The Ukrainian liberation of Kherson has been yet another success on the side of the defenders in the war, though it is also easy to assume it will lead to something of a pause on the southern part of the frontline. The withdrawal to the left bank of the Dnipro – even if the losses to heavy equipment are on the scale expected – will still put the battered Russian forces behind one of the more formidable natural obstacles in Europe, and any Ukrainian assault over the river will require either serious amphibious equipment, a lot of luck and daring, or preferably both. The alternative for a continued offensive in the direction of either Crimea or the Sea of Azov is to do so east of where the river turn north and head down the Zaporizhzhia – Melitopol axis.
However, Ukraine just might have found an alternative option. Or at least they might be pretending to have done so, which at the end of the day might in fact prove more or less as useful.
Reports have namely come in that the Ukrainian forces have landed on the Kinburn peninsula, a narrow peninsula stretching out to the west and forming the southernmost part of the Dniprovska gulf, which sees the river outlet situated in the easternmost end of the gulf. Exactly what is happening is somewhat open, but there seem to be Ukrainian light troops on the move, with Herois’ke being reported as having been liberated. And it is a development that causes some major headaches for the Russians. The obvious one is that we have Ukrainians on the left bank of the Dnipro, something that they very much would prefer not to be the case in the south. If the Ukrainian really are in Herois’ke to stay, it start to open up alternatives.
From the peninsula it is roughly 60 km in a straight line to Olesjky and the southern end of the Antonovskiy Bridge. The bridge is seriously battered, but if the Ukrainians can secure both bridgeheads it is still likely the easiest location to set up a functioning logistics train over the southern stretches of the Dnipro. And coming from southwest would likely flank the Russian positions, as it is safe to assume that these are oriented towards the river banks. An even bolder option which really would get Kremlin worked up is if Ukrainian soldiers started pouring out of the peninsula eastwards, where it is just 130 km to Armjansk and Crimea.
Now, wars have a tendency to be far more complex than just drawing arrows on a map. If Ukraine want to break out of the peninsula with any kind of force, they first need to get it over there, then supply it over the water and by a single road, while advancing along a narrow front which spans at maximum approximately five kilometers across. The Canadian advance on Beveland during the Battle of the Scheldt in 1944 is a good example of the issues that can be expected – though in that case it was an attacker trying to enter a peninsula along a narrow front. As such, is a Ukrainian offensive here even a theoretical possibility?
It might be, depending on a number of factors. If the Russian forces in the region are second- and third-tier garrison forces without much in the way of tactical and operational mobility a quick Ukrainian offensive might gather enough momentum to sweep them away. Some have argued that the Ukrainians can’t go on the offensive without armoured or mechanised units, but in this case against an enemy that likely hasn’t had time to entrench themselves the ability to operate quickly and with a limited demand on the stretched supply lines might make light infantry a more interesting option. Infantry certainly is able to conduct offensive operations as demonstrated throughout history in general and this conflict in particular, especially if distances are manageable and the indirect fire support is plentiful. And that’s another interesting issue about Kinburn – the Ukrainian artillery doesn’t have to cross the water to be able to provide fire support. Rather it is possible to stand on the northern shore of the gulf and support the advancing troops for quite some time, including until the frontline would have been pushed well enough east that a supply node in the westernmost part of the peninsula would be relatively safe. This is a huge factor when looking at what kind of supplies Ukraine would have to be able to ferry across the bay to be able to keep going forward.
Another key detail which the possible operation again highlights is the relatively sparse nature of the battlefield. The number of troops involved is huge for a European post-WWII conflict, but so is the length of the frontline. If the Ukrainian light infantry starts moving quickly in gaps behind the frontline, the Russians will have to take action. And that might be the whole point. If Russia starts to shift serious forces south, that might open up possibilities on other fronst, such as finding a nice less-than-well-guarded position for a river crossing. As such, operating against Kinburn might be a fixing attack, or even just a raid in which a limited unit strikes terror and wait for the Russian tanks to come rumbling down the road, before slipping away back over the sea.
It remains to be seen what Ukraine plans to do with the operation, if there in fact is an operation ongoing at all which so far isn’t completely confirmed. Still, it does seem to indicate that the Ukrainian counteroffensive hasn’t run out off steam just yet, and that they want to capitalise on the momentum in some form or another. It is even possible that the Ukrainians themselves hasn’t decided on the fate of the landing just yet, planning to press the move in case Russia doesn’t respond or then retreat from Kinburn and attack elsewhere in case Russia shifts serious numbers of troops south. In any case this further seem to disprove the somewhat strange notion that the winter would lead to a stop in offensive operations. People living in places where winter occur annually usually have methods to keep performing even if the temperature drops, and as long as other factors doesn’t come into play (such as e.g. ammunition shortages following the fall offensives) winter often can provide better conditions for offensive operations than spring or fall.
