Khalem Chapman provides an overview of Poland’s ongoing drive to modernise its military aviation assets and looks ahead to the nation’s future endeavours.
Poland is currently going through one of its largest national military aviation recapitalisations in modern times. This process encompasses each branch of its armed forces, comprising the Siły Powietrzne (SPRP, Polish Air Force); Lotnictwo Wojsk Lądowych (LWL, Polish Army Aviation); and the Lotnictwo Marynarki Wojennej (LMW, Polish Naval Aviation).
The campaign seeks to further bring the nation out of the Cold War era, through the acquisition and employment of more advanced western types and technologies as Poland looks to end its continued reliance on Soviet-produced aircraft and systems, most of which are outdated and limited in terms of capability due to their age and design.
The VIP Treatment
A decade ago, the Polish Air Force’s VIP transport fleet was very different. It operated a pair of Tupolev Tu-154M Careless medium-range narrow-body trijets to ferry the President and other top government officials around the world. The air arm also flew 18 Yakovlev Yak-40 Codling regional trijets in a smaller VIP transport role. Although both types were coming to the end of their service lives, with the Codling having begun operations in 1973 and the Careless entering the air force’s inventory in 1990, their retirement was expedited in the early 2010s. This came following the loss of Tu-154M, serial 101 (c/n 90A-837), during a landing accident in April 2010, which resulted in the death of all 96 persons on board, including Polish President Lech Kaczynski, senior dignitaries and high-ranking military officials. The remaining Tu-154M was retired in 2011 and the final Yak-40 was withdrawn a year later.
The retirements of these Soviet-era platforms created a capability gap in fulfilling the VIP transport role. While searching for replacements, the Polish government leased two Embraer E175LRs from LOT, the country’s national airline. The lease began in June 2010 and ended in December 2017, after the service’s Gulfstream G550s began operations. The business jets were acquired for US$107.6m and are operated by 1.Baza Lotnictwa Transportowego (1.BLTr, 1 Air Base Air Transport Squadron) at the Warsawa-Frederic Chopin Airport in Warsaw.
The aircraft were the first new acquisitions in Poland’s recapitalisation of its VIP transport mission. The service will also operate three Boeing 737NGs, specifically comprising a single 737-800 (which has already entered service) and two 737 Boeing Business Jet 2s (BBJ2), which are scheduled to be delivered before the end of this year. The first aircraft – serial 0110 (c/n 61358/6370) – was delivered to 1.BLTr in November 2017.
The Oncoming Storm
In September last year, Poland became the 12th nation to forecast the arrival of lightning after the US State Department’s Defence Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) approved the possible Foreign Military Sale (FMS) of 32 conventional take-off-and-landing-configured Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning IIs.
The deal was sealed on January 31, when Polish Minister of Defense Mariusz Błaszczak signed the US$4.6bn contract at the 41.Baza Lotnictwa Szkolnego (41.BLSz, 41 School Aviation Base) in Dęblin. The acquisition includes 32 aircraft with 33 Pratt & Whitney F135 afterburning turbofan engines, along with spares/repairs, related mission software, support equipment and air/ground personnel training. First deliveries of the type to the SPRP are scheduled to take place in 2024, with the final example expected to be handed over by 2030.
On January 31, President of Poland Andrzej Duda said: “[This is] an extremely important day for Polish military aviation, for Polish fighter pilots, for the security of the Republic of Poland, but – which I would like to [emphasise] very much – for the safety of our entire part of Europe… It greatly strengthens our position among the armed forces [of] the world. This greatly strengthens our position also generally in the international arena, giving us prestige and showing that Poland is an important partner on the European and global scale.”
Cold War Warriors
The F-35As will replace Poland’s ageing, yet venerable Soviet-produced Mikoyan MiG-29 Fulcrum multirole fighter and Sukhoi Su-22M4/UM3K Fitter variable-geometry fighter-bomber fleets. These Cold War veterans have formed the backbone of the Polish Air Force’s fighter aircraft operations for more than three decades.
