Poland is building what looks to be the most powerful military in Europe. It is acquiring major hardware from the United States, including M1 Abrams tanks, F-16 and F-35 fighters, Apache attack helicopters, HIMARS rocket launchers, and Patriot air defense systems. The U.S. is simultaneously contributing to the defense of Poland, deploying significant military forces in that country, including an Armored Brigade Combat Team (ABCT), and prepositioning stocks to equip a second ABCT. By acquiring top-of-the-line U.S. hardware, Poland is both enhancing its defense potential and improving interoperability with U.S. forces. So why would Poland also choose to acquire South Korean main battle tanks, which have never been proven in combat? Interoperability dictates that Warsaw should acquire additional M1 Abrams instead.
Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Poland had begun a program to transform its military from one reliant on Soviet era equipment into a modern fighting force equipped with state-of-the-art platforms. The Warsaw government and the Polish military ultimately concluded that it should buy American, choosing to acquire the best systems available in the U.S. inventory, systems that the U.S. military also employed.
Early on in its modernization efforts, Poland began swapping out its Soviet-era equipment for U.S. and European platforms. For example, in 2002, the Polish Air Force acquired F-16 fighters.
But as the threat from Russia grew, Poland accelerated its military modernization effort. In the space of just a few years, Poland signed contracts for 32 F-35s. Warsaw also decided to acquire 366 M1 Abrams tanks in several variants, 96 Apache attack helicopters, 486 launcher-loader modules for HIMARS, and 48 Patriot air and missile defense launchers. Once these capabilities are fully deployed, Poland will have one of the most capable militaries in NATO.
The decision to invest so significantly in U.S.-made weapons and platforms has two primary motivations. The first is to deter Russian aggression. A military that has shown it is unable to defeat Ukraine will have to think twice, if not thrice, before it decides to take on the large and well-trained Polish military, armed with the best tanks, aircraft, and missile systems in the world.
The second motivation is to ensure the closest possible military alignment and coordination with the U.S. military. When nations acquire U.S. platforms, the sale comes with ancillary benefits, including access to high-quality training, sustainment, logistics, and intelligence. Operating the same platforms also allows the creation of common pools of spare parts, ammunition, and fuel. It also allows these countries to align their combat tactics and techniques with those developed by the U.S. and others over years of exercises and operational deployments. Last year, Poland opened the Abrams Tank Training Academy in Poznan. It has also opened a maintenance and repair depot that can support Polish, U.S. and Romanian Abrams. Interoperability reduces costs to operate and maintain forces.
Interoperability is an important reason that other NATO allies are also acquiring U.S. hardware. A clear example of this is the members of the Alliance who have chosen to acquire the F-35. In addition to Poland, these include, Germany, the U.K., Italy, Canada, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Finland, and most recently, the Czech Republic. The whole of the F-35 community in Europe is greater than the sum of its parts.
The M1 Abrams is another example. The centerpiece of modern ground force operations is the main battle tank. Poland is not the only NATO ally to acquire the M1. Romania has chosen to acquire 54 Abrams, and others may follow suit. By acquiring the M1, the Polish Army strengthens its ability to operate alongside U.S. ground forces, as well as those of Romania.
However, interoperability with U.S. forces is particularly important for Poland. The U.S. has made it clear that it is committed to Poland’s defense, the most tangible sign of which is the deployment of significant military forces there. Washington also supports Poland’s security with the forward deployment of elements of an Army division headquarters, the provision of an ABCT on “heel-to-toe” rotational deployment, the pre-positioning equipment for a second ABCT, and the placement of both logistics units and an MQ-9 Reaper drone squadron. The Biden administration recently took the additional step of establishing the first permanent U.S. military facility in Poland, the headquarters for the newly reconstituted U.S. Army V Corps. It is possible that events further east may dictate the permanent deployment of U.S. combat forces in Poland.
In the event of a Russian threat to any NATO members in Eastern Europe, U.S. forces will flow into Poland. It is possible that these units will need to rapidly move from their deployment locations into combat alongside Polish forces. In order for combined Polish-U.S. forces to successfully deter or defeat a Russian threat, they will require the maximum degree of interoperability.
Given the importance of the U.S. military’s relationship with its Polish counterpart and the value of interoperability, why has Poland moved to acquire nearly 1,000 South Korean K2 Black Panther main battle tanks? On its face, this decision makes little sense. The K2 is an unproven system. Hyundai Rorem, the tanks producer, has no experience with supporting a foreign buyer or setting up a co-production facility for the K2 in a foreign country. Fixing this deficiency will take years.
The Polish-South Korean tank deal flies in the face of the central tenet of interoperability, which is to employ common systems and platforms. The Polish military will now have to operate and sustain multiple main battle tanks and the U.S. Army will have disadvantaged by having to operate alongside Polish units that have different types of main battle tank. This decision undermines the advantages, operational and industrial, of the presence of U.S. armor in Poland and possible sales of Abrams tanks to other Eastern European countries.
Poland needs to reconsider its decision to acquire the K2 main battle tank from South Korea. Instead, Warsaw needs to acquire additional advanced variants of the M1 Abrams. Poland has made remarkable progress in its military modernization program. Acquiring the K2 would be a serious step backwards.
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