Polish Iron

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.

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Non-upgraded Polish T-72’s advancing during an exercise. Source: DGRSZ’s official FB-page

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.

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21. Rifles taking part in exercise Lampart-17 last autumn. Source: 21. Rifles homepage

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.

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The preliminary order of battle of the new 18. Division. Courtesy of Cezary Stachniak

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.

Hussars heading east

In an earlier post, I argued that the Suwałki gap was in fact ill-suited for a full-scale Russian armoured offensive with the goal of linking up Kaliningrad and Belarus, as the terrain and road network did not favour that kind of manoeuvres. This naturally leads to the next question, namely what the alternative would be?

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Major roads in Northeastern Poland (including planned expansions). Source: Wikimedia Commons/Sliwers

Going south from the gap, the first opportunity is Białystok. The city is the main hub of northeastern Poland, and features a significant amount of both roads and railroads, and has the benefit of being approachable from Belarus along two major road, Grodno-Białystok from the northeast and Baranovichi-Białystok from the East. From there it is possible to either turn north towards Suwałki (along E67, not visible on map) or southwest towards Warsaw. However, the areas east of the city  are heavily forested, and it represents a significant detour if the aim is to reach Suwałki from Grodno.

However, the route that promises a decisive victory fast, as well as dragging away Polish reinforcements from the Kaliningrad/Suwałki-region, is the E30/A2 road from Minsk via Brest and on to Warsaw. Brest is located directly on the eastern bank of the river Bug, which in this area marks the border between Poland and Belarus. Striking out from Brest would make it possible to potentially take the border bridges over Bug in a coup, or at the very least prepare the crossings on allied territory. Here, the E30 as well as the twin-rail railroad would provide a crucial lifeline for the advancing forces, and the right flank would be protected by the Bug.

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The Vistula basin covering the eastern parts of Poland would play a major role in influencing any operations in the area. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Kmusser

This is not a new idea. In the summer of 1944, the Soviet Operation Bagration included a major offensive in the Lublin-Brest area, where the Soviet forces (including the Polish 1st Army that was transfered from the Lviv sector halfway through the operation) captured bridgeheads over Vistula at Magnuszew and Puławy (approximately 60 and 100 km south of Warszaw) and over Narew at Serock (40 km north of the capital). However, the Polish capital did not change hands until the launching of the Vistula-Oder offensive in January the following year, a controversial fact from a Polish point view.

 The Vistula opposite Magnuszew, site of the bridgehead in 1944

As noted, this would be a major treat towards the Polish capital, and it is very likely that Poland would direct at least two of its three main divisions to meet this. In practice, the 16th ‘Pomorska‘ Mechanised Division would be left to deal with Kaliningrad, creating a situation where both sides would be roughly comparable, and causing a stalemate around the exclave. This would likely be in the interest of Russia, compared to an offensive closer to the Suwałki gap which would make it easier for Poland to shift troops from one front to the other, thereby negating part of Russia’s quantitative superiority.

The downside to these military upsides is that while a ‘disturbance’ in the Baltic region could perhaps be caused to look like a Ukraine-scenario, thereby delaying a NATO-reaction during the critical first days, an armoured corps moving west along the E30 would be a sure way of launching WWIII, especially as Germany would be far more likely to intervene if the advancing Russians where on the (literal) highway to Berlin than if they occupied Vilnius.

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PT-91 Twardy of the 1st Brigade. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Polish MoD

This is obviously not something that hasn’t crossed the minds of the Polish general staff, and the above-mentioned 16th Division actually has an additional armoured brigade in the form of the 1st ‘Warszawska‘ Armoured Brigade equipped with PT-91 Twardy (modernised T-72), BWP-1 (local-designation for BMP-1), and 2S1 Gvozdika. The brigade is headquartered in the Wesoła district on the eastern outskirts of Warsaw. In other words, it is located on the ‘right side’ of both the Bug and the Vistula, and as such is well-placed to meet any offensive along the Brest-Warsaw axis. However, the equipment is rather old, and while the Twardy is a significant step up from the T-72, it is still far from the latest generation of tanks.

As such, it is a noteworthy move when the Polish Defence Forces announce that a tank battalion from the 11th ‘Lubuska‘ Armoured Cavalry Division in the southwestern parts of Poland is set to transfer to Wesoła. This is to make room for the US Army units coming to Żagań, currently home to the division’s 34th Armoured Cavalry Brigade. The 34th sport two battalion equipped with the Leopard 2A5, currently Poland’s most modern main-battle tank. Moving one of these battalions East of the Vistula radically alters the number of units available to the Polish in this key area during the first day or so after mobilisation. It does seem like the Polish Army has recognised the need to be able to concentrate more high-quality units in defence of the capital at shorter notice, and comes as part of a trend in which the West tries to shorten response times in general, and with a focus on heavier units in particular. This is also evident from a Finnish perspective, and both the recent transfer of older Leopard 2A4’s to ‘new’ units and the creation of fast response units in the Army can be seen as part of this very same trend.