In the early 2010s, when the country’s MiG-29 and Su-22 fleets were coming to the end of their 30-year operational service life, the Ministerstwo Obrony Narodowej (MON, Polish Ministry of Defence) conducted service life extension programmes (SLEP) on both types.
Poland’s MiG-29s are operated by 1.Eskadra Lotnictwa Taktycznego (1.ELT, 1 Tactical Air Squadron) at the 23.Baza Lotnictwa Taktcyznego (23.BLT, 23 Tactical Air Base) at Minsk Mazowiecki, as well as 41.ELT at the 22.BLT in Malbork. A total of 16 Fulcrum-As were subject to the SLEP and systems upgrade at the start of the last decade. This process was carried out by Wojskowe Zakłady Lotnicze 2 (WZL 2, Military Aviation Plant No 2) in Bydogoszcz and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), which returned the first refurbished MiG-29 to the air arm in 2013. The upgrade sought to further the type’s operational service life through to 2028. However, Poland’s Fulcrum fleet has been a growing concern in recent years, suffering from technical problems, low reliability and serviceability. For most of 2019, the air arm grounded its MiG-29s following the third crash in two years, which occurred last March. The order was not lifted until November.
The Fitter fleet has fared better, with the most recent attrition of the type occurring in 2003, when a Su-22M4 was shot down during an exercise by a Polish 2K12 Kub surface-to-air missile (SAM) battery in a friendly fire incident, which the pilot survived. Poland is the final Su-22 operator in Europe and, as with the MiG-29s, the aircraft’s age has caught up with it, as it suffers from low reliability and serviceability, as well as various technical issues. At the same time as the MiG-29 refurbishment, 18 Su-22 aircraft underwent a ten-year SLEP, extending their service life to beyond the planned out-of-service-date of 2015. Unlike the MiG-29, the Fitter was not modernised, but received a new radio communications antenna and software, along with a respray in a multishade grey camouflage, in line with other air force fleets. The aircraft are currently operated by 8.ELT and 40.ELT at the 21.BLT in Swidwin.
The F-35A will not be the only fighter employed by the Polish Air Force going forward, as the fifth-generation multirole stealth fighter will augment the service’s already established fleet of Lockheed Martin F-16C/D-52+ Fighting Falcons. These aircraft are operated by 3.ELT and 6.ELT at the 31.BLT in Poznań/Krzesiny. F-16s are also operated by 10.ELT at the 32.BLT in Łask.
|Poland's Current Fighter Numbers (as per AirForces Intelligence, April 2020)|
|Type||Entered Service||Number Delivered||Currently Active||Attrition||Withdrawn||In Storage|
A Herculean Upgrade
The Polish Air Force took ownership of five Lockheed C-130E Hercules tactical transports in April 2009. These are operated by 14.Eskadra Lotnicza (14.EL/14 Air Transport Squadron) at 33.BLTr (33 Transport Aviation Base) in Powidz. In September last year, Mariusz Błaszczak announced that the Polish government had submitted a formal request to the US DSCA for five secondhand C-130Hs to replace its ageing Hercules force. These aircraft will be sourced from the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (309th AMARG) at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona.
As of April 2020, the DSCA has yet to approve the FMS of the C-130Hs to the country, and Leonardo has offered its C-27J Spartan as an alternative replacement for the C-130E fleet.
More Bieliks Ordered
Poland selected the Leonardo M-346 Master to serve as the air force’s lead-in fighter trainer platform in 2013, with the aircraft beginning operations in 2018. In service, the M-346 is known as the Bielik (Eagle). According to AirForces Intelligence, as of April 2020, eight examples are employed by the Polish Air Force’s 48.Eskadra Lotnictza (48.EL) at the 41.BLSz in Dęblin.
In March 2018, the government exercised its option to acquire four more aircraft, increasing the country’s Bielik fleet numbers to 16. The contract also includes a Leonardo-developed upgrade for the entire M346 fleet, which will bring the platform up to NATO Standardisation Agreement (STANAG) 4193 Edition 3 IFF standard. The additional eight aircraft are currently in production, with all expected to be delivered by 2022.
