Heavy (or rather, light) Metal in the South, Pt. 5 – The Korean Bird Appears

While a relatively minor part of the framework agreement, what surprised defence analysts most was not the huge armour numbers, but the decision by Poland to buy the FA-50 Fighting Eagle light fighter for their Air Force.

A ROKAF FA-50 in front of two USAF A-10. The FA-50 is a true light fighter rather than an armed trainer, and while it might feel like an unlikely fit for Poland, there aren’t in fact many other options on the table. Source: ROKAF FB

The idea of the light fighter is not new. During the Cold War the complexity and cost of top-end fighters rose quickly, and in addition there was a general growth in size which added to operating costs. This was slowly crowding out defence budgets, and while it at first led simply to smaller numbers, by the time the F-4 Phantom came around it was already clear many countries were unable to afford the gold standard. By the time the F-14 Tomcat and F-15 Eagle came along, the number had dropped steadily towards zero. The answer was a lighter and cheaper fighter that could be used to keep numbers at an acceptable level. The most prolific was the F-5 Freedom Fighter/Tiger II-family out of Northrop, which saw huge success on the export market and is still found in (limited) use in a respectable number of air forces. In somewhat the same vein, the F-16 emerged out of the Lightweight Fighter Program which originally envisioned a light and cheap dogfighter able to fill out the numbers as the high-end F-15 grew in size and cost.

However, before the aircraft even was ordered the light Sidewinder-armed dayfighter had turned into a multirole aircraft, and if you state that the F-16s rolling off the production line today are ‘cheap and light’ the reply will likely be ‘compared to what?’ This is part of the issue Poland is facing, being one of the major F-16 users in Europe, and with an ageing fleet of MiG-29 and Su-22 complementing their F-16s. These are to be backed up by 32 F-35A which will start arriving in-country by 2026, but that is only part of the answer. The F-16 fleet is modern, consisting of a total of 48 F-16C and -16D versions of the Block 52 standard. The MiG-29A (9.12) and Su-22M4 that are found are so in dwindling numbers, from original fleets numbering some 40 MiG-29 and some 30 Su-22 (including small numbers of two-seaters of both) around twenty MiG-29 and just over a dozen Su-22 remain in service. Neither have received any serious upgrades, and largely still represent the finest of Soviet engineering from the first half of the 80’s. For those wondering what that means, this interview with an ex-Luftwaffe pilot who flew the aircraft inherited from DDR (and which eventually went to Poland) nicely illustrate the difference between a MiG-29 and anything western.

The F-35A as a MiG-29-replacement should come with a sticker warning for serious cultural shock for the pilots doing the transition, it is a revolutionary step up in capability that is difficult to overstate. 32 fighters replacing the current fleet of 20+ MiG-29s also mean that Poland is one of few air forces to get more F-35A than the number of aircraft they are replacing, so nice job on that one. However, that still leaves the Su-22 fleet, which while only providing rudimentary fair-weather air to ground capability (it’s never a good sign when the fact sheet at ‘Radar’ just goes ‘Nope’) still represent 15-20 % of the total Polish fast jet fleet when it comes to numbers.

The obvious replacement would be more F-16 or F-35, but both are costly and delivery times are not great – Lockheed Martin is also famously not overly interested in selling F-16s to potential F-35-customers, and Poland is obviously in that category. The market for used aircraft is also largely dried up, and while the airframes floating around would certainly be interesting to Ukraine, they are in most cases beat up to the extent that they don’t offer the kind of long-term solution the Polish Air Force is looking for.

So for the final time in this series of posts: Enter the Republic of Korea.

ROKAF’s ‘Black Eagles’ brought the T-50 trainer version to Poland for a show earlier this year in anticipation of the FA-50 coming to Poland next year. Source: Polish Air Force/4 Skrzydło Lotnictwa Szkolnego FB

Poland has already inked a contract for the Italian M-346 advanced trainer, half-sibling to the Yak-130 and fierce rival to the Korean KAI T-50 Golden Eagle. As such, an order for the Korean trainer seemed as unlikely as, well, an order for a 1,000 K2 Black Panther tanks. An order for a light fighter, on the other hand, is something else.

The idea to take an advanced trainer, put a radar in the nose (and often strip out one of the seats) and tailor it to the light multirole fighter-role is not new. The Hawk 200 based on the hugely successful trainer is probably the most famous one, having score orders for between 12 and 23 fighters from three countries (Oman, Indonesia, Malaysia), but closer to home the Czech Aero L-159 ALCA has also reached series production. The FA-50 is however significantly larger than the other two (in fact, the maximum take-off weight is higher than the earlier mentioned F-5E Tiger II at 13.5 tons compared to 11.1 tons), giving it higher combat potential than the earlier two (as well as retaining the second seat, allowing it to continue in the advanced training role as well). This is significant, as air combat is one of the more technical domains of combat, and as opposed to firearms or guns which have a tendency to provide useful service long after having been state of the art, in air combat not having modern equipment is often comparable to fighting with one arm behind your back – and usually end up with you being punched in the face.

