Experiencing anxiety following the halting of US missile defense plans in Poland, Warsaw uses US technology to make its air force the biggest by far in Central Europe.
Since the Obama administration cancelled previous plans to install a comprehensive European missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic in the fall of 2009, the US has been particularly concerned with re-assuring a somewhat anxious Polish side, and has made considerable effort to propose and establish new security cooperation platforms.
As an initial milestone, a Patriot missile battery was unveiled in northern Poland late last month, including an attached garrison of 100 to 150 US military personnel. While this unprecedented move immediately pleased Warsaw, the location of the Patriot battery in the town of Morag, just 60 kilometers from the Russian border, has raised concerns in Moscow.
Concurrent to the Patriot program, the US has also sought to re-emphasize the value of its previous collaboration projects with the Polish armed forces, chief among them the massive F-16 program for the Polish air force.
Of all the new NATO members, Poland indeed maintains the largest air force and has also invested the most into upgrading and expanding. Compared to some of its regional neighbors in Central Europe and along the Baltic coast, the Polish air force may even seem massive. While some countries have invested in a limited number of new supersonic jets to simply maintain autonomous air policing capabilities, the Polish air force can fulfill both air space surveillance and air defense assignments, as well as achieve new levels of power projection, in large part thanks to US technology.
Dr Marek Madej, a researcher at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) in Warsaw explained for ISN Security Watch the proportions of the Polish air force: “One must take into account the distinct geostrategic position of Poland - or to put it more bluntly - its proximity to Russia. Also one must consider the fact that Poland is substantially larger, both in territorial size and in population, than most of its immediate neighbors.”
Upgrading and modernizing
Much of the numerical size of the Polish air force is due to a technological and quantitative ‘double-dip.’ Aside from acquiring 48 brand-new, US-built F-16s between 2006 and 2008, the Polish armed forces have kept and even expanded their Cold War legacy fleet of Russian-built Su 22s and MiG 29s. On paper, the air force has 48 Su 22s, 36 MiG 29s and 48 F-16s; in practice, the numbers are somewhat marginalized by the fact that all Sukhois are slated for decommissioning by 2016, many MiG 29s are not air-worthy and intentionally kept as spare-parts donors for those units that have been modernized, and some F-16s are still in their final phases of operational deployment. Still the sheer quantity is impressive.
Prior to the arrival of the first F-16 in 2006, the MiG 29 was both the workhorse of the force and the most modern jet in the arsenal. Poland received its first batch of MiG 29s from the Soviet Union in 1989; since then, it has expanded the fleet considerably and made various deals with its immediate neighbors to take over their MiGs as well. In 1995, the Czech Republic gave Poland 10 MiG 29s in exchange for Sokol helicopters, and in 2004, Poland took over the remaining 23 MiG 29s from Germany at the symbolic price of €1 each, as the Luftwaffe was replacing its MiG 29s with the new Eurofighter. All these additions have made Poland the largest NATO operator of the aircraft.
With various upgrades and modernizations completed for most of the MiGs, the jet is expected to serve with the Polish air force until at least 2015, and an additional extension of its lifespan all the way to 2025 could be possible as well, although that would require future investment and continued technical improvements.
While operationally the MiG 29 primarily carries an interceptor role, the F-16 is seen as a more flexible multi-purpose aircraft, and as such will also be able to take over several of the fighter/bomber features of the Su 22s, once those units are decommissioned.
Although the US tried to sell many technically more limited F-16s to Central European countries - such as Austria, the Czech Republic and Hungary, often also second-hand models from the Belgian air force - none of those attempts was successful. However, Poland’s historic military ties to the US as well as its comprehensive strategic cooperation with Washington - in Iraq and on other fronts - made the choice of a US fighter almost a foregone conclusion.
As such, the ‘Block 52+’ F-16 model that Lockheed Martin is delivering to Poland is not some watered-down variant, but actually state-of-the-art, latest standard, and in some aspects even eclipses the F-16s that the US Air Force has in service. Not surprisingly, considering these circumstances, the original contract for the sale of the Polish F-16s was signed in April 2003, right after the onset of the Iraq War and at a symbolic high point of US-Polish relations.
Originally, the Polish government envisioned the purchase of as many as 60 jets, but this figure had to be reduced to 48, due to financial restraints. The final package includes 36 single-seaters and 12 double-seaters.
Although an active use of the F-16s in NATO missions well beyond Polish borders is foreseen, so far only the MiG 29s have been used for international assignments, including the NATO-led surveillance of the Baltic airspace, which Poland has already done three times since 2004, as part of the three-month rotation schedule among different alliance members.
Just how bold Polish plans for the use of their fighters in out-of-area NATO missions have been is evidenced by the serious considerations given to the purchase of tanker aircraft to enable autonomous air-to-air refueling capabilities. In 2008, the Polish government however had to abandon those acquisition ambitions.
Despite this, the Polish government will need to evaluate renewed investment into additional supersonic aircraft within the next five to 10 years, especially once the Su 22s are out of service and as some of the MiGs will reach the end of their lifecycle.
From a US point of view, the F-16 therefore also represents an attempt to gradually ease the Poles into the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program by 2020. The US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), whose job it is to help sell US-made military equipment to foreign buyers, has already made such overtures. For the moment though, this remains the wishful thinking on the part of the DSCA and Lockheed Martin, and has not yet entered official Polish considerations.
As Marek Madej told ISN Security Watch, “Currently, there is no serious plan in Poland to engage in the JSF program. The Polish air force still has to deal with making the F-16s fully operational and already thinking about the next generation of multi-task aircrafts would be rather premature.”
“The number one acquisitions priority for the air force now has to be the purchase of new training aircraft,” he added.
As the general military cooperation between the US and Poland deepens, US manufacturers will no doubt also be keen to supply those.
By. Andrew Rhys Thompson