With the Polish Minister of National Defense, Mariusz Błaszczak, on the functioning of the military during the pandemic and the challenges awaiting the army in 2021, talk Magdalena Kowalska-Sendek and Magdalena Miernicka.
The coronavirus pandemic has changed the world. Restrictions, isolation, uncertainty of tomorrow, as well as dramatic events in many people’s personal lives have also left their mark on the Polish Armed Forces. However, the soldiers have clearly shown that Polish people can count on them. How do you assess the army’s level of preparation to support the society in such situations?
In this difficult time, mutual help, kindness and generosity are of the greatest value. Therefore, I decided already at the beginning of the epidemic that the Polish Armed Forces will be fully engaged in countering its effects, and will be an important element of supporting the society. Every day, for several months now, thousands of soldiers – you might say silent heroes – are sent to hospitals, social welfare homes, sanitary-epidemiological stations and private homes, to support healthcare, deliver medicine, medical materials and food, as well as offer simple human support and understanding. Soldiers’ flexibility, empathy and feeling of responsibility proved to be extremely valuable. I can say with satisfaction that they execute their tasks exceptionally well. I want to thank them for that from the bottom of my heart. It is to a large extent their daily hard work and struggle that help the Polish system designed to counter the effects of the pandemic work efficiently and without disturbances.
What has the army learned during the time of the pandemic?
Many things – and I have to emphasize that both the testing period and the analysis of the findings are ongoing. As for now, we can definitely see the soldiers’ capability to quickly and smoothly adapt to a dynamically changing situation, and to effectively operate in a crisis. Many of us only now realize how important it is to have a well-planned communication system and substitutability scheme within the structure of an organization. Each level of command, all military institutions and units, had to find the way to cope with the permanent crisis conditions, at the same time ensuring continuity of functioning, mainly as regards mobilization capabilities and combat readiness, critical to our national defense system. In these areas, there can be no pauses or long-term suspension of trainings. The only compromise we had to make was to limit or modify some of the planned trainings to a degree. We decided to postpone only few of them.
The implementation of the Polish Armed Forces’ technical modernization programs has not been withheld in the last several months either. Military units have regularly received new equipment.
Technical modernization is one of my priorities. My goal is for the Polish Armed Forces to have advanced equipment of the highest quality. However, such equipment is usually very expensive, so we are trying to manage the modernization budget reasonably, with a longer perspective in mind. I’m glad the amount of money we can spend on new purchases is growing systematically. As far as defense expenditures are concerned, we are one of NATO’s leaders. We are already spending much more than the 2% GDP required by NATO, and we will reach 2.5% in a couple of years. This is the only way we can maintain necessary deterrence capability, and play a leading role in the region as regards the attitude to defense. For several years now, there has not been a week or month without announcing bigger or smaller deliveries to the army. I feel great satisfaction both when I hand over the keys to, for example, Raks, Poprads or Krabs, and when I announce that our army will receive the ultra-advanced Patriot air defense system, stealth F-35 aircraft, or the long-awaited HIMARS.
Which of the contracts concluded in 2020 do you consider the most important?
A real breakthrough purchase, a genuine leap into the future, is the F-35 contract. The procurement of 32 such machines will enable us to really strengthen Poland’s position as far as deterrence and defense is concerned. These are new capabilities for us, as the F-35 is much more than an aircraft – it is a multirole platform, as well as a data collecting and processing center. Thanks to stealth technology, it can operate undetected over enemy territory. In the future, these machines will create, together with Patriots and HIMARS, a comprehensive system, significantly increasing our army’s reconnaissance, defense, and, if need be, also striking capabilities. This is definitely bad news for a potential aggressor, but very good news for Poland.
However, the year 2020 has been much more than the F-35s. We succeeded in signing many important contracts with the Polish defense industry, among them yet another contract with a PGZ consortium – HSW and Rosomak – for the purchase of five Rak company fire modules, as well as a contract for the delivery of 60 Rosomak vehicles in a specialist version for transporting crews operating mobile Spike anti-tank guided missile sets. Our units have been successively receiving batches of new equipment, such as the Aero vehicles for paratroopers, and Grot carbines. It is very good, tested and – importantly – Polish equipment. There are also ongoing deliveries of Ford Ranger XLT vehicles.
The global pandemic has not, however, spared the arms industry. Has the turbulence caused by the pandemic influenced the delivery schedules of new armament to the Polish Armed Forces?
The epidemic does not spare anyone, and has impact on economies all over the world. It has also affected the defense industry, but I must admit we have no record of serious delays. We try to understand the delays that happen due to obvious personnel limitations at production halls, or problems with logistics. I can assure, though, that the equipment reaches Polish military units timely and without interruptions. Soldiers have been receiving new Poprads, Krabs, Bieliks, Mustangs, but also modernized Leopards and refurbished T-72s. In that sense, we can consider 2020 a very good year.
If you were to name three most important challenges awaiting the Polish Armed Forces in 2021, what would they be?
Soldiers will execute tasks connected with countering the pandemic to the last day it is necessary. This is the goal for the upcoming months. For me, for the army, for everyone. Hopefully, this new year will also be a dynamic time of coming out of the epidemic situation and returning to normal life. For our armed forces, it will also be a time of intensive training and exercises, also those with the participation of reserves. We are mainly looking forward to Exercise Dragon, which will involve certification of the 18th Mechanized Division’s command.
I would like 2021 to be the year when the Armament Agency (Agencja Uzbrojenia) begins to take real shape. I would really like to finally settle the question of purchases for the army. The Agency is to play the role of the main coordinator, which, next to handling all analytical, legal, tender and purchase issues, will also involve supervising the whole life cycle of the equipment. This institution is also necessary due to the upcoming contracts, which, I must emphasize, are critical for the army, such as air defense contracts – the second phase of the Wisła medium-range project and the Narew short-range project. We also keep in mind the submarines for the Navy and helicopter programs.
In a recent poll, Polish people ranked the Polish Armed Forces highest among institutions. It is a measurable success we owe to our joint actions. I really hope this position is strengthened in the upcoming year.
autor zdjęć: st. szer. Wojciech Król/CO MON