So is that the case for Poland as well? The Polish order is planned to be split into two batches, the first 12 of which will be the current Block 10 standard which provide a basic initial operational capability through the usage of AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground missiles, JDAM, and unguided Mk 80-series of bombs, as well as the older AIM-9L/M-series of missiles for self-defence.

Let’s be clear, Block 10 is not an impressive combat aircraft, and while still light-years better than the Su-22, serious questions can be raised about its combat value on the modern battlefield. However, this is just a temporary stop, before the train moves on at speed to the eventual destination: FA-50PL Block 20.

If you feel like you’ve read this before, yes, you have. Quick delivery of a basic version, followed by a tailored version developed to meet Polish needs following in the next few years, as well as an upgrade of the earlier delivered ones to the new baseline.

The FA-50PL Block will be a rather more serious beast, including a new AESA-radar, Link 16, NATO-standard IFF, AIM-120 AMRAAM giving it a beyond visual range capability, AIM-9X Sidewinders replacing the older L/M-versions, a Sniper targeting pod (there’s some discussion about whether this is already integrated on the Block 10, but the answer seems to be ‘No’), as well more advanced air-to-ground munitions. Exactly which weapons are to be included is uncertain, but earlier there has been talk about integrating e.g. the JSM or the Korean lightweight version of the KEPD-350 Taurus – the KEPD-350K-2. In essence, the end-result will be an aircraft with F-16-like capability in a smaller package (now, exactly which F-16 it will be comparable to is up to debate). Being lighter the weapons load will be reduced, the radar is likely to be shorter-legged and with lesser power and cooling, giving it overall worse performance, and so forth. However, at the same time the vast majority of F-16s running around are not of the latest generation, so everything depends on your yardstick. What is important to understand is that this is not your armed trainer, a concept which has proved to be of dubious value in a high-intensity conflict (even in the case of the Israelis in the Six-Day War they had to pull their Fouga CM.170 Magisters from combat despite enjoying total air superiority as the losses were too high). Instead, the FA-50 sports the same afterburning GE F404 as is found in the F/A-18 Hornet, giving the small fighter over 78 kN of thrust and a thrust to weight ratio of 0.59 at maximum take-off and 0.90 at full fuel – comparable to the 0.57 and 0.84 for the F-35A or 0.69 and 1.10 for the F-16 Block 52.

The FA-50PL will start arriving in Poland by 2025, and over the next two-three years a total of 36 aircraft will be added to the inventory. Together with the 12 Block 10 – which will be upgraded to ensure a single standard for all Polish FA-50 – that will make 48 light fighters to equip a total of three squadrons. In other words, the current fleet of F-16 (48 aircraft), MiG-29 (~20), and  Su-22 (~15) will be converted into a mix of F-16 (still 48 aircraft), F-35A (32), and FA-50PL (48), giving both a serious increase in capability as well as in numbers (to be honest, even the simple FA-50 Block 10 with AIM-9M might be a closer fought fight against the MiG-29A with R-27 than a quick glance at the numbers might indicate).

Two Polish M-346, an aircraft that apparently isn’t evoking warm feelings in the Polish Air Force despite its solid track record on the export market. Source: Polish Air Force/4 Skrzydło Lotnictwa Szkolnego FB

But again, why the FA-50PL? This interview with Polish defence minister Mariusz Błaszczak gives a quite clear picture of the reasoning behind the decision. The first thing he brings up is how close the FA-50 is to the F-16, and the possibility to introduce a training path for F-16 pilots that passes through the FA-50 – similarly to ROKAF. Apparently the minister is not happy with the M-346 in Polish service, which is interesting to note. The fact that Lockheed Martin isn’t selling F-16s to Poland, and their long delivery times to Slovakia are also ruling out additional orders for the Viper, as at the same time the MiG-29 and Su-22 have become safety hazards for the Polish fighter pilots due to their age. As such, the FA-50 offer a unique combination of training opportunities as well as multirole combat capability at a relatively low cost (it is notable that the Su-22 has been doing some work that would correspond to lead-in fighter training in the later years). But as is the case with the tanks and artillery, it is also important to look at the industrial aspect of the framework agreement. Poland has a long history of a domestic aviation industry, but the jet-side of things have not seen much in the way of development in recent years. The Koreans are here as well promising a serious technology transfer and aiding the Polish industry in setting up a service centre, and in the future looms the Korean stealth fighter, the KF-21 Boramae. Polish involvement in that program is certainly a possibility given the current trend. But it is also notable that there are plans for an additional two multirole squadrons for the Polish Air Force in the near-future. In the interview the possibility of additional F-35A or F-15 Eagles is discussed, while the KF-21 is “monitored”. However, as noted plans can change quickly in the Polish armed forces (and the F-15 feels about as unlikely as the KF-21 to be honest).

All in all, while the FA-50 wasn’t an obvious choice, a combination of tight schedules, Lockheed Martin-policy, industrial considerations, unhappy feelings about the M-346, and old Soviet airframes falling out of the skies all conspired to make it one of the only options left in the game (I hear you Swedish followers asking about the Gripen, but the lack of an JAS 39F outside of Brazil likely is an issue). And suddenly, the serious light fighter is staging a comeback in Europe.

