The Polish Army is expanding again, with their mechanized units catching the headlines during the last few months.
Last December it was announced that Poland was planning on upgrading 300 T-72M1 and T-72M1D tanks to a modernised standard. While the most modern tanks of the Polish Army is the mix of German-built Leopard 2A4’s and 2A5’s, T-72’s and their derivatives make up the bulk of the force. Around 230 of the T-72’s have been upgraded already earlier to the PT-91 Twardy standard, but there are also significant numbers of the obsolete T-72M1 left in service. While new tanks would have been a preferred option, it now seems that the Polish Army will instead upgrade 300 of these.
Keeping up the heritage of the Twardy, Polish companies have been presenting a number of T-72 upgrade options over the years. These have largely failed to attract orders up until now, with the major exception being the order from Malaysia for the PT-91M Pendekar for the Malaysian Army. The most radical suggestion is probably the PT-17, which sports a new turret with composite armour, laser warners, new sights and optics, a Ukrainian-built 120 mm smoothbore gun (firing NATO-standard ammunitions), and options for a new drive-train (either based on the Pendekar or a completely new one with a Scania-diesel). However, while the capabilities of the PT-17 is approaching that of new(ish) western tanks, the price tag does as well, and it now seems that the Polish Army is settling for a minor update based on the PT-91M2.
The exact scope is somewhat unclear, as the designation PT-91M2 has been used for a few different set-ups. The core of the upgrade is likely digital radios and communication equipment, new sights and electro-optical sensors (possibly Safran’s SAVAN 15 package), a new auto-loader for the main gun, ERA blocks, and additional smoke launchers. New ammunition for the 125 mm gun is also to be introduced, but a change of the main weapon is unlikely. The Slovak 2A46MS 125 mm L/46 has been mentioned in speculations, but currently it looks like this has been cut due to costs. While a far cry from a modern MBT, the PT-91M2 still represents a significant upgrade over the T-72M1 both when it comes to protection and firepower. All in all, the carry-over of technology from the Pendekar seems to be solid.
On the other end of the Polish tank spectrum, the Leopard 2A4’s are being upgraded to the 2PL standard. Here as well the focus is on increased protection and upgraded firepower. A new bolt on armor package with composite armor blocks changes the outlook of the flat 2A4 turret to a more wedged design, while modification to the Rheinmetall 120 mm L/44 gun allows it to accept modern high-pressure munitions. New sensors are also included in the package. The original order was for 128 upgraded tanks with an option for 14 more. The option was exercised this summer shortly after delivery of the first upgraded tanks to Poland, bringing the total number of Leopard 2PL up to 142.
More divisions, more brigades
But perhaps more interesting is that the Polish Army will expand with another mechanised division. This will be the 18. ‘Żelazna‘ (“Iron”) Division, officially standing up on Monday 17 September, and taking up the traditions of the similarly named infantry division which formed part of the Narew group in the early stages of the Second World War.
The order of battle is partly based on current brigades. The 1. ‘Warszawska’ Armoured Brigade currently stationed in the Wesoła district on the eastern outskirts of Warsaw will be transferred from the 16. ‘Pomorska‘ Mechanised Division. The 16. Division is, as the name implies, largely positioned in the northeastern part of Poland, with the 1. Brigade having been something of an outlier being held further to south. The 16. Division has also been the only of the Polish divisions to have a square structure with two armoured and two mechanised brigades, meaning that the downsizing to three brigades (9. Armoured, 15. and 20. Mechanised) makes the structure a copy of that of the 12. ‘Szczecin’ Mechanised Division. In addition the formerly independent 21. ‘Podhalańskich‘ Rifles (often the English name “Podhale” is used in English texts) will be added to the 18. Division. The 21. Rifles is interesting in that it is the Polish mountain infantry unit, being based in the southeastern parts of the country. However, the “mountain”-part of their mission easily leads a western observer astray. They are in fact not a light infantry unit, but a mechanised brigade equipped with BMP-1 (locally designated BWP-1) and a single tank battalion, the 1. Tank Battalion with T-72’s. There are indications that the BMP-1’s of the brigade will be replaced by KTO Rosomak’s (license-produced Patria AMV’s), and if the T-72’s of the battalion are amongst those to be brought up to PT-91M2 standard this would make the 21. Rifles a considerably more capable unit on the modern battlefield than it currently is. The third brigade of the 18. Division will be a new motorised/mechanised unit, the details of which are so far unknown.
A quick look at the map confirms that this is a shift to increase the readiness of the Polish Army to meet attacks on the eastern parts of the country. This includes the Brest-Warsaw axis, which as I have earlier discussed on the blog is the route used last time around when an attacker came for the Polish capital.
It remains to be seen to what extent the creation of 18. Division actually increases the amount of well-equipped troops in the field compared to the modernisation plans revealed earlier. However, the creation of a divisional HQ on the ‘right side’ of both the Bug and the Vistula with a plan for leading higher-level operations in Masovia is in itself important, and in case of a larger conflict it would be an extremely valuable resource thanks to its local knowledge.