Let me get this one out of the way straight away: I would very much like Israel to ship air defence systems (and other lethal weaponry) to Ukraine, much in the same way I would like other countries to keep doing so and increase both volume and complexity of their weapons packages.
However, at the same time I don’t think that necessarily reflect on whether Israel is a reliable supplier of arms and other critical equipment to the Finnish Defence Forces.
Let’s start with why the question suddenly occupies the mind of a number of Finnish defence-minded people. Finnish-Israeli arms trade stretches back decades, and while during the Cold War much of the trade went from Finland to Israel, with the growth of the Israeli arms industry the trade flows have largely been reversed during the last few decades. Both countries see eye to eye on a number of important issues when it comes to national defence, including the heavy reliance on national conscription, doctrinal similarities emphasising superior training, tactics, and high tempo to take and keep the initiative, as well as a down-to-earth attitude which emphasise things that work (and keep working in field conditions) rather than new and flashy solutions. Both countries have also been rather happy to keep a somewhat low profile when it comes to which capabilities are found and where they are acquired from. This is however changing with an increased openness on the part of the FDF when it comes to strategic signalling as well as a more open policy on the part of the Israelis (partly due to the need for marketing by the companies themselves, partly due to the Israeli state opening up the traditionally very strict secrecy operational systems and units).
Two key acquisitions have thrown the spotlight on Israel as a supplier among Finnish defence analysts: the choice of the Gabriel 5 as the PTO 2020 anti-ship missile and narrowing the ITSUKO high-altitude ground-based air defence program down to two Israeli systems. With both of these programs being of strategic importance for the FDF as a whole, the question of whether Israel can be counted on as a reliable supplier is certainly a valid one.
The controversy over Ukraine stems from a number of issues. Ukraine has already in the years leading up to the February invasion expressed interest in certain Israeli systems, mainly armed drones and the Iron Dome rocket-defence system. These were turned down, as were requests by the Baltic states to ship SPIKE anti-tank missiles to Ukraine in much the same way they had been shipping US-made Javelins. Following the outbreak of hostilities, there has been renewed requests both from third parties wanting to ship Israeli made systems from their own arsenals to Ukraine, as well as directly from Ukraine. The last round was caused by the Russian terror bombings which heavily feature Iranian-made systems. This led to an official Ukrainian request for ground-based air defence systems covering Iron Beam, Iron Dome, Barak-8, Patriot, David’s Sling, and Arrow, which was again turned down by the Israeli MoD.
This has turned up the volume with accusations flying that Israel has sided with Putin against the democratic world, and while the questions of security of supply is a relevant one, that statement is plainly false.
Israeli aid has so far included helmets, flak vests, 100+ tons of humanitarian supplies, a field hospital, and there’s rumours about (limited) assistance with intelligence from both the state and private companies. In addition Israel has voted against Russia in UNGA Resolution ES-11/1 as well as in the follow-up ES-11/2, ES-11/3, and ES-11/4. Yes, I would very much like to see direct military aid as well, but the Israeli aid package is in line with what e.g. Japan is doing, and I do not see a big debate on whether Japan is a traitor to the free world, despite Tokyo also having some interesting air defence (and other) systems that would come in handy for Ukraine.
It deserve to be kept in mind that the turn in arms policy vis-a-vis Ukraine happened very quickly in the West – a year ago artillery and anti-tank weaponry was largely unthinkable despite a number of people calling for policy reversals either across the board or at least domestically (a position which I quite honestly can’t understand Finland having taken back then, but that’s a topic for another discussion). We still have a less-than-impressive showing in certain supposed powerhouses in Europe, and it’s easy to lose sight of just how Eurocentric the change in fact has been. Besides the European countries, it really is only the US, Canada, and Australia which have pitched in and supplied heavier military equipment. This is despite the fact that many of the ex-Soviet systems employed by Ukraine are in fact found in significant numbers also outside those nations.
