With Polish Minister of National Defense, Mariusz Błaszczak, on the engagement of the armed forces in the fight with COVID-19 and activities undertaken to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, talks Magdalena Kowalska-Sendek.
The Polish Armed Forces from the very beginning have been engaged in the activities aimed at limiting the spread of coronavirus. What is your assessment of these activities?
We are looking at the pandemic issue from a much wider than just the army’s perspective. The situation is unprecedented, so it requires implementing unprecedented solutions. Since the very start of the crisis, Polish soldiers have been very active. We were already helping at the beginning of February, when we organized transports to evacuate our citizens from Wuhan. It was one of the challenges connected to the coronavirus epidemic, and we successfully faced it. The situation is similar now: we observe what is happening, we analyze it, we send people and equipment to where it is needed. That’s how I see the role of the Polish Armed Forces – providing help when our citizens’ life and health is threatened. If voivodeships and self-governments turn to us for help, we are ready to act. We are already supporting the Border Guard and the Police. There are military task forces operating in every voivodeship. They have at their disposal several dozen ambulances and minibuses, disinfecting task forces and mobile medical teams. Soldiers of the operational forces provide real, concrete support. Military engineers, logisticians, or military police also help. On top of that, the Polish Air Force is always ready to react as far as special transport is required. The cybersoldiers, i.e. the National Cybersecurity Center [Narodowe Centrum Bezpieczeństwa Cyberprzestrzeni], also do their part. They have given the Government Centre for Security [Rządowe Centrum Bezpieczeństwa] access to their own ICT infrastructure, which helps to monitor the epidemic situation faster on a daily basis. We feel that the system is working and that we, the army, are its important element. We will extend our support according to the needs.
Our army also has huge medical potential. There are doctors, nurses and paramedics in service. Are their skills going to be put to use?
We are prepared for various scenarios. There are already 14 military hospitals, five preventive medicine centers and the Military Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology involved in the fight with the coronavirus. Doctors, nurses and paramedics are also actively helping.
Is it possible that some of these military centers or hospitals will be turned into infectious diseases centers?
Some of our facilities already admit patients with confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis, for example the 7th Navy Hospital which has been converted into an infectious diseases hospital. Other centers remain in readiness. The initiative here is on the side of voivodeships and local authorities.
The army is also active in the area of diagnostics. COVID-19 tests are conducted at the Biological Threats Identification and Countermeasure Centre at the Military Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology in Puławy. They do the tests every day, both for the army and for civilians in the Lublin voivodeship. Only within the first several days of our coronavirus testing capability, the center conducted several hundred tests. There is also an active mobile biological recognition laboratory. Both mentioned military centers are a part of the national diagnostic system. They test soldiers and civilians alike.
In a crisis situation such as the current nationwide fight with the pandemic, also the Territorial Defense Forces (TDF) soldiers are very active. What is your opinion on their activity?
This is not the first time that the strength and readiness of the TDF prove to be invaluable. These soldiers are engaged in the fight with the virus in virtually every area: from controlling borders and airports to looking after the elderly. They once again prove that they are “always near.” I have signed a decision on the support of military higher education schools to the TDF. We will direct officer cadets to help the TDF soldiers delivering food and medicine to people who need it. I would also like to mention one more initiative organized by the TDF, which is the psychological support phone helpline for lonely, elderly people, or those who struggle with staying in quarantine or the ongoing state of uncertainty. This kind of help is as important as the material or medical one.
The Territorial Defense Forces have adapted to the situation and changed their activity from training to anti-crisis. Have other branches of the armed forces also introduced changes in their everyday activities?
The TDF are the youngest branch of our armed forces. Their service consists mainly in supporting local communities and services in crisis situations. The TDF soldiers are doing their job perfectly. Every day, several thousand well-equipped territorial defense and operational troops are on the front line of the fight with the coronavirus. Their cooperation is very edifying.
As for the armed forces in their entirety, the specificity of military activity usually requires physical presence of soldiers. I should point out that as far as this matter is concerned, I am counting on the wisdom and human resources management skills of commanders on every level. They should now try to find the golden mean between the unit’s tasks and minimizing epidemic risk.
Obviously, the coronavirus threat affects the usual activity of the Polish Armed Forces. What preventive measures have been introduced in the army?
We want to set a good example to the society, so our preventive activities have to be exemplary. We have implemented all governmental and sanitary recommendations, including those that concern domestic and foreign travel. We’ve cancelled or rescheduled most undertakings and meetings. I mean both mass-scale events and less significant ones, like briefings or conferences. Wherever possible, we’ve switched to home-office work and ICT-based contact. We’ve suspended classes at military schools, cancelled trainings for the reserves and the TDF, as well as military entrance processing, some of the planned exercises and trainings. We constantly educate and raise awareness of our soldiers and their families, as well as the whole society, on how to protect ourselves against infection and what to do if it does happen to us or to someone in our family. I have to admit I am uplifted by the speed and flexibility of our soldiers’ actions. They are passing this difficult and unexpected exam with flying colors.
