Polish government, Russian government, Belarussian government, US government
Since the invasion of Ukraine, Poland has majorly supported its neighbor but it has also started to invest massively in its own military. With this investment, Poland’s military size is set to almost double by the year 2035. However, with elections coming in October 2023, the military expansion has raised questions on possible alternative motivations of the ruling party, as well as doubts about whether Poland can even sustain such a military force.
Russia and Belarus: Two main reasons for Poland’s military expansion are the combination of its geographical location and the invasion of Ukraine. Poland has received multiple threats from the Russian and Belarussian regimes, specifying Poland as their next war target after Ukraine. Poland is not willing to ‘wait and see’ what will happen in Ukraine, without preparing itself for an actual invasion.
Political motivations: There is an internal political motivation to increase the military spending of Poland. The ruling party Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość(PiS)) has been losing support according to polls, and the upcoming elections will be on October 15, 2023. Investing in the military could turn around the prospected loss of the ruling party. Opposition parties are worried if Poland will be able to sustain the military expenditure that comes from having a large standing army in the future, without compromising for instance living standards.
US political situation: Depending on the 2024 elections, there is a possibility that US support for Ukraine and European NATO members will dwindle. This will be true especially if the Republicans win. This will leave European countries alone in supporting Ukraine. With the recent improved bond between Poland and Ukraine, the new military budget could mean Poland will be ready to fill some of the gap that the US will potentially leave in the future.
Recent developments: Since 2015, the amount of active serving personnel in the Polish military has significantly grown from 100,000 to 175,000. Besides the growth in numbers, the Polish military has undergone and still is undergoing major modernization efforts to raise above its status as a NATO army with Soviet gear. To achieve this, Poland is scheduled to hit 4% GDP expenditure on its military from the end of this year already, this doubles the NATO 2% standard.
Modernization: The Polish military has in recent years already started shedding its Soviet equipment, in favor of western designs. A major catalyst for Poland’s military modernization was the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. In this time period, Poland donated much of its Soviet equipment to Ukraine, for which it was pledged modern western replacements by the US.
Future plans: The Polish plans are to expand their military personnel count from the current 175,000 to around 300,000 active personnel in 2035. To accommodate this massive expansion, the Polish military is ordering and buying an equally massive amount of new hardware. This includes but is not limited to: 1500 Main Battle Tanks, of which 1000 of the South-Korean K2 variant; close to 1500 domestic produced Infantry Fighting Vehicles; around 800 artillery pieces, mostly from South-Korean produce, just like the 288 Multiple Rocket Launch Systems; as well as 96 Apache attack helicopters, 32 F-35A Multirole aircraft and 44 South-Korean FA-50 variants.
Why South-Korea? Poland's choice of South Korean weapons is the combination of quality and capabilities of the products, which is comparable to Western counterparts, and short delivery dates. This made Poland prefer South-Korea as their main arms supplier over countries such as Germany and the US.
Deterrence. As stated by president Duda, the aim for Poland is to “(...)create such a defense system that no-one ever dares attack us, that Polish soldiers will never need to fight." If Poland manages to establish the kind of military force, then expansionist neighbors will look elsewhere. Poland’s many experiences and historical grievances with being besieged, invaded and conquered fuel the need for a deterrence force even more.
Can Poland maintain this expansion? As mentioned above, raising a large standing army does not only come with a large first time investment, it also ensures a high total maintenance cost - especially if Poland is planning to keep its new material ready for action. Even though the Polish economy has been steadily growing, whether Poland will be able to afford its military expansion will be dependent on its willingness to withdraw funds from other departments of the government. Poland could optionally decide to put some of their new hardware in long-term storage, preserving the machines but not having to pay the full running costs, while having them ready for use when needed.
The Polish military has and will see massive expansion in recent and coming years, and in a very short time has grown to the third highest military spender in NATO at 4% GDP. The Polish government’s security concerns are mainly motivated by their proximity to Belarus, and Russia, which the government considers to be hostile. Another motivation for Poland to expand its military capability is the future of domestic US politics. The US military support Europe currently enjoys is likely to reduce in the future; the extent of this will depend on the result of the 2024 US elections. Worries exist in Poland that these (promised) investments are made by the ruling party to score politically, due to them having lost influence in recent times. With the developments Poland has made and is planning to make, it will very quickly establish itself as one of, if not the main European fighting force for at least in the near future. However, it runs the risk of compromising its economy in doing so.