Thoughts and Observations from Defence 24: Shaping a Way Ahead for Polish Defense

By Robbin Laird

In addition to the major presentations at the Defence 24 Conference,  I attended panels on naval developments, technological development in the defense sector and tech transfer issues, and on Poland in NATO.  I also had a chance to talk with a number of the participants on the panels and to the conference.

And because the conference was quite stimulating, a number of impressions and thoughts were generated from the presentations and discussions at the conference.

I am focusing in this article on some of those thoughts generated by attending, learning from the panels and engaging with participants and attendees.

The first point is that when in Poland like being in Finland, the Russians are not far away.

Defense is a core subject for the national identity in both societies, and my time in Finland had much in common with my time in Poland. There is a sense of immediacy of the threat, and the need to work through effective deterrent efforts across the spectrum of warfare.

I would note that a number of the older Polish officers served as Warsaw Pact officers, and as one officer told me: “We understand the Russians better than many Europeans do.”

But this is also different from my time working on German unification whereby the Bundeswehr post-unification GDR officers were not to serve in the new German armed forces, otherwise known as the extant Federal Republic of Germany forces. I had extensive discussions with Bundeswehr officials at the time of unification and they were quite clear on not incorporating East German Prussian traditions into the new German military.

And in the naval panel, there was a very interesting presentation by a former Warsaw Pact naval officer, now a senior Polish naval officer, who underscored that the life of ships is 30 plus years. So from that perspective the current Polish navy was using assets designed for Warsaw Pact use but now adapted to a very different strategic environment.

The second point is the importance of keeping in mind the interactivity of the Polish military development with that of the United States and the European allies.

When Poland became part of “Europe whole and free,” its defense forces were Soviet style forces equipped with Soviet equipment.  On March 12, 1999, Poland, Hungry and the Czech Republic joined NATO. Even though they joined together, they have very different approaches to defense and security from Poland. And to be clear, that is just over 20 years ago. Poland then joined the European Union in 2004 which is only 17 years ago.

And what has been the context of the evolution of its alliances?

For NATO, both the Republican and Democratic Administrations drove European militaries away from territorial defense to out of area defense. And the twin impacts of 2014 and 2021 are crucial. 2014 because the direct defense of Europe was key to many European states, and saw, for example, significant change in the Nordic region towards a return to “total defense” efforts.

2021 is the other key impact, for the Biden blitzkrieg withdrawal strategy in Afghanistan, has raised fundamental questions about any U.S. led “out of area operations” going forward.

For Poland what this has meant is that after Warsaw Pact dissolution and the ascension to NATO, Poland joined in the “out of area” efforts and became a key partner of the United States. This meant that by the time the Crimea seizure occurred, the Polish military consisted of former Warsaw Pact equipment as well as new equipment enabling Poland to operate “out of area” with U.S. and NATO forces.

So with the return to direct defense as the NATO priority, what then should Poland do in terms of defense modernization?

In many ways, that is still being worked through.  The challenge is that there is no clear template to do so, in part because Poland’s allies are themselves going through fundamental changes with regard to both their strategic perspectives and force modernization.

How then should Poland shape its way ahead on force transformation and in so doing integrate more effectively with key allies and partners?

This was discussed at the conference, but I pursued those questions in both interviews during my visit to Warsaw and at the conference itself. Those interviews will appear in later articles.

The third point is the changing mix of security and defense issues.

The configuration of defense issues is changing as the security foundation for defense expands in scope and significance for a nation and its allies. The Belarus situation raises the specter of hybrid war which was often discussed during the conference.

But really this term confuses more than it enlightens. In a modern digital society, conflict in the digital domain is the norm, and the engagement of adversaries is ongoing. Indeed, in one panel, both the opportunity and need for Poland to ramp up its capabilities in the cyber and digital and C2 domains was highlighted.

But what this means is that Poland needs to shape a defense force fully competent to engage in warfare and conflict in the full spectrum of digital operations. And this also means, that cooperation will be ongoing with both NATO and EU partners. In my co-authored book on the return of direct defense in Europe, we argue that the EU should focus much more significantly on infrastructure defense than meddling in direct military conventional operations.

The fourth point is that the strategic context for Poland is in fundamental change which raises questions of how Poland should shape its strategic relationships over time.

To put it mildly, Poland really can not fall back on a strong historical record of allies coming to Poland’s rescue. Quite the opposite, so one should not be surprised by the power of Polish nationalism in guiding defense efforts going forward.

It could well be the case that Poland might re-configure its core working relationships. For example, it is obvious to me having spent so much time in the Nordic region, that no area of Europe is more concerned about the broad scale Russian challenge than the Nordics. This would make them candidates for expanding their partnerships with Poland.

There is an obvious area in which to do this, which is the common operations and support for their F-35s throughout the region up to and including shaping new training ranges in the North Sea region.

