 4th in land force – ensuring readiness of 3 existing ones, will remain a huge challenge in the years to come. In terms of change in the command structure, the recent president’s initiative (it combines two strategic level commands and recreates commands of the branches) seems less likely, as there may also be some personal changes in the top military positions.
Author: dr Tomasz Smura, Member of the Board, Programme Director, Casimir Pulaski Foundation