As part of the modernisation effort, the Polish government is investing heavily in recapitalising its rotary-wing assets across each branch of the armed forces. The campaign started with the order of 50 Airbus Helicopters H225M Caracal medium-lift tactical transports in 2015, with the aircraft being chosen over the Leonardo AW149 and Sikorsky S-70i Black Hawk. However, this contract was abandoned in 2016 following a change in government.
Poland revisited this decision early last year and procured four S-70i Black Hawks to support the nation’s special forces operations in a deal worth US$180.7m. These aircraft – serials 1301, 1302, 1303 and 1304 – were delivered to the air arm’s Grupo Reagowania Operacyjno Manewrowego (GROM, Operational Manoeuvring Response Group), based at 1.BLTr, Warsawa-Frederic Chopin Airport.
The Polish Navy has four examples of Leonardo Helicopters’ AW101 Merlin on order to replace its Cold War-era Mil Mi-14PL/R ‘Haze-A’ fleets in an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and combat search and rescue (CSAR) role. The aircraft were contracted in April 2019 in a deal worth US$409.9m (€380m). The Mi-14s are currently operated by 44.Baza Lotnictwa Morskiego (44.BLMW, 44 Naval Aviation Base) at Darlowo. All the AW101s are expected to be delivered by 2022.
On top of its Merlin acquisition, the Polish Navy is also looking to replace its Kaman SH-2G Super Seasprite ASW helicopter with between four and eight multirole platforms with a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of less than 14,300lb (6,500kg) under Project Kondor. Poland operates four SH-2Gs under 43.BLMW at Gdynia/Babie Doly. Its potential successors include the Sokół and Leonardo Helicopters’ AW159 Wildcat, which is in operational use in the Philippines, South Korea and the UK; two aircraft are also on order with the Bangladesh Navy. Either aircraft is a viable replacement for the Super Seasprite as both fall within Poland’s MTOW requirements and could continue the SH-2G’s ASW mission.
Sokół Next Generation
At the Międzynarodowy Salon Przemysłu Obronnego (MSPO, International Defence Industry Exhibition) 2019 held in Kielce, Leonardo Helicopters and the Polska Grupa Zbrojeniowa (PGZ, Polish Armaments Group) unveiled a new concept, dubbed the Sokół Next Generation. The platform is based on the currently serving W-3 Sokół, a medium-lift, twin-engine, multirole machine produced by PZL-Świdnik, a subsidiary of Leonardo. The W-3 has formed the backbone of the Poland’s rotary wing force, with approximately 67 in operational service with the military.
The Sokół Next Generation incorporates proven technologies, integrating digital avionics from Leonardo Helicopters’ AW169 with a four-axis autopilot, new rotor blades, a glass cockpit, a flight management system, a terrain awareness and warning system, full authority digital engine control, a synthetic vision system and a health and usage monitoring system. It will also have a payload capacity of 14,550lb (6,600kg) – an increase of 440lb (200kg) compared to the W-3. In terms of armaments, it will feature both anti-tank and air-to-air missiles, along with 70mm rocket launchers and 12.7mm/20mm cannon pods.
An Eye on Kruk
Among all of Poland’s military modernisation projects, one continues to fly under the radar: the Kruk programme to replace the Polish Army Aviation’s Mil Mi-24D/V attack helicopter force.
Companies have already weighed in with their offerings, with Boeing seeking to export its well-established AH-64E Apache Guardian and Leonardo offering its upcoming AW249, a platform that is currently in development to replace the Italian military’s A129 Mangusta fleet, which is planned to undertake its first flight before the end of 2021. In July 2018, Leonardo and PGZ signed a Letter of Intent (LOI) to co-operate in the design, production, final assembly and provision of sale and after-sales support of the AW249, something which could play heavily in favour of the type with the Polish government.
