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Maintaining A Base

Trouble in Poland's defense industry.

11:00 PM, Jan 16, 2008 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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MSPO 2007-008.JPGWZU Nr 2-modified SA-8.
Photo by Reuben F. Johnson.

ONE OF THE MORE capable of the new NATO nations and one that possesses a rather robust defense industrial sector is Poland. During Soviet times, the Warsaw Pact state had a reputation for doing some of the better work on maintaining and sometimes even producing military hardware. Poland was one of the few Warsaw Pact nations outside of the USSR that designed and manufactured a complete weapons platform, in this case the helicopters that were built at the Polskie Zakłady Lotnicze (Polish Aviation Works or PZL).

Poland's armed forces now show all the signs and have taken all of the steps that one would expect a nation to initiate in order to integrate itself into the NATO alliance. It has taken on a number of western weapons platforms into its military so that the country is not completely dependent on Russia for support of its Soviet-era platforms. In the last decade Poland has acquired Leopard tanks from Germany and 48 new Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter aircraft from the United States, the last of which will be delivered in December of this year.

The Central European state has also acquired much of its new hardware at minimal cost. The Leopard II tanks were used models that the German Bundeswehr had in mothballs, so they were acquired at a bargain price. The Polish Air Force also acquired most of the East German MiG-29s that the Luftwaffe of the re-united Germany was flying until the delivery of its first Eurofighters. At some expense these MiGs had been modernized by the German force to be completely NATO-compatible and had been brought up to operational standards consistent with the alliance's requirements, but were "sold" to the Poles at a symbolic price of one Euro.

But, the best deal may end up having come from the United States. The money to procure the F-16s was loaned to the Poles, and although there have been no official statements made on the matter, no one seems in any rush to collect the debt.

Now Poland is about to go back and ask the United States for another batch of weapons. Last week the recently-elected government in Warsaw announced that Poland would no longer consent to be a site for ten of the U.S. ballistic missile defense system interceptors unless Washington agreed at the same time to provide them with a number of short- and medium-range air defense systems, such as the Raytheon Patriot PAC-3 and Lockheed Martin THAAD (Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense). Polish officials say the interceptor sites make their country a bigger, high-value target and they want their air defenses bolstered accordingly.

"The presence of a U.S. military installation in Poland undoubtedly makes Polish airspace more vulnerable," said the Polish Defence Minister Bogdan Klich when interviewed by Reuters. "I speak about this in categorical terms because this is an essential part of Polish air space security."

Part of the motivation for demanding that the U.S. gift these advanced air defense systems to Poland is political. Placing the U.S. missile defense system on Polish soil has become widely unpopular in this country according to a number of opinion polls. (Those are opinion polls, as opposed to opinionated Poles.) The only way the government can justify taking this step to its population and cover itself politically is to show that they gave the U.S. what it wanted, but only after extracting a pound of flesh in return for the concession.

But, the other half of the equation is a combined desire to try and get as much out of the United States as possible. "One of the problems with this agreement in which they appear to ultimately be receiving these F-16s for free," said a U.S. aerospace industry official, "is that now this has become the standard that is now expected. Everyone--and not just the Poles, but other former Soviet bloc states and sometimes including some of our own U.S. armed forces--wants this 'Polish F-16 deal' where you can get something for nothing."

The casualties in all this may be Poland's rather capable defense industrial sector in the short-term and, in the long-term, the overall reputation and image of U.S.-made military hardware.

Air defense is a technology that Polish industry is well-versed in. Specifically, its major enterprises have shown a talent for upgrading their old, Soviet-era platforms by replacing all of the old-generation analogue components and traveling wave-guide tubes with solid-state digital technology. At the same time they have also integrated U.S. weapon systems onto these Russian platforms, creating what is a current-generation air defense unit at a fraction of the cost of a new one.