Heavy Metal in the South, Pt. 4 – And the Thunder Came Rolling In

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?

As opposed to the other systems involved in the current discussion, the K9 Thunder has seen combat. Its involvement in the Yeonpyeong skirmish was not a complete success, but the failures have not cast a shadow on the system itself. Source: ROK Armed Forces/Wikimedia Commons

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 K77 is one of the more rare versions of the M109-family, and is apparently still working well enough that ROK hasn’t seen the need to replace it. It remains to be seen whether the Egyptian and Polish orders for the K9-based K11 will change that. Source: Hanwha Defence

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.

The Redback (left) and the KF-41 during trials in Australia. The vehicle is essentially a modernised and non-amphibious version of the K21 IFV which is in ROK service. Source: Australian MoD/Sergeant Jake Sims

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!

The Borsuk with the NSSW-30 turret showing of what in today’s world is the rather compact design for an IFV. Source: Leszek Chemperek CO/MON

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.

Heavy Metal in the South, Pt. 3 – A Tank Factory of Your Own

As mentioned in the last post, a big part of the reason behind the Polish decision to go for the K2 Black Panther was the industrial package. Now, it should be emphasised that there really are no bad tanks on the (western) export market today. The competition and continued development of the main platforms has made sure of that, and which tank would come out on top depends heavily on your terrain, doctrine, and a host of other aspects. The differences in combat capability between individual variants of the same tank – such as Leopard 2A4 and 2A7V – are also vastly larger than between different tanks of corresponding vintage – such as M1A2SEPv3, Leopard 2A7V, and K2NO.

K2 Black Panther tanks from the South Korean 11th Mechanised “Hwarang” Division during a combined arms exercise back in January. It seems likely that in addition to getting the WKM-B the eventual K2PL-standard would feature a remote-weapon station for the weapon as opposed to the pintle-mount seen here, as is the case of the K2NO. Source: ROK Army FB/Jung Seung Ik

Obviously, even if Hyundai Rotem would strike gold and bag the Norwegian order, the K2 would be an outlier in Europe. So is it worth the issues that will cause? There was a particularly sour comment made by KMW advisor Nicholas Drummond to CNN, in which he described the tank as “overall less sophisticated with inferior electronic architecture” compared to the Leopard 2, leading the news outlet to sum it up as “essentially a less capable version of the German Leopard 2”. What exactly he based that comment on is unclear to me, as most open sources seems to agree on the K2 being on par with the most modern versions of the M1 Abrams and Leopard 2 when it comes to these things. He eventually took to Twitter to give a more nuanced critique, but even there he repeated the claim that the K2 Black Panther is based on the Leopard 2, and that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Now, if getting the same powerpack and sporting a 120 mm smoothbore gun is using the “Leopard 2 as a model”, the whole argument is spun out of a rather thin thread. In particular when you realise that the plan all along was to move away from the German powerpack to a local replacement. My understanding is that the tanks currently rolling off the production line indeed has a Korean Doosan DV27K engine (interestingly enough a long-stroke design rather than the MTU883 short-stroke), though the transmission still is German after the local replacement experienced issues (the transmission is in many ways the more complex and specialised part of the powerpack).

Still, he has a few valid points – such as the Leopard 2 thanks to its age being a more mature system, and that the 2A7-family of versions sporting many of the key systems that are selling points of the K2 (active protection, integrated BMS/C4I-solutions, and so forth) – and it is true that the huge success of the Leopard 2 on the export market is a significant advantage when it comes to pooling spares and resources, as well as sharing in the R&D costs. However, the situation is not quite as rosy as he would have you believe. While a number of European countries back in the day did set up domestic production lines, many of those have since closed or gone cold, with production of Leopards in recent years becoming a significantly more German affair. He is also overlooking the sheer scope of the Polish framework agreement.

There are currently roughly 1900 Leopard 2 tanks in service in Europe once you remove the 280 or so Norwegian and Polish tanks that are to be retired in the near-future. This is a ball-park figure based on Wikipedia, but should give the correct order of magnitude. You can add another 82 Canadian ones, as well as approximately 550-600 in service or on order from other non-European customers (the question mark being the total number in Singaporean service). With the exception of Austria, the European tanks are operated by NATO-members, so there will indeed be the opportunity to share logistics. At the same time, the numbers aren’t overwhelmingly in favour of the Leopard, as the total NATO-fleet of Leopards is somewhere in the order of magnitude of twice the Polish order – significant, but not the 9:1 Drummond’s thread might give the impression of. Also notable is that with R&D-cost sharing usually being done on a per system-basis, and with ROK sporting a couple of hundred K2s themselves, the situation isn’t looking overly detrimental to what it would have if Poland would have gotten a thousand Leopards and made up a third of NATO’s Leopard-fleet.