There is uncertainty about the United States and how the conflicts within the United States resolve themselves and how the United States will define its global interests going forward. There is no doubt the United States, not least because of the nuclear dynamic, a subject which was not mentioned, is the core player affecting Polish defense and security.

But what about expanded European defense cooperation as an alternative?

This was discussed throughout the two days in various ways in various panels. Poland has a stance on the EU and its future very different from the German leadership of the EU. Poland is much closer to de Gaulle’s view of a Europe of nations, rather than the concept highlighted in Paul Lever’s seminal book on Germany and its approach to Europe. His book is entitled: Berlin Rules.

There is a clear opportunity within the European context to enhance Polish participation. I already mentioned the F-35 engagement, but there is the cooperation on lift and tanking or on cyber warfare which can be expanded. The way ahead here is finding like-minded reliable European partners who have capabilities similar to Poland whereby common defense and security capabilities can be built.

But the Macron vision of “European Sovereignty” seems far from reality when seen in Warsaw. Indeed, the week of the conference the Greeks and the French signed a contract to deliver new naval vessels to Greece and highlighted the agreement as a new launch point for the European sovereignty initiative. Meanwhile, at the conference, Polish officials were underscoring the ramp up of unmanned air systems, and one might note that Turkey is a key partner in this effort.

I would add a side note on the European Defence Fund . The EDF has been established to enhance European collaboration in R and D for defense. In an article by Pierre Tran published last year, and based on a presentation by Thierry Breton, European commissioner for internal market, the focus of the effort was highlighted.

“The European Defense Fund will finance research and development, inviting member states to invest in industrial projects proposed by small and medium companies, as well as prime contractors.  The European commission, the executive arm of the EU, had pitched the launch of the fund with a €13 billion budget, with negotiations with member states whittling that down to €11 billion before arriving at €7 billion.

“The fund would increase a collective approach in joint investment and widen European  investment, particularly among member states such as Poland, Romania and Lithuania, Breton said.

“There was much in history and geography which explained why nations in the north and east of Europe had felt “more comfortable” in relying on the U.S., he said.

“We all have our history in defense,” he said.

There were four or five member states with strong arms industries and the aim was to widen the pool of interest in investment.

There were 24 member states backing 16 programs, he said.

“We have room to be inclusive,” he said.”

A key aspect of what the EDF could generate is new clusters of defense industrial cooperation and during the conference, one of the presentations did highlight how this was indeed happening from the Polish point of view. Currently, Poland is participating in eight of the current eighteen EDF projects.

The fifth point is what template should be shaped and built for Polish defense going forward?

As was noted often in the conference, Poland is a land power. And there could be the temptation to do what France did with regard to Germany prior to World War II, namely, to think in Maginot Line terms. If one focuses on the direct invasion of the Russians with air and ground forces, one might be tempted to try to look like West Germany did when facing the inner German border.

But is this the primary threat or most realistic challenge to be dealt with? 

Today’s force evolution provides significant ways to think about kill web integrated forces which can provide for a variety of ways that air, ground, and maritime forces can integrate to deliver decisive effects across the spectrum of conflict.

In addition, the Polish defense challenge is as much about the defense perimeter of Poland as it is about its national territory. The Russian focus on hybrid operations is part of what I would call seam warfare. Here the authoritarian states, the Chinese in the Indo-Pacific, and the Russians in Europe, are looking to open up seams in the ability of states to work together to deal with the authoritarian threats. And these seams are opened up by both non-lethal and lethal means but they are about coercion to serve state purposes.

For Poland, the Baltic and Black sea regions are both significant. The need in times of crisis when the Russians are actively working to open the seams affecting Polish defense either in the Baltic, or Black Sea or Ukrainian regions, how will the Poles move relevant forces to the point of effect?

By buying the F-35s, for example, they can open up the aperture on their thinking about how indeed to do so.  As a Polish senior Air Force officer noted, “The F-35 will have a major impact on our thinking not just about our Air Force but our entire joint force.”

The challenge facing Polish defense modernization from a technology point of view is to build up the holding forces for territorial defense now but to ensure that they have a solid grasp on the evolving technologies which will enable them to have flexible, agile forces capable of operating in support of Polish territory but doing so with significant mobility to deal with the primary threats posed by seam warfare.

It is not about procuring the building blocks for the Polish Maginot Line; it is about building out force mobility that can operate across the perimeter of the Polish defense periphery as well.

I would add a final thought. It is clear that the Polish government is focused on shaping a more integrated joint force going forward. The entire focus on missile defense integration clearly underscores that point, as does the acquisition of what is appropritely called the joint strike fighter.

The Poles might consider working with the Australians and learning about the “Plan Jericho” approach to rethinking how to shape more innovative joint force dynamics going forward. It has not been a complete success by any means, but the approach to shape a way to do so and to have a Polish “Plan Jericho” frankly would make a lot of sense.  And my own book on Australian defense is entitled Joint by Design which is clearly one strategic trajectory the Polish Ministry of Defence hopes to generate.