Behind the scenes, Israeli refusal to go head-to-head with Russia most likely stems from two factors with a third thrown in for good measure with the advent of Iranian systems on the battlefield. The first is the significant number of Russian jews (as well as Russian non-jews granted citizenship due to marriage) living in Israel. Exactly how many there are depends on how you count as Soviet jews, Russian jews, jews that used to live in Russia, and so forth, aren’t always synonyms. Obviously what they have in common is that for some reason or the other they have chosen to leave Russia for Israel, which means they might or might not have warmer feelings towards Russia than your average Israeli. However, in a country that is currently headed for its seventh election in ten years, potentially upsetting approximately one million citizens is a risk few parties are willing to take. That’s not to say there’s one million who supports Russia, as evident by Minister of Diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai (born in Jerusalem to parents who had emigrated from Russia and Poland respectively) who went on Twitter and broke ranks to call for arms deliveries, but it certainly puts a bit of a break on things (at least until after the upcoming elections).
This morning it was reported that Iran is transferring ballistic missiles to Russia. There is no longer any doubt where Israel should stand in this bloody conflict. The time has come for Ukraine to receive military aid as well, just as the USA and NATO countries provide.
A second and possibly even more important issue has been the role of Russia in Syria. Israel and Russia has reached an understanding when it comes to operations in Syria, under which Israel has been able to strike Iranian arms shipments to Syria and Hezbollah without much interference from Russia. The importance of this agreement can be discussed, as it is questionable to what extent Russia would have been able to stop Israel even if they wanted to (in particular following reports of the withdrawal of at least some long-range systems from Syria to cover losses in Ukraine), but it certainly has made Israeli air strikes more convenient.
With Iran appearing as a major supplier of long-range strike systems to Russia – a sentence I did not foresee ever writing – Israeli interests are again at a crossroad. On one hand, Russia cooperating more closely with a country Israel sees as an existential threat could be seen to support Israeli aid to Ukraine. At the same time, the question is what kind of aid and systems could be going from Russia to Iran? Especially in light of the ongoing JCPOA renegotiation (aka the Iran nuclear deal) which Israel is afraid will end poorly from their point of view, trying to ensure any kind of political leverage vis-a-vis Moscow to be able to stop arms transfers to Iran – which might be unlikely as long as the war in Ukraine rages on, but on the other hand Iran is unlikely to send ballistic missiles to Russia just from pure generosity – in particular with regards to e.g. the long-rumoured Su-35 deal is likely a top priority in Jerusalem. That however only works if Israel believes it has enough of a leverage to actually be able to convince Russia to come around to the Israeli point of view, which is far from certain given the Kremlin seem ever more desperate for every passing month (and let’s just say the number of agreements kept by Russia after they no longer seem to serve their intermediate interests is somewhere between ‘none’ and ‘hen’s teeth’). As such, I would not be overly surprised to see an Israeli reversal of its position on arms deliveries to Ukraine within the next twelve months. That might not be the answer Ukraine is hoping for, and as noted I personally don’t believe it to be good policy, but the fact is it isn’t any different from that of most countries.
However, leaving aside the question of proper Ukraine policy for a while (we’ll let the realists and constructivists fight it out on Twitter), and getting back to the question of whether Israel is a reliable arms supplier to Finland, I’m inclined to say they are. Crucially, there’s a significant difference between initiating new deals and follow-on sales/support to existing customers. It is notable that Israeli support to e.g. Azerbaijan was not cut off even when Azerbaijan started the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War against Armenia – which after all was Russia’s treaty-ally (speaking of making deals with Russia…). The morality of that decision can be discussed, but it is in line with Israeli arms trade policy which always has placed a premium on ensuring the customer is satisfied, as when you aren’t overly open about your deals, you can’t rely on glossy paper for marketing. In the particular case of Finland, as mentioned there is also the long ties and understanding issues such as having strong and unpredictable (read: aggressive) neighbours who might or might not want to erase you from the map. The Finnish deals in recent years also hold significant value for reference purposes and as part of their reputation as being able to compete with the best in a country known for valuing capability. With Israeli arms exports being worth 11.3 Bn USD last year (that’s an HX-program each year for my Finnish readers) and making up almost 7% of the total exports of the country, it’s a reputation they can ill afford to lose.
Of course, we are strongly moving into the hypothetical. An argument can certainly be made that there’s nothing guaranteeing that if Finland gets dragged into a conflict there isn’t an Israeli election coming up at the same time as there is a perfect storm with regards to Russian and Israeli regional interests in the Middle East. Still, you can also make an argument to the contrary that the reputational hit taken now and Israel’s slowness in changing policy could actually make deliveries to Finland more likely as the export decision has been made before any crisis, and that even if the worst would come, Finland is known to strive to always procure wartime stocks of munitions and spares, making the impact of any feet-dragging in follow-on supplies smaller. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.