A family picture taken at ADEX21 of the Omani-test vehicle, an operational-standard K2, and the K2NO sporting the Kongsberg Protector RWS and Trophy active defence system. Source: Hyundai Rotem

Now, the supply base will be narrower, and Korea as a source for spares and potentially crucial upgrades does raise more questions than a European country would. Any Polish factory will also be within range of more Russian long-range systems than German factories would be, and the work involved in getting spares from South Korea to Poland is bound to be a more complex logistical process than simply driving trucks over the border from Germany.

However, as mentioned there is deep mistrust towards the German arms industry following years of issues with the Leopards (there is room for glancing in the mirror on the side of the Polish authorities, armed forces, and industry as well, that is for sure – however, right or wrong, that does not change the overreaching sentiment in Warsaw). In addition, the inability to find common ground on Ukraine is cementing the split further. Drummond argues that it would be “ridiculous” to suggest that Germany would not support its NATO-ally Poland, and by extent argues that anything relating to arms deliveries to Ukraine is a different beast and shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath.

This might indeed be a correct reading of how Berlin thinks, but unfortunately for Drummond it just underscores the rift between how the strategic picture looks in Warsaw and Berlin respectively. Because while Poles without doubt are nice people who help Ukraine out of their kind hearts, there is also a strong strain of strategic self-interests that goes into arms deliveries to Ukraine (as indeed is the case for a number of countries along NATO’s eastern front). Ukraine’s fight will in many ways determine the security environment Poland will live in for decades to come, and a big part of why Poland is shipping their tanks to Ukraine is because Ukrainians fights not just for their own survival, but for the safety of millions of Poles, Finns, Estonians, and a host of other NATO- and EU-citizens. Berlin’s inability to grasp the Polish sense of urgency and how important they see the deliveries to Ukraine means that the discussions about e.g. the delivery of just 44 used Leopards does raise questions about Germany. And these questions are not just about Berlin’s willingness to aid Ukraine, but as the transfer would bolster Polish security, the questions raised are tied directly to Germany’s willingness to stand by its allies – at least that is how the question is formulated in Warsaw (and in a number of other capitals). Not necessarily because Berlin would make a conscious decision to abandon their allies, but because the strategic picture in Berlin is so remarkably different from that seen further east. And seriously, if me noting this rift makes me a Putin apologist, then that’s a really curious definition of the term (with that said, there certainly are Putinists who try to increase the rift among Western countries by using these talking points for their own purposes. That, however, should not take away from valid criticism).

It also in many ways is a two-way street. The fact that South Korea is still in a state of war with the North and have uneasy feelings about China (and to some extent doesn’t trust Japan, although a direct ROK-Japanese conflict is extremely unlikely) does indeed raise questions about what happens with promised deliveries in case of a renewal of fighting along the 38th parallel? However, at the same time the unease about a massive nuclear-armed adversary on the other side of the border is something Poland and South Korea have in common – and apparently something Germany for all its talk is lacking – and this is were security of supply suddenly is turned on its head. When Warsaw call Seoul and tells them “We need this now, because we worry for our national security”, they speak a language Seoul understands. And while they most likely won’t risk their own national security to meet the Polish needs, short of that one can expect them to show a greater interest than Berlin would. Because Poland isn’t a user among 18, but the largest customer and the bridgehead on the European market. And because the Koreans know themselves what it means to feel like you are living under threat, and understand that sense of urgency and the can-do attitude needed to meet that threat.

Is the risk of a Korean War 2.0 in the next five to ten years or so (after which the local Polish production lines should be up and running) big enough that the whole deal deserve to be questioned? Personally I don’t think so. The challenges in this deal are found elsewhere, and we’ll get to those, but it is good to realise that it is not just about performance of the tanks, but about how the fleet will be kept supplied as well.

So yes, Poland won’t be able to share spares with their NATO-allies (to say they won’t have “interoperability”, as Drummond does, is a stretch), which is a minus. At the same time, as a Finn I certainly understand the feel that one wants to be able to handle production and management of spares in-country. These things are always balanced against each other, and which one will take precedent depends on national needs and industrial policy. Drummond also goes on about the possibility of Poland not being able to support its K2 fleet, and possibly also the K9, overlooking the fact that with Poland a total of five NATO countries will be operating the SPG – all of them in Europe (compared to seven for the PzH 2000).

Clip from the Norwegian tests, starting with the K2 Black Panther showing off the hydropneumatic suspension

From a wider European perspective, while the Leopard 2 is an excellent platform for years to come, and while MGCS looks promising, having another serious contender (or two, with the M1 Abrams finally finding a European customer) and a  new production line in Europe is certainly a net positive in my opinion – even for us Leopard 2-users. Competition will drive the prices down, will force the large European defence companies to stay innovative and efficient, and if the worst comes to play, you certainly can’t have too many tank factories on the continent. Already now Norway is benefitting from this effect, as the Norwegian decision later this year will certainly be made with a better offer from Germany than would have been the case if the K2 wasn’t on the table. If that means one Leopard-user less with whom to share the R&D and spare part costs, I believe we not only can live with that, but that we might even be better off at the end of the day.