What about army training activity in this situation? Are the F-16s or mine-clearance patrols still on duty, do soldiers train in garrisons and on proving grounds?
I need to start with reminding everyone that the armed forces are drafted to execute fundamental tasks when it comes to Polish sovereignty. Therefore, regardless of the scale and cause of the crisis, the army must be ready to perform its tasks at all times and in any given conditions, and to maintain a strictly determined level of combat readiness. To this end, we continue to perform, i.a., activities arising from our obligations towards NATO – our aircraft are deployed to combat duty and soldiers execute their tasks within foreign military contingents. Many services perform their tasks on an ongoing basis, such as sapper patrol service. Obviously, continuity of command is maintained. Our security depends on it. However, I strongly emphasize that while performing all military tasks, we implement very strict preventive measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus. We don’t suspend already ongoing ground trainings, although some exercises, trainings and classes have been rescheduled. We will also verify some plans concerning future trainings.
To what degree does the coronavirus pandemic affect the relations between the Polish Armed Forces and the allied armies?
I’ve spoken to Mark Esper, the US secretary of defense, and we agree that at the moment stemming the spread of the virus is our main objective. The number of joint exercises, trainings or trips has been reduced to the necessary minimum. This is a cardinal rule both in allied contacts and on the level of our military units. That’s why the large-scale Exercise Defender Europe 2020 has undergone changes. Both we and our Allies must conduct a quick and apt analysis of ongoing events, and modify our assumptions accordingly. Everything depends on how the epidemic situation evolves in Poland and around the world. This as well is a test of our capability to adapt to changes.
Is there a possibility that the exercise will be cancelled?
Almost all states involved in Exercise Defender Europe 2020 are struggling with the epidemic, and for each of them, including Poland, the main priority is the health of troops, their families and the whole society. Everyone wants the epidemic to end as soon as possible, and we have to do everything we can to support that process.
Smaller, accompanying exercises were to be organized within the frame of these maneuvers. Are they going to take place?
No, they aren’t. The four related exercises: Dynamic Front, Joint Warfighting Assessment, Saber Strike and Swift Response have been cancelled, and Allied Spirit has been modified to enable training to the soldiers who are already in Europe. However, the introduced changes don’t end the exercise, and in fact they are not even related to the maneuvers on the Polish territory. We only have about 4,000 US soldiers with over 1,500 units of equipment. They have come here to take part in Exercise Defender Europe 2020. Getting them to the training fields in Poland required very close and extensive cooperation of military logisticians. The 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team which is already staying on the territory of Poland, will remain in Drawsko Pomorskie, where the Exercise Allied Spirit will take place. Let me remind you that there are also US soldiers stationing in the south and east of Poland within the frame of permanent forward presence.
You mentioned that Polish soldiers still execute tasks in foreign contingents. In relation to the coronavirus pandemic, some states, among them Poland, decided to close borders and evacuate their citizens. Are the soldiers serving in different places in the world, from Iraq, through Afghanistan, Kosovo, Estonia, to Lebanon, going to return to Poland earlier? Or maybe there are plans to reduce the strength of contingents?
Service in Polish military contingents is not an exercise or training which can be freely rescheduled. Soldiers who serve there are responsible for the lives and security of others. Disturbing that balance could have far-reaching consequences. As far as our foreign bases are concerned, we have introduced strict safety measures analogous to those adopted in Poland. As far as it is possible, the rotations will continue as planned. Soldiers who are currently on missions are under the care of military medical services there, so when they return to Poland they won’t have to be quarantined. We are not planning to reduce the strength of the contingents either.
The army is not only soldiers, but also other employees. What preventive measures have been or are planned to be implemented in their case?
At the MoND headquarters, we have made appropriate adjustments to adapt to this crisis situation. We are minimizing risk and working from home whenever possible. Generally speaking, we avoid unnecessary gatherings while making sure our tasks are executed properly. Rationalism and common sense are key in this situation.
The army’s engagement in the fight with the coronavirus is constantly growing. Can we expect that the Polish soldiers, similarly to the Italian Carabinieri, will support the Police and keep order on the streets?
We always act for the good of our society. That’s why I have signed a decision which enables the Polish Armed Forces to support the Police. This basically means soldiers support officers of the Police and the Border Guard in their statutory activity. They also help them make sure that people observe the quarantine regime. I have been saying from the very beginning of this crisis that we are at the disposal of state authorities and ready to act, so the above-mentioned decision only confirms this readiness.
autor zdjęć: st. szer. Wojciech Król / CO MON