Huge purchases of tanks and helicopters suggest Poland is borrowing a battlefield idea from the US Army

Huge purchases of tanks and helicopters suggest Poland is borrowing a battlefield idea from the US Army
  • Poland is on a spending spree to build what it describes as "the largest land force in Europe."

  • Among its purchases are US-made tanks and helicopters designed to work in tandem on the battlefield.

  • Warsaw's military buildup comes in response to rising tensions in Europe amid the war in Ukraine.

As Eastern Europe rearms in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Poland is emerging as a regional military powerhouse.

Despite only being a member of NATO since 1999, Poland is spending much more than older alliance members. At 3.9% of GDP, Poland's 2023 defense budget is almost double the NATO goal of 2% of GDP for each country — a target alliance pillars such as Germany and France have yet to meet.

The defense minister, Mariusz Błaszczak, has said that Poland intends to create "the largest land force in Europe." This includes doubling the military to 300,000 personnel. Poland currently has a mix of Western and Soviet-era equipment, including 650 tanks, 800 artillery pieces, 94 jet fighters, and 28 attack helicopters, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Poland has sent some of its older hardware to Ukraine, including Soviet-designed MiG-29 fighter jets and T-72 tanks and Polish-built Krab 155-mm self-propelled howitzers.

Two helicopters in flight.
US Army AH-64 Apaches in a Polish Armed Forces Day parade in Warsaw on August 15.WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images

What is significant isn't just Poland's spending spree but also what it is buying.

Warsaw has signed $6 billion in deals to buy 350 M1 Abrams tanks from the US, and the US State Department just approved a $12 billion purchase of 96 AH-64E Apache attack helicopters armed with a variety of weapons, including Hellfire anti-tank missiles, Stinger air-to-air missiles, and the Joint Air-to-Ground Missile. The 96 helicopters would make Poland the largest Apache operator other than the US.

Poland is also spending $10 billion for 18 HIMARS launchers and reportedly plans to acquire up to 500 more launchers. The initial HIMARS systems are set to come with 45 Army Tactical Missile System long-range rockets that the US has so far declined to give Ukraine.

Poland has also ordered $14 billion in weapons from South Korea, an emerging defense-industry powerhouse, including 1,000 K2 Black Panther tanks, nearly 700 K9 self-propelled howitzers, and 48 FA-50 light combat aircraft.

One question is whether Poland's $700 billion economy can handle the surge in defense spending. Some experts point to Poland's low national debt and public support for a strong defense to deter Russia as evidence that it can.

However, Radosław Sikorski, an opposition politician and former foreign minister, told The Financial Times this spring: "It's not obvious to me that Poland has the ability to pay for all of this when you look at how the financial markets are now and our recent record in terms of selling bonds."

Poland AHS Krab self-propelled howitzer
Polish army AHS Krab 155 mm self-propelled howitzers at the Nowa Dęba training ground on May 6.Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Poland also seems to be embracing a new way of war.

One problem for the former Warsaw Pact countries is that while most have joined NATO, their militaries' training, doctrine, and command structure are still based on the Soviet model. Ukraine, for example, has juggled a force of troops trained under Soviet and Western models, and its current counteroffensive has been hampered as Western-trained assault brigades struggle to master new tactics while attempting to breach heavily fortified Russian defenses.

In effect, Poland seems to be redeveloping its army into a smaller version of the US Army, which relies on combined-arms tactics, such as close cooperation between Abrams tanks and Apache helicopters.

The AH-64 deal includes 37 mast-mounted Longbow Fire Control Radar sets, which suggests the Polish army plans to use those helicopters similarly to the US Army, "with a single aircraft on a flight detecting targets and sharing that information with non-Longbow-equipped aircraft," Aviation Week magazine reported.

Poland has been invaded, occupied, and partitioned by its larger, more aggressive neighbors many times over the centuries. Vladimir Putin's nostalgia for the Soviet glory of World War II, which saw Poland divided, fought over, and then conquered, reawakens those memories. Polish leaders now see a big, well-equipped army — whatever its cost — as the best bulwark against a repeat of that history.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master's in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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