The Polish Armed Forces have already engaged the first crews and technicians trained to operate Abrams tanks, and soon they will also have instructors. Over a dozen soldiers are currently undergoing the certification process under American supervision at the Land Forces Training Center (CSWL).
Abrams is parked outside the garage. On top of it there is a group of soldiers in tankman uniforms, its future crew. They are leaning over the open hatch and listening to the instructor explaining, in simple words, the purpose of particular elements of the equipment. Later, he demonstrates how everything works. The soldiers ask questions, touch and test. They are all communicating in Polish. A little further along, there is another tank, followed by many other machines that together create a neat row reaching up to the end of the yard. There are people next to each of the tanks. American instructors are walking around, observing and listening, monitoring their students. They do not speak Polish, but they do know Abrams like the back of their hand. One glance is enough for them to know if the training is going well. In case of any doubt, they can always count on a translator or ask the Polish instructors to translate what they have just said. Everything must add up.
I am at a military training area in Biedrusko, housing a technical equipment park of the Land Forces Training Center (CSWL) in Poznań. I last visited this place in the summer of 2022, when the Abrams Academy was still in its initial phase. At the time, the first group of Polish technicians was learning to operate the new tanks. A lot has changed since that time. Now, the Polish army already has trained technicians and crews, and soon it will also have its own instructors. Candidates for instructors are currently undergoing the certification process.
Abrams Tanks Are the Future
They all have different experiences. “I have been serving with tanks for nine years now. Earlier, I worked with T-72 and PT-91 Twardy. I am a driver-instructor at CSWL in Poznań,” explains Pvt 1st Class Specialist Filip Kołodziej. When it was certain that the Polish army would receive new tanks, he was told he had two options: he could either train to operate Abrams tanks or Korean K-2s. He went for the first option.
Another path to the Abrams Academy was that of SWO Dawid Wroński. “At the Center, I have long dealt with the tactics of motorized and mechanized subunits. I focused my attention on IFVs and Rosomaks. However, it’s good to try new things in life, and when there was an opportunity to work with completely new equipment, I just took it,” he says.
SWO Bogusław Tchórzewski, on the other hand, is a logistics and equipment operation instructor. “I started in Czarne, at a training battalion, teaching courses for technicians operating the T-72 and the PT-91, as well as the WZT-2 and WZT-3 technical support vehicles or the BLG-67 mobile bridges mounted on the T-55 chassis. Later, I transferred to Poznań, where I was still dealing with tanks, but also Rosomaks, so I know quite a lot of equipment,” he admits. Now, he has added another piece to the puzzle. It was a necessary step, as the tanks he has got to know so well will slowly be removed from service and replaced by Abrams.
First, each of the mentioned soldiers completed basic training. In the case of Filip Kołodziej and Dawid Wroński it was OPNET (Operator New Equipment Training), which must be completed by all Abrams crews. During the classes, taught by American instructors, the soldiers learn the construction of the tank, how to operate it, and at the end perform shooting at the training ground. Importantly, they are prepared to serve at every post. The gunner, for instance, must know how to drive the tank, and the driver must learn how to shoot from it. That way, if need be, each of the crew members can be replaced by another one. Bogusław Tchórzewski, on the other hand, completed FMNET (Field Maintenance New Equipment Training) in the USA, where he went with the first group of Polish soldiers who were to prepare for receiving Abrams by the Polish Armed Forces.
After completing the course, the soldiers are going to return to their own units, and then start to put the knowledge gained in Biedrusko into practice during tactical exercises. Another role is played by the specialists of CSWL. They have become the so-called shadow instructors.
Assistant with a Folder
Obviously, the impressive name has its more prosaic counterpart. The Poles have simply become assistants to the American specialists. With that, they entered a new stage of training, which is to make them full-fledged Abram tank instructors. This part of training consists of several phases. “Soldiers assigned to the role of assistant initially observe how the US instructor performs the assigned tasks. Then they have to demonstrate their knowledge of the vehicle and convey the instructions during classes in a lecture room, in front of a large group,” explains Jeffrey Brundage, a spokesman for the US instructor team. “We're concerned not only with testing the candidates’ knowledge, but also determining whether they can speak in front of a large audience, which is not at all obvious. If they have a problem with it, we help them overcome that fear,” he adds. The final stage is certification. The assistants teach the classes themselves, while the Americans observe and evaluate them. “We are currently going through this very stage. Each of us has a folder with a detailed list of sections to pass. If we manage to pass all of them, we will become independent instructors and train Polish Abrams users in the future,” explains Filip Kołodziej.
The certification has already been running for more than three months, so there is more or less another three months ahead of the participants. After that, all that remains is to adapt the gained knowledge to the operation of the tank versions that the Polish army will procure. The trainees in Biedrusko are so far learning on Abrams M1A2 and SEPv2. For future OPNET instructors, the training ends there. “In the case of FMNET, there is a possibility of doing further courses, during which we will expand our competencies even more,” admits Bogusław Tchórzewski. From the point of view of the crew itself, the Abrams is relatively easy to operate. The various systems can be controlled almost intuitively, a bit like a cell phone or a computer. Mechanics, however, have an incomparably more difficult task. “From our perspective, the Abrams is not so intuitive. The tank has been packed with electronics and complex systems. A simple repair can be done relatively quickly, of course. However, a more complicated one requires time, and above all knowledge,” emphasizes Tchórzewski.
The certification process itself is also quite challenging. First and foremost, as soldiers unanimously say, it requires breaking the language barrier. Shadow instructors must not only know English well, but also know the specific, technical-military nomenclature. This is essential for studying instructions and communicating with specialists from overseas. American instructors do not offer any preferential treatment. “We have based our evaluation method on the standards we have developed over the years, which we resort to when certifying our own government and contract instructors,” explains Brundage. It should be kept in mind that these positions are generally filled by retired soldiers who have been dealing with Abrams tanks for decades.
As Safe as a Tank
In fact, Polish soldiers praise this training system. “There is an iron rule in it: one crew, one instructor, and if you include an assistant – one crew, one assistant, one instructor. Soldiers have plenty of time to ask questions and check how the various systems work,” stresses Wroński. They also invariably praise the tanks themselves. “Abrams can hardly even be compared with tanks designed back in the USSR. It is enough to consider the comfort level. Sometimes soldiers joke that the Soviets first built the tank and then realized they needed to fit a crew in it. Here, soldiers sit in comfortable seats, in a soundproofed interior.... I don’t even have to mention the combat and technological superiority of the Abrams,” says Kołodziej. Safety issues are also very important. “The tank has been designed so that even if the turret is hit, the crew has a chance of survival,” adds Tchórzewski. When Abrams is reached by a projectile, the energy of the explosion is directed upward. “It is different in the case of old post-Soviet tanks, where an accurate shot can break the turret. It is enough to look at photos and videos from the war in Ukraine. You can find plenty of such examples in them,” he stresses.
Meanwhile, more courses are in progress. A sizable group of trained soldiers has already left the Abrams Academy. CSWL does not disclose their exact number. However, it is known that only at the end of 2022 there were 150 of them, and they will soon be joined by more than a dozen Polish instructors, who are taking small steps towards coming out of the shadow. The Americans stress that the whole process is a challenge for them as well. “For the first time ever, we are working with multiple versions of Abrams plus support vehicles. However, cooperation with the Polish military is going great,” assures Jeffrey Brundage.
autor zdjęć: Aleksander Perz/ 18 DZ