The tanks might have been the big part of the Polish-Korean framework agreement and the overall discussions about increased cooperation in general, but they weren’t the only thing in there. As tanks never are better than the combined arms supporting them, the role of artillery and infantry fighting vehicles in the overall package is worth a look.
672 K9 Thunder 155 mm self-propelled artillery pieces were included in the framework, at a cost of approximately three billion Euros (including supporting vehicles). If the K2 Black Panther is breaking new ground, the K9 Thunder has on the other hand a solid market share in the SPG-market over the last decade, including being ordered by Finland, Estonia, and Norway in the northern half of Europe. Interestingly, the current Polish AHS Krab is half K9 Thunder and half AS-90 Braveheart. In the glass half-full scenario, this scenario this is great because the new artillery share chassis with the old one, allowing for easier maintenance and logistics. In the glass half-empty scenario, this raises the question why they just don’t build more of those?
The answer is the upgrade path. Since the British never got around to actually buying the Braveheart, the Poles are the sole users of the turret (Marksman in Finnish service comes to mind…), and would have to pay for any upgrades themselves. At the same time, the improved K9A1 has now become the new standard in ROK service, which include an upgraded fire control system (with improvements to both hardware and software), an auxiliary power unit (APU) which allows for operating the vehicles without using the main diesel, integration of GPS to the INS for faster and more accurate positioning data, as well as the integration of new ammunition for longer ranges (up 54 km according to official figures). Safety features not allowing the turret to rotate over an open hatch is also included, as well as improved vision systems including for night-driving and reversing. Some of these improvement are certainly more important than others (the APU, safety features, and FCS improvements are the ones that comes to mind), and as mentioned these are not concepts but rather things that are found in the current production standard.
As such, very much in-line with the K2 Black Panther project, Poland will acquire 48 K9A1 Thunder from Korean production lines with the first 18 delivered already this year (again, let’s remember this is still only a framework deal, and as far as I understand will still require the signing of the contract proper for this to actually happen). These will form two battalions (squadrons or Dywizjon in Polish terminology), presumably made up of three 8-gun batteries for a total of 24 guns per battalion (notable that this means all guns would have a position within the wartime OOB, as opposed to the situation for the tanks).
However, as with the K2PL, the real meat of the dish comes in the form of an additional 624 K9PL based on the improved and planned K9A2, and which from 2026 will be license produced locally. The K9A2 will bring a serious change in the form of dropping two crew members to go to a three-man crew with a fully automated turret. This also allows for an increased rate of fire thanks to the autoloader functioning as a small assembly line with the next charge and round already being readied before the shot has gone. A more detailed CGI-version of the workings of the new unmanned turret is found in the video below.
While the growth in numbers isn’t as remarkable as for the tanks, we are still looking at more than double the current inventory of the self-propelled artillery that is being replaced (this is a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation based on approximately 360 2S1 Gvozdika and 100 Dana retiring while the planned 122 AHS Krab are delivered and kept in service). In essence, if the Wikipedia-numbers are roughly correct we’ll see a growth from 23 artillery battalions to a combined force of 33 battalions (5 of which are AHS Krab). However, a key detail is that this is missing the AHS Kryl, a local wheeled self-propelled gun based on the Israeli ATMOS 2000, for which there had been plans that between four and seven battalions (96 to 168 guns) worth of AHS Kryl would be acquired to replace the Dana – just for the Rosomak-equipped brigades in the lower plan, and for all units operating Danas in the higher one. Whether the AHS Kryl now is dead remains to be seen, but it would likely be a better match for a Rosomak-brigade than the K9PL, so throw in another four battalions for a total Polish force of 37 artillery battalions, and you might not be too far off (120 AHS Krab, 96 AHS Kryl, and 672 K9A1/K9PL) – though again it should be remembered that the Polish forces have seen several rather ambitious materiel plans that have not come to fruition over the last decade, so we’ll wait for the contracts until calling this one.
Looking at these number, the choice of the autoloading K9A2 as the base for the majority of the future artillery force is notable. While the crew for the howitzers themselves is far from the only personnel needed to run an artillery battalion, the difference between five or three soldiers aboard every one of the 672 K9 is still 1,344 persons. Added to this, there’s an additional 1,000 tankers less in the K2 Black Panthers compared to if the non-autoloading Leopard 2A7 or M1A2 Abrams had been bought. For an Army that is growing at a serious rate and in a climate when many armed forces struggle with being competitive on the labour market, these are non-trivial numbers. It also obviously raises the question about whether the AHS Krab hulls could receive the autoloading turret and in essence become K9PL at some point during their career (and for Finland, whether we could see Polish turrets on our K9FIN Moukari at some point in the distant future)?