With that said, the level of ambition shown by the Poles and the challenges therein should not be underestimated. Just getting license production rolling will pose a challenge, as starting up a production line can easily run into cultural issues with the developer, differences with the supply chains, and teething troubles, all of which tends to increase both delays and costs. That is not to mention bringing along the K2PL-upgrade which so far is only a paper-product (if even that). Once we start looking at the K3PL next-generation tank, we are slowly approaching territory which if not exactly fantasy-land then at least belongs to its neighbour, rather-unlikely-land. Let’s remember that even countries with decades of unbroken production and development of main battle tanks have faced issues once they have started looking at the next generation of things. The challenges inherent in the complete program should not be underestimated!

One of the things supporting a successful joint Polish-Korean endeavour is the history of ROK with the successful K1-project and the proven ability to both design, produce, and maintain the tanks in operational service. Here a K1 is undergoing maintenance at an Army depot. Source: ROK Army/Lt. Kim Bitchan

However, before we start mourning failures that haven’t happened, let’s remember a few details that increase the probability of success. One is the know-how of the Koreans, and this being their best shot at entering the extremely competitive and conservative European market, and at a time when it is bound to grow. Success with the K2PL – and potentially the K3PL – would offer a unique opportunity to court countries that are vary of overreliance on German (and to a lesser extent, French) arms suppliers, and as such might be open to buying from unconventional sources – especially if the product is good. This is a serious driver for the Koreans to go above and beyond when it comes to helping their partners – and crucially, customers – in this endeavour. Similarly, the Polish industry is staffed by people motivated by the national security crisis brought on by Russia, and eager to show the world what they can achieve. A will to perform won’t get you the whole way, but it is a crucial ingredient. In this case it is also backed up by a solid knowledge base acquired over the years through producing, maintaining, and modernising a number of different vehicles. The most notable projects are without doubt the Rosomak and the older PT-91, but also work on other military vehicles have taken place in Poland in recent years. The step-by-step approach with deliveries of ROK-standard vehicles, production of K2PL, and only then a new design, gives significantly more credibility than what would have been the case if Warsaw would just have tried to build a MGCS-competitor on their own.

Still, it is a long way that stretches ahead for the Polish-tank program(s), and caution is a good companion. But as Poland is increasingly becoming the most important European ground power in NATO – and as such a key ally for both Finland and the other allied states around the Baltic Sea – I sincerely hope for the best.

Heavy Metal in the South, Pt. 2 – The Asian Jaguar

The Republic of Korea has obviously a long history of being on more or less permanent war-footing, but it was somewhat more recently that they really fired up their own arms industry. For the MBT-side of things, this kicked off with the K1, which entered service in the late-80’s. This was a tank related to the M1 Abrams, although sporting enough differences – most visibly the integration of a combined torsion bar/hydrodynamic suspension as well as a more traditional diesel engine, but also a somewhat different approach when it came to sensors and sights – to ensure it was a new tank a not just a local copy of the M1. The K1 has moved through a number of versions, including following the path of the Abrams of going from a 105 mm rifled main gun to a 120 mm smoothbore one, and by all accounts have provided good service to the ROK Army even if never quite grabbing the headlines. Interestingly, one of the few export attempts was to Malaysia, where it was beaten by the PT-91. It’s a small world…

But there was still room for more tanks to replace old M48 Pattons. One of the solutions was to accept a battalion of T-80U from Russia – apparently as payment for debts owed by the Soviet government. A large-scale order for Russian steel was not, however, in the cards. Instead, development of a new tank started.

A rather wet T-80U in Korean service. The tank has also appeared in a number of other western countries, so ROK isn’t unique in their knowledge of it. However, as opposed to the handful of tanks running around in UK and US (and earlier, Swedish) testing grounds, the Koreans are one of extremely few Western-aligned countries to have operational experience of its usage. Source: Wikimedia Commons/박종훈

There is obviously no proof that the ROK would have used that inside knowledge of what was then one of the most modern non-Western tanks of the battlefield when designing what would become the K2. But I guess it didn’t hurt. Neither probably did the fact that ROK also operate a limited number of (ex-IDF) T-62 and T-72M1 in the aggressor role.

If the K1 had borrowed from the Abrams, the K2 would borrow from the Leclerc. Exactly how much is somewhat open for discussion – one anecdote gives that the autoloader is copied based on ‘YouTube-videos‘, though it should be noted that development work of the K2 was quite far along by the time YouTube was launched, leaving open the option that the term should not be taken literally but rather in general for video-clips on the internet, that a video clip helped iron out the final design at a rather late stage, or that the whole anecdote is fake. In any case, like the Leclerc, the tank is relatively light and sport a three-man crew tanks to the autoloader removing the need for a dedicated loader.

The K2 Black Panther entered service in 2014 – two years after the Japanese Type 10 and as such laying claim to being the newest tank in operational service. This newness has to some extent been exaggerated, as while the tank might be decades newer than much of the competition, the continuous development of the current generation of western tanks means that the latest and greatest version of the Leopard 2 and Abrams are more or less sporting the same level of protection, firepower, and combat management systems as the K2 does. There is without doubt a benefit to being able to integrate 21st century systems from day one of the design instead of bolting them on afterwards, which is seen in e.g. the growth in weight and lower mobility of the latest versions of the Leopard and Abrams, but this is more along the lines of bonus points in the margin than evaluation winners. All in all, it is a good and very modern tank, but it is still a competitor to the current generation of M1A2 SEP-series and Leopard 2A7, rather than to the next generation such as MGCS.