Perhaps the most important realisation all around during the past eight months is how difficult arms procurement really can be in wartime regardless of where the supplier sits. German behaviour with regards to heavy weapons, the possibility of a Trump 2.0 in the White House, the artisanal production runs of expensive weapons from many suppliers, limited stocks for many countries, and overall policy choices by many countries both in Europe and elsewhere has again raised lessons that really should have been learned in the 40’s – namely that buying weapons when everyone is gearing up for war is difficult. Policy changes can also come quickly in either direction (the controversial Israeli policy was Finnish policy as well right up to 24 February, when it changed literally overnight), raising the question which country really can be seen as a reliable supplier? Inside NATO the situation should hopefully be better than outside, but as mentioned the size of the production runs and ability to scale up production when facing a crisis is unfortunately not where one would want it to be. At the same time, domestic production isn’t as viable as it used to be due to the cost of modern weapons development and the general trend of globally distributed production chains.
There isn’t an easy (and cheap) answer to these question, but my personal opinion is that I do not believe that buying Israeli represent a measurably higher risk compared to most European or US suppliers. The risk might be different, but I believe recent events have shown that risk-free options are few and far between.
While the ink has barely dried on the HX-contract the rumour mill is in full swing about what other flying things the Finnish Defence Forces is about to get next. Will the GlobalEye suddenly make an appearance after all, or is maritime aviation about to be reborn in the form of anti-submarine helicopters? And what about all these drone trials?
And then from nowhere, the C-130 Hercules swoops in and steals the show.
Finland has never been big on airborne transportation. For the better part of the Cold War the main workhorse was the C-47 (one of the examples of which was 42-100646, OH-LCB / DO-7 in Finnish service, which had taken part in Operation Overlord with a certain then-lieutenant Richard “Dick” Winters as the jumpmaster. The aircraft was later sold to the Dutch Dakota Association as PH-DDA and unfortunately crashed in 1996 with multiple fatalities). These were then replaced by the Fokker F27, which in turned were replaced by three Casa (now Airbus) C-295M. These are the first true modern military transports operated by the Finnish Air Force, and two operate in that role with the third being a dedicated SIGINT-platform. By all accounts the platform is well-liked, and if the Air Force need something bigger there is always the C-17 of the Heavy Airlift Wing in Pápa which Finland operate together with a number of other countries.
The reasoning is rather simple to follow. Two C-295M does not an air transport fleet make, but rather it gives the ability to have a single aircraft ready to either transport approximately 60 persons or a corresponding cargo load throughout the country, including to and from austere fields. This is fine looking at the national context which the aircraft was acquired for – as opposed to neighbouring Sweden Finnish airborne/air mobile doctrine has always focused more on small unit operations so we don’t plan for any major air lifts or drops – but then NATO happened. And the Kabul evacuation. And the deliveries of military aid to Ukraine. And a general realisation that you might not get the C-17 flight hours when you want them in case of a sudden crisis that involve more countries than just Finland.
As mentioned what Keränen is envisioning is an aircraft corresponding to the C-130 Hercules in size. This measuring stick is not quite unambiguous as not all Herculeses are created equal. Nowadays, there are two major branches of Herculeses rolling of the Lockheed Martin production line. The basic C-130J Super Hercules is a modern version of the workhorse which has served approximately a third of the countries of the world starting in the late 50’s and up to and including the present day. In addition there is the C-130J-30 Super Hercules which has a stretched fuselage meaning the cargo compartment is 35% longer at 16.9 as opposed to 12.5 meters for the unstretched C-130J. The payload is in fact not going up significantly – a modest 900 kg more on the C-130J-30 puts the maximum normal payload at 16,330 kg as opposed to 15,420 kg – but for cargo which takes up space rather than mass (such as soldiers) the difference in internal volume is huge. In essence, when the non-stretched Hercules can bring 90 combat troops to your favourite local dirt strip in one go, the C-130J-30 brings 128. Same goes for the number of pallet (say ‘Hello!’ to Think Defence) which goes up from six to eight.
At the same time, a larger aircraft will be heavier and more costly to operate, and take up more ramp space (the C-295M is already the largest aircraft ever to operate in the Finnish Air Force), so whichever you prefer is down to your requirements. And it is notable that even the unstretched aircraft is plenty