Heavy Metal in the South, Pt. 1 – Mr. Creighton’s Tank

Poland has been a regular feature on the blog, largely due to it being one of the few European and the sole western country bordering the Baltic Sea to actually count the strength of its ground forces in divisions and not brigades (or battalions…). Poland is also a country that has extremely bad memories of Russia during the last few centuries, and as such has taken a prominent role in the response to the war in Ukraine. Crucially, this include the transfer of quite a few tanks and self-propelled guns to Ukraine, leading to a renewed hurry to rearm the Polish Army with modern equipment.

A very busy-looking M1A2 System Enhancement Package (SEP) v2 Abrams exercises in Poland in 2016. The SEPv2 is a step below the v3 Poland is acquiring, but externally the vehicles are rather similarly looking, including the significant amount of turret-mounted stuff compared to the original clean M1 of the Cold War. Source: US Army photo by Sgt. Ashley Marble/Wikimedia Commons

A brief summary for those who don’t have keeping track of Polish tanks on the top of their to-do-list. The Polish Army sport four divisions, one of which is the 11th ‘Lubuska‘ Armoured Cavalry Division, with the other three being the three mechanized ones: the 18th  ‘Żelazna‘,  12th ‘Szczecińska‘, and 16th ‘Pomorska‘. There has been quite a bit of cut and paste and general moving around of units and equipment in recent years, so with the caveat that I certainly might have missed something, the 11th and 18th operate mixes of Leopard 2 and older tanks (T-72 for 11th, PT-91 for 18th), while the 16th uses a mix of T-72 and PT-91. Despite the name, the 12th is a motorised unit based around the Rosomak (local version of the Patria AMV) rather than a true mechanised division. The PT-91 is a locally upgraded T-72, while the ‘real’ T-72 that are in use are made up of a combination of T-72M1 and the lightly upgraded T-72M1R. For IFV, the BWP-1 (BMP-1) soldier on, while the Rosomak is in use alongside tracked vehicles in the 11th and as mentioned a key vehicle for the 12th. For artillery, the venerable 2S1 Gvozdika 122 mm SPG is slowly on the way out, while the Krab is on the way in. This is a unique Polish hybrid sporting the chassis of the South Korean K9 Thunder but with a British AS-90M Braveheart turret. The Braveheart traces its roots to a cancelled upgrade-program for the British standard AS-90 SPG, crucially fitted with a modern 52-calibre gun instead of the 39-calibre one used by the UK.

Edit: Turns out the 12th also is a mechanized division, and I was just fooled by their homepage which prefer to show off the modern wheeled brigade and not the old Soviet-designed iron. Funny that. Thanks to Piekarski for pointing that out!

Now, Poland and Germany has had a somewhat complicated relationship over the years (mild understatement), and the Polish Army and political leadership has not been happy with their recent dealings with the German defence industry (another mild understatement). This is to the extent that the planned Leopard 2PL upgrade program has been cancelled, and instead all Leopard 2A4 and 2A5 are to be withdrawn from service. Edit: I was under the impression that the severely delayed 2PL-program had been cancelled with the decision to withdraw the Leopards from service, but apparently it (at least) for now continues, with the goal of converting another 20+ tanks this year. Good catch by nonameplease!  At the same time, you do not need to be a genius to realise that the T-72M1 and PT-91 really ought to have preceded the Leopard 2 into the greener pastures beyond, meaning that the Polish Armed Forces are looking at replacing all tanks in the current inventory, an inventory which as mentioned is one of the largest in Europe.

The most positive thing that can be said about the T-72M1 on the modern battlefield is that it is no more outdated than many of the Russian tanks it could be expected to meet, and that having an old tank usually is better than not having any tank at all. Here a T-72M1 of the 18th division’s 19th brigade is basking in the Polish sun. Source: 19th brigade FB

What has made the situation even more urgent for both generations of tanks is the war in Ukraine, which for the Leopard 2 has seen the faith in Germany as an arms supplier take a serious hit, while for the T-72/PT-91 an undisclosed but significant number – it could eventually be possibly 240 T-72M1 and all 230 PT-91 – have suddenly found themselves on a train heading east. Add the 140+ Leopard 2A4 (perhaps two companies of which are converted to 2PL-standard) and 105 Leopard 2A5 which are all to head out, and Poland is looking at replacing something in the order of 700 tanks in total. One possibility has been to temporarily increase the number of Leopards in service, and Poland has been in discussion with Germany about getting another Leopard battalion (44 tanks), but German officials have stated there simply isn’t that amount of tanks available and has instead offered 20. The whole thing is something of a mess, and while it is unlikely that this is (just) about German reluctance to meaningfully help Ukraine in a serious – if indirect – way, it has certainly further widened the gap between Warsaw and Berlin (interlude: go read this excellent piece on the background to the German mindset. It doesn’t help Ukraine that we know why the system is broken, but it offers a refreshing take from the inside).