The K2NO during winter tests in Norway. While decidedly the underdog, the fact that Norway already operate the K9 Thunder and the reportedly stellar performance of the vehicle during the winter tests does give the Korean tank some opportunity for an upset. Source: Torbjørn Kjosvold/Forsvaret

South Korea had faced issues with entering the European market for quite a while, the most successful defence export being the world’s greatest Les Misérables parody – Les Militaribles, set at the ROKAF’s 22nd Fighter Wing. However, in the last decade, sales of the K9 Thunder has picked up pace, as has interest in a number of other systems, such as the K21 IFV. The K2 has also showed up in Norway, where the tailored K2NO-variant is competing against the Leopard 2A7NO for the contract as Norway’s next MBT. While the Leopard arguably is the favourite, the K2 is reported to have outperformed the Leopard in recent winter testing, thanks to the advanced suspension and low weight allowing for good mobility (it should be remembered that the Korean peninsula is no stranger to snow).

It deserves to be emphasised that the market for a supplier of a modern tank is really limited, in particular if you aren’t interested in Russian (or rather, Soviet) or Chinese designs. The Leclerc scored a single export order to UAE, who eventually donated a number of tanks to Jordan. The Challenger 2 saw a small order from Oman, while the Ariete never left Italy. As such, all three are more or less out of the game at this stage. Just how dominant the Leopard 2 has been on the export markets is evident when one remember that the M1 Abrams has scored a whooping six export deals before the Polish one – all except Australia being to the Middle East or North Africa. So if you have burned your bridges over the Oder-Neisse line, have been politely declined to come aboard the MGCS in the earlier phases of the project, and still want to get your own tank production line with transfer of technology and the potential of a future tank design, where do you go? To Seoul.

The South Koreans were ready to supply not only tanks to Poland, but to participate in setting up a complete associated infrastructure including technology transfer, license production, development of an improved local version known as K2PL, local production of spare parts, and joint development of a future tank tentatively described as the K3PL. This all weighed heavily in the Polish decision, with some Polish analysts going as far as calling the K2 inferior to the M1A2 SEPv3, but the overall deal making a K2-buy interesting.

After years of rumoured interest, the outbreak of the war ensured that Polish authorities saw the K2 being the preferable way forward, and earlier this week signed a huge framework agreement covering buys and local production of not just the K2, but also K9 howitzers and FA-50 light fighters. In addition there are discussions regarding the IFV-side of things – in practice a further developed version of the K21-version known as AS21 Redback which is currently on offer to Australia –  as well as about the K239 Chunmoo multiple-rocket launch system to complement the HIMARS ordered by Poland.

The scope of the framework agreement is huge. For the K2, it starts with 180 tanks of the current K2-version delivered starting this year and stretching out to 2025. As said, these would cover three battalions of 60 tanks eachEdit: Seems a Polish battalion is 58 tanks to be exact, this changes a few numbers down the line, but nothing drastic. This batch would be followed by an additional 820 tanks built locally to an upgraded K2PL-standard, with deliveries starting in 2026. All in all, that makes it a nice even 1,000 K2 in Polish service, which would fill a total of 17 tank battalions. Looking back at the OOB, that would mean converting all three remaining divisions into more or less the same pattern as the 18th with its six tank battalions, leaving Poland with a full four divisions of around 360 tanks each (one of them being a battalion short).


The cost of the tanks, according to the framework agreement, would come in at approximately 12.86 MEUR per vehicle, which is a lot but not overly expensive. In fact, it ties in rather nicely with the 11.2 MEUR per vehicle that Slovakia reportedly is paying for their CV90 IFVs, as well as with the reported 2009 unit cost of 8.5 MUSD for the Korean production run which inflation-adjusted to 2022 dollars (CPI. Yes, not ideal for military systems) and converted to Euros sits at 11.6 MEUR (and which at the time earned the K2 a Guinness World Record as “Most Expensive Tank”). Now, comparing vehicle costs are always complex and usually  sits somewhere between “As relevant as the price of fish in Goa” and “Moderately useful” on the scale of relevancy to the discussion, but it does not feel like the Poles are paying a lot considering the reported scope – if the 12.86 Bn EUR really cover the whole acquisition program.

Approximately here we ought to stop and acknowledge the fact that Polish defence procurement has a history of not being straightforward, and with the politicians and armed forces having a tendency of being better at presenting plans and concepts rather than actually seeing them through. A framework agreement, even if a signed document and certainly of value, is not and should not be confused with an acquisition contract proper. However, several of the programs now kicked off are not new, but rather ones that have been in the pipeline for years without anyone actually pulling the figurative trigger. The war next-door certainly has given them a renewed importance, and as such it certainly is possible that the framework agreement will lead to serious orders – and fast, if the scheduled first deliveries in 2022 are to be met.