An interesting detail in the Polish order is that it include not only the K10 ammunition resupply vehicle which is in use with the ROK and has proved rather popular among export customers (though it did fail to sell to Finland), but also the K11 Fire Direction Control Vehicle (FDCV), a command vehicle developed for the Egyptian order. The story of Hanwha’s attempts at selling a command vehicle for the K9 is a somewhat complex and confusing one. The K9 replaced the M109A2K/K55 in ROK service. This had been produced under license, and a local command vehicle was developed on the chassis, designated K77. My understanding is that the K77 is still serving on as the command vehicle for the K9-units, and a number of internet sources have been passing around pictures of the K77, wrongly labelling it as the K11. To further complicate things, there has been a K10C2-variant being offered, which like the K11 uses the K10 ARV as its baseline, but is a more advanced vehicle than what the K11 turned out to be.
As one of the key details in the localisation of the Polish vehicles is the ability to work with the Polish Topaz-battle management system, how literal one should read the announcement of the K11 being the Polish C2-vehicle is an open question. It is entirely possible that it is yet a third member in the K10FDCV/K11-family, not really being more closely related to the K11 than to the K10FDCV-proposal, but that Hanwha has simply re-branded the C2-line. However, as details on the Egyptian K11 are scarce enough, any deeper analysis between what are essentially a paper concept, a yet undelivered version, and a version that’s probably only now being properly defined is bound to be pure guesswork more than anything else. The one question this does open up is whether ROK will eventually get around to replacing their K77 with K11 (of some version) now when the vehicle has achieved launch customers and as the framework agreement does include development work of new versions going both ways.
The final tracked vehicles in discussion with the Koreans, and which currently are still outside of the framework agreement is the tracked infantry fighting vehicles, a role which in Polish service is handled by the obsolete BWP-1, in essence the basic BMP-1 which has served since the early 1970’s. The Poles have been moving forward with a domestic design under the Borsuk-program, which currently is undergoing trials and is aiming for an amphibious IFV with the mobility to keep up with main battle tanks. A key feature of the Borsuk is the unmanned ZSSW-30 turret. This is also locally developed and sport a 30 mm Bushmaster Mk 44 gun as well as a Spike ATGM launcher. The turret is also seen as a potential solution for the Rosomak, and as such would offer some benefits of synergy between the wheeled and tracked infantry fighting vehicles of the Polish forces.
However, the discussions about increased Polish-Korean cooperation means that a new contender has appeared in the discussion, the AS-21 Redback currently on offer to Australia (the Redback for those wondering being “one of the few spider species that can be seriously harmful to humans, and its liking for habitats in built structures has led it to being responsible for a large number of serious spider bites in Australia”. Nice little fellow…). The plan is apparently for a mix of Redbacks, Borsuks, and presumably Rosomaks, to be the battle taxis of the Polish Army.
Compared to the Borsuk, the Redback is heavier and not amphibious, features which make it likely that it is indeed better protected than the Polish vehicle (giving some credibility to the marketing slogan “Best protected IFV with lethal firepower“). A key detail is that it can take an eight-man squad (in addition to the crew of three), while the Borsuk is only able to fit six soldiers in the rear. Exactly how the units would be set up in the future six divisions of the Polish Army and what the breakdown between Borsuks and Redbacks would be is open, but notable is that if the full-strength of a Polish armoured division really is 360 tanks, the current 1,360 tanks on order won’t allow for six armoured divisions. A more likely OOB would then be something along the lines of two armoured and four mechanised (120-180 tanks) divisions, of which some (based in wetter regions) would potentially be well-served by lighter systems such as the Borsuk and AHS Kryl. However, it deserves to be emphasised that this is just speculation on my part, and the reasoning behind both Borsuk and Redback might simply be down to the Redback being cheaper and/or better, but there still being a need to keep domestic industry running by buying a serious number of IFVs from them as well. Would not be the first time that has happened to a country.
Edit: Seems the plan for now is that the Borsuk will be the main IFV, with the AS-21 going to the M1A2-units (i.e. the 18. Division if the current plans/speculation will hold true). Thanks to Damian for the input!
In any case, as was the case with the tanks, even if just half or three-fourths of the projected artillery and IFVs are acquired, the Polish Army will be the premier NATO-land force in Europe based on the level and number of its equipment. It is, however, worth noting that during times of rapid expansion there is always a risk of falling into a trap of not achieving required levels of training due to the huge influx of new people and rapid promotions, as well as the materiel account eating up a disproportionate part of the overall defence budget, allowing too little funding for exercises. Let us hope that this won’t be the fate of the Polish Army, because the free world needs a strong armoured force west of the Bug.