So the Polish Leopard is dead – as much from industrial issues and politics as from anything else. What to do instead?

Back in April Poland received approval for the purchase of up to 250 M1A2 SEPv3 tanks from US authorities. Not 700, but still a sizeable number. However, building 250 tanks will take time, and time is obviously something Warsaw feel they are a bit tight on at the moment. As such, this was followed up by the announcement that they will procure an additional 116 M1A1 SA tanks, which thanks to being used US tanks are available for if not immediate then at least rapid delivery. The M1A1 SA is an upgrade program from 2006, which saw older vehicles equipped with newer sensors, improvements to the engine and armour, as well as generally overhauling the old vehicles to give them longer life. It might not be the newest and greatest, but it is certainly a huge step above any of the Soviet designs rolling around. The M1A2 SEPv3 is on the other hand currently the latest and greatest of US tank designs, sporting things such as improved armour, the CROWS-LP remote-weapon station, and an under-armour auxiliary power unit which allows the vehicle to produce power without using the notoriously thirsty gas turbine. It has been stated that the M1A1 SA vehicles will also be upgraded to M1A2 SEPv3 standard once things are starting to fall into place.

The signing ceremony for the Polish M1A2 SEPv3 Abrams tanks took place at the base of the 18th divisions’s 1st armoured brigade outside of Warsaw, and sported a number of US tanks painted in Polish colours. Source: kpr. Wojciech Król/CO MON

An interesting detail is that Poland has indicated that all 366 Abrams tanks will go to the 18th, which alert readers will remember is a mechanised and not an armoured division (at least for the time being). However, the OOB is somewhat non-standard, with the single armoured brigade operating the Leopard 2A4/2A5, and with the 21st infantry brigade and the 19th mechanised brigade both operating a single battalion of ex-Soviet tanks – despite one supposedly being mountain infantry and the other a mechanised unit.

Let’s pause for a moment and think about this number – because 366 tanks deserve to be put into perspective.

A US Army armoured brigade combat team sports 87 M1A2 tanks, with three battalions of 29 tanks each (a total of six 14-tank companies and a single tank attached to each battalion headquarter company). This means that a traditional US armoured division with three armoured brigades would put a grand total of 261 tanks in the field. That’s just over 100 tanks less than the 18th division would field, but perhaps more striking is the fact that it’s significantly more than twice the 148 tanks the whole of the British Army will be able to muster. ‘Żelazna’ means ‘iron’, and the division will certainly field plenty of that. In essence the division will either sport three very heavy (122 tank) armoured brigades, which each have 40% more tanks than a US ABCT, or there will be four 90 tank brigades. The Poles have earlier experience of four-brigade divisions, as the 16th used to have control of the 1st armoured brigade before the 18th was stood up as a new division, so it is not impossible to imagine that being the plan. However, as we will get to eventually, there is also talk about 60-tank battalions in the Polish Army, which would mean that 366 tanks would give a nice even six battalions Edit: Seems a Polish battalion is 58 tanks to be exact, so that leaves about a dozen in reserve. In that case, the division would likely be built around three brigades with two armoured battalions each.

But that still leaves at least one armoured and one – or possibly two – mechanised divisions without replacement tanks for outgoing ones (even if it is a low-stakes bet that in the short-term the Leopards of the 18th will replace the T-72M1 of the 34rd brigade in the 11th division, bringing the unit back into an all-Leopard division until the withdrawal of the Leopard). The solution for this was found in a somewhat less likely direction.

9 thoughts on “Heavy Metal in the South, Pt. 1 – Mr. Creighton’s Tank

  1. leo715

    Maybe the Poles are figuring in not full readiness? At any given time you have a certain percentage of AFVs undergoing depot-level maintenance. So having a hefty amount of “spare” tanks will allow them to a) keep the combat formations “topped up” and b) designate certain amount of tanks for training, again without degrading the readiness of combat formations.

  2. nonameplease

    I’ve heard of the Leopard 2PL program being delayed many, *many* times, but it being cancelled is one I haven’t heard about. Do you have any sources on that?

  3. Muir

    I assume part two is about the Korean battletanks they signed some sort of agreement on yesterday? Something like a thousand units including artillery if memory serves.

    1. Arek

      1000 czołgów K2 (180sztuk) i KL2PL (820 sztuk). K2PL będą produkowane w Polsce. Dodatkowo około 120 armato-haubic Krab i 600 K9 i K9 PL (produkowane w Polsce) zatem docelowo około 720 armato-haubic 155 i 1000 K2PL i 368 Abrams Sepv3 i sepv2. Jak już wyprodukujemy 1000 czołgów K2PL to Leopardy przejdą do rezerwy. Polska armia będzie docelowo miała 6 dywizji pancernych i zmechanizowanych. 300 tysięcy armii zawodowej i dobrowolnej poborowej i 50 tys wojsk obrony terytorialnej.