Despite Kruk rumbling on behind the scenes, Poland is not yet finished with the ‘Hind’, with PGZ, the Instytut Techniczny Wojsk Lotniczych (ITWL, Air Force Institute of Technology) and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems collaborating on a locally developed modernisation package for the Mi-24D/Vs to keep the aircraft viable until a replacement is found. It is expected that this decision will come sometime before 2025. The proposal includes a cabin upgrade for the pilot and weapon systems operator, advanced self defence systems, communications and navigational software, night vision goggles, new multi-functional screens and Rafael’s opto-electronic head-up display with Toplite electro-optical/infrared day/night observation sensors and laser target designators. In terms of new armaments, the proposal will see the helicopters become compatible with Rafael’s SPIKE anti-tank guided missile family, Polish-produced Piorun air-to-air missiles and Mesko’s 70mm unguided rockets. Other potential weapon systems include 57mm/80mm unguided rocket launchers, up to four 12.7mm or two 23mm cannon pods, PLATAN scatterable anti-tank mine dispensers and 70mm guided missiles. The Mi-24D/V’s Soviet-era Yakushev-Borzov YakB-12.7mm machine guns would also be replaced with the WLKM 12.7mm system from ZM Tarnów. Modification work on the attack helicopters would be carried out by Wojskowe Zakłady Lotnicze No 1 (WZL 1, Military Aviation Plant No 1) in Bydgoszcz.
Poland is also seeking new transport helicopters to take over from some of its older Mil Mi-8T/MT ‘Hip’ and Mi-17AEs, but the nation is very much in the early stages of this. In tandem with its AH-64E offer, Boeing is also eyeing the country as a potential CH-47F Chinook operator.
Over the last decade, Poland has been expanding its unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) fleet, providing the armed forces with new and additional capabilities. In 2014, the air force began operating the Aeronautics Defense Systems Orbiter, a compact, lightweight UAV. In total, the service ordered 15 systems, each of which came with three air vehicles.
In June 2019, Boeing-Insitu Inc was contracted to produce one set of RQ-21A Blackjack twin-boom, single-engine small tactical unmanned aerial systems for Poland. The set comprises five vehicles and adds to the single example that was contracted by the air force in March 2018.
Modernising Alongside Allies
Poland is also looking to replace its PZL M28 Bryza maritime patrol aircraft with a newer platform. In early 2018, Poland joined Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain and Turkey in investing in NATO’s Multinational Maritime Multi-Mission Aircraft Capabilities programme.
Rose Gottemoeller, NATO’s deputy secretary general, said: “This joint effort [recognises] the fact that the majority of allies’ maritime patrol aircraft fleets will be reaching the end of their operational lives between 2025 and 2035… The goal here isn’t just a drawing board – we need a new generation of aircraft, in the air, fulfilling what is an increasingly important mission.”
Potential contenders include Boeing’s P-8A Poseidon, Saab’s Swordfish (based on the Bombardier Global 6000) and Airbus’s A319 concept. With many NATO allies in this project being located in Europe, the Airbus option could prove appealing in terms of boosting local production, particularly in France, Germany and Spain. However, Saab’s Swordfish would be a more cost-effective option, as it would be cheaper to operate due to its business jet host aircraft.
It is also likely that Poland could join Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Norway in the European Defence Agency’s (EDA’s) Multinational Multi-Role Tanker Transport fleet, operating a pooled fleet of Airbus A330 MRTT air-to-air refuelling aircraft. This initiative has been set up to allow nations to be less reliant on the USAF in providing tanker support during operations, something which was highlighted after the 2011 military intervention in Libya. Poland was one of the ten EDA member states to express an interest in this following the conflict, but has yet to officially join the programme.
In every case, modernising an air arm can cost billions to execute. In recapitalising its military aviation assets, technologies and capabilities, Poland will prove to be a very different military force once these ongoing programmes have concluded, leaving behind its legacy, Cold War-era aircraft, which are becoming much rarer with European operators.