Still, it is difficult to overstate how ambitious the current framework agreement is. One thing that almost certainly will suffer is the ambitious K2PL-variant proposed during the last few years, which would have been a radical redesign that also included a lengthened hull with an additional roadwheel. It does seem unlikely that the currently described K2PL which will be ready for local production in four years would feature all the envisioned improvements, and as such that particular concept is likely dead. More likely, the K2PL is an iterative design on the current chassis, as the variant is said to feature improvements to the armour and observation system, a new active soft-kill/hard-kill protection system (the Elbit ASOP/IFLD), as well as integration of new types of programmable ammunition and the locally built 12.7 mm WKM-B heavy machine gun as the secondary weapon of choice (this is a Polish NSV chambered in .50 BMG).

However, the really interesting side is the industrial aspect, and here we have a true ‘glass half full/empty’-situation.

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.

Uncertain Future for Swedish Silent Service

Operating submarines is expensive business. However, they do offer significant benefits, ensuring that many countries are willing to pay the cost. But one thing even more expensive than operating submarines is building up your submarine service from scratch because you had to spend a decade or so without suitable boats. That is what the Polish Navy is desperate to avoid.

The Baltic Sea proper offer an excellent stomping ground for littoral submarines (as opposed to the gulfs and straits in the Baltic that are quite narrow and shallow), and as such it comes as no surprise that several of the coastal states have submarine fleets. Sweden and Germany are the two leading submarine operators in the sea, with Russia and Poland playing second fiddle. The Polish Navy has had a few though decades recently, and the submarine fleet is no exception. The ORP Orzeł is a Project 877 ‘Kilo’-class submarine and has been in Polish service since 1986, sporting the distinction of being the first exported Kilo. The plan was for her to be joined by more sisters, but budgetary constraints led to two Project 641 ‘Foxtrot’-class submarines being leased from Soviet surplus stocks instead. These were retired in the early 00’s, while the Orzeł seem destined to serve another decade according to information that surfaced earlier this year. To keep the Orzeł company following the retirement of the Project 641’s, the Polish Navy acquired ex-Norwegian Type 207 ‘Kobben’-class. The vessels were originally built to replace a varied fleet of ex-Royal Navy and Kriegsmarine boats, and are in fact of the same generation as the Project 641’s. However, the West German submarine class is a better submarine in more or less all possible ways, and the class has undergone significant upgrades. Still, there’s no denying that their age is starting to show, and the Polish Navy already retired the first vessel of the class back in 2017.

A significant part of the Polish surface and subsurface fleet in port in Gdynia. Note the size difference between the four Kobben-class and the ORP Orzeł. Source: Joymaster via Wikimedia Commons

The solution was to have been the Orka-program, which has included all the twists and turns that have come to be expected from large Polish defence procurements. The original timeline was to have included deliveries taking place this year, but already in 2014 it was reported that the program had ran into delays. Currently, there is a large amount of uncertainty surrounding the program, with the timeline last year being said to include deliveries between 2024 and 2026 while at the same time TKMS gave the first delivery of their Type 212CD offer as taking place in 2027.

In any case, it is starting to become clear that a stop-gap solution is needed if the Polish submarine fleet isn’t to shrink to a single thirty-five year old hull. However, used submarines aren’t exactly floating around on the market in significant numbers, making the task of finding a few vessels to bridge the gap between the Kobben and Orka difficult.

On the other side of the Baltic Sea, former submarine powerhouse Sweden is down to five operational vessels in the form of the two Södermanland- and three Gotland-class submarines (this can be compared to the twelve submarines that were on strength as late as 1995). The Södermanlands are the two remaining of the originally four-strong A-17 Västergötland-class built in the late 1980’s, and underwent a serious MLU that included conversion from diesel-electric to AIP (Stirling) propulsion in the early 00’s. These are still competent boats, and as a side-note the vessels still likely hold the world-record in wire-guided torpedo salvo firing, being able to fire and simultaneously guide up to twelve 400 and 530 mm torpedoes at different targets (a nice party-trick, but likely of limited operational use to be honest). The Stirling-powered A19 Gotland-class was launched in the mid-90’s, and made headlines when the leadship was leased with crew to the US Navy for OPFOR duty, with quite some success.

Second A19 Gotland-class boat HMS Uppland being prepared for the relaunch following her MLU, that included a lengthening of the hull. Picture courtesy of Saab

The Gotland-class was quite possibly the best littoral submarine worldwide when it entered service, but things have moved on. As such, the new A26 Blekinge-class is currently being built for the Swedish Navy, and as part of the phased renewal of the Swedish submarine force the Gotland-class receives a serious MLU that include several features and subsystems of the upcoming A26 to lessen the technological risk of the newbuilds, increase synergies when operating A19 alongside A26, and to increase the lifespan of the A19.

The problem is money.

Only two MLUs have been ordered by the Swedish Navy, with HMS Gotland and HMS Uppland having been modified. So far no order has been secured to upgrade the third sister, HMS Halland, despite this being a stated priority of the outgoing Swedish CinC of the Navy. Cutting another hull from the force would likely leave the Navy unable to hold two submarines out on patrol simultaneously over prolonged times, and for a potential adversary there is a serious difference in having to worry about two submarines in the Baltic compared to one (think of it as squaring the size of the issue). But in a situation were all three services are struggling to get the funds to cover the capabilities ordered by the government, and with the surface fleet being in even worse shape, who would pay for the upgrade?

The Poles, perhaps?

According to the Polish MoD, they are currently in negotiations with the Swedish government (Saab has confirmed they aren’t involved in the negotiations at this stage) to acquire the two Södermanland-class boats as a stop-gap to replace the Type 207 Kobben-class while waiting for the Orka-class. The vessels would be updated by Saab Kockums before delivery, which potentially could fit in nicely with the fact that there are currently no submarine MLUs ongoing and the two Gävle-class corvettes should be out of MLU sometime during next year. As such there should be free docks and slipways available and engineering resources available. To cover the shortfall in Swedish submarine capability the Swedes would buy back the other two A17 vessels, that are currently in service in Singapore as the Archer-class, having undergone an MLU in the early 2010’s and another round of upgrades in recent years. This castling move would ensure that Sweden has a five-strong fleet of submarines, give Poland two relatively modern boats to replace the Kobben, and potentially bring in some much-needed cash that could be diverted (if the government is so inclined) to the upgrade of the HMS Halland.

The only problem is that there is no indication that Singapore is interested in playing along.

Befattningar Vapenteknisk officer ubåt
A crew-member inspects the no. 2 torpedo tube aboard HMS Södermanland. Note the smaller 400 mm torpedo tube below the 530 mm ones, a Swedish specialty to allow for lighter weapons being used against other submarines and lighter surface vessels which are prominent in the littorals. Source: Mattias Nurmela/Försvarsmakten

The Singaporean submarine fleet consists of the two Archer-class vessels as well as two older ex-Swedish submarines, these Challenger-class being upgraded A-11 Sjöormen-class boats. In addition, the German-built Type 218SG Invincible-class is currently being built, but none have so far entered service. Those familiar with the RSN seriously question that it would be prepared to part with the Archer-class before at least the first two, or perhaps more likely all four, of the Type 218SG are in service. If the RSN would be ready to part with something, it would likely be the Challengers, and it’s highly doubtful if Sweden would be interested in such a downgrade in capability.

Is the Polish A17 deal then dead? Quite possibly not.

The deal makes a lot of sense from a Swedish point of view. Kockums’ submarine know-how is seen as a vital strategic asset, and readers might remember the dramatic headlines when Swedish authorities assisted by soldiers from the P 7 Södra Skånska regiment in 2014 entered the facilities and left with a cargo of ‘sensitive equipment’ as part of an ongoing dispute with then-owner TKMS. The yard was sold to Saab in 2015 to ensure Swedish ownership and that they could be tasked with building the new A26-class. However, the low number of Swedish operated submarines means that keeping the know-how alive purely based on domestic orders is ever more challenging, and the export market hasn’t been kind to Swedish submarines since the controversies surrounding the Australian Collins-class. Selling the Södermanland-class to Poland would not only mean Saab getting to upgrade the two boats, but also ensuring that Saab would be well-positioned in the eventual Orka-project. If the Navy would play its cards well, it could also make the argument that the funds from the sale should be funneled to the upgrade of the last Gotland-class, ensuring all three staying in service alongside the upcoming A26-class.

And before the delivery of the A26, the Swedish submarine force would be down to three boats.

This would be a serious blow to Swedish naval capabilities, especially when it comes to intelligence gathering and more intangible effects such as threshold effects and the creation of uncertainty regarding the kinetic capabilities the Swedish Navy possess at any given time in specific parts of the Baltic Sea. This would also directly affect the Finnish intelligence picture, as Finland and Sweden cooperate closely on the establishment of the maritime situational picture in the Baltic Sea. The submarines can be assumed to be amongst the single most important assets in either the Swedish or Finnish arsenal when it comes to keeping an eye Baltiysk, the main base of the Russian Baltic Fleet, thanks to their range, endurance, sensors, and ability to remain hidden. If Sweden would go down to three submarines for a period spanning years, both Finland and Sweden would be left with a poorer picture of the whereabouts and capabilities of the Baltic Fleet.

Naval News interview with Saab from this summer about the latest status of the A26 Blekinge class

But is it a gamble worth taking?

The situation for the Swedish Navy is already dire. In effect, if HMS Halland isn’t upgraded and no more A26 are ordered, the future Swedish fleet will be down to four boats. If letting go of the Södermanlands prematurely would allow for an upgrade of all A19, and possibly the ordering of a third A26 following economics of scale thanks to A26 securing the Orka-order, gambling on a serious crisis not taking place before the delivery of the Blekinge-class again has brought the submarine force back to strength in 2026 might start to feel tempting. An important detail is also that an Orka-order would mean that the A26 would get cruise missiles, an interesting option for later integration into the Swedish submarine force as well.

After all, temporarily scrapping all artillery pieces worked out nicely. Right?

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.