  4. BB3

    The Poles are certainly making it clear that they understand the threat and that they intend to be prepared. Ironically, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not only provided the urgency required to focus the political will required to trigger Poland’s massive increase in military readiness & capability; it’s also providing a time window for the build-up to occur.

    As to part 2 of your piece, I’m hoping you’ll discuss the implications & importance of S. Korea’s emergence as a major arms supplier on the world stage. Their massive deal with Poland: https://ukdefencejournal.org.uk/poland-splashes-out-on-korean-arms-due-to-invasion-of-ukraine/ is a huge statement about their arrival on the world stage, but it’s not the only place the Koreans are making inroads on markets like Australia & Finland https://www.armyrecognition.com/defense_news_november_2021_global_security_army_industry/finland_to_purchase_10_additional_k9_155mm_self-propelled_howitzers_from_south_korea.amp.html/ that have traditionally been almost solely supplied by US & European arms manufacturers.

    It’s also significant that S. Korea’s military exports are now expanding beyond artillery & armor to fighter planes & submarines: https://www.thedefensepost.com/2022/07/28/korea-australia-interim-submarine-collins/ This strikes me as a sea change & perhaps an existential challenge to European defense companies & exports in particular given the seemingly perpetual problems inherent in the European multinational consortium model of development, production & procurement that results in long delays, high prices and limited production. The foregoing has always hampered the ability of European defense companies to compete with US companies, but now the S. Koreans are establishing themselves as a true competitor on the world stage.

    I’m hoping you’ll also discuss the implications of Poland, after their military build-up, becoming perhaps the most powerful European land (if not overall military) force: https://www.thefirstnews.com/article/poland-soon-too-strong-for-russia-mod-says-31931/ Poland’s partnership with S. Korea to become a major producer of tanks, artillery, IFVs, & munitions may also change the dynamics of future military procurement in Europe as well – particularly among Poland’s Baltic & Eastern/ Central European neighbors.

    You’ve pointed put how Germany’s Rheinmetal lost out to the S. Koreans on a huge order for new armor & artillery. I think Saab & Sweden also missed a big opportunity to partner with Poland on Gripens to augment Poland’s F35s. Saab seems to want to insist that its new Gripen E/ Fs should be considered the equal of the 5th gen F35s instead of being seen as a lower cost platform ideally suited to augment & complement 5th gen assets that are more expensive to operate & maintain and more difficult to operate at austere & dispersed bases. Instead, KAI offers its FA-50s and suggests that Poland could become a future operator & partner with KAI on their more advanced KF-21 which they intend to continue developing from a semi to a fully stealth platform. It’s big win for S. Korea with big potential long-term implications.

  5. wojtek

    There’s no such thing as 90 or 122 tanks in our brigades. We apparently very much like 58-tank battalions and this is not going to change. The only question then is how many tank battalions in a brigade. For about 8 years now there have been plans to field two types of brigades: armoured and mechanized: essentially the same structure, except one has 3 tank battalions and one mechanized and the other vice versa. There was a short interlude where someone came to their senses and decided to do 2+2, but not anymore. The recent word is “3+1” will be our structure. So either 58 tanks in a mechanized brigade or 174 in an armoured brigade.

    But please take that with a grain of salt. Or two. Because all this is a pipe dream.

    1. Yes, and also saw announcement today from earlier this week that we are looking at additional brigade in both 18th and 16th to bring then up to four brigades in strength. Probably a more practical solution to have square divisions rather than three heavy ones.

      1. wojtek

        The “4th” brigades are a bit of a mystery 🙂 Our country leadership has announced that we are going in the direction of 6 divisions, each consisting of 4 maneuver brigades, plus extras. What’s on the books right now in our organization is the concept of divisions consisting of 3 brigades each – and this has been for quite a while now – at least for 8 years. And we currently have (or are building) 4 such divisions. But in a recent interview with the ** general in charge of the newest 18th Division, he mentioned that we should start by adding new brigades within existing divisions and then extracting them to form the 2 new divisions, and then adding new brigades in their place. So it could be either the first steps in the direction of the square organization or it could be the beginning of building 2 new divisions.

        The beauty of this plan is that they do not have to decide one way or another for a very long time 🙂 And perhaps that’s the idea.

        However, realistically speaking, when you look at a plan of 6 maneuver divisions, each consisting of 4 maneuver brigades, an artillery brigade, and other supporting units, and each maneuver brigade having 4 maneuver battalions, 2 artillery battalions and extras, this is not a force that any country in Europe can realistically field. Not even “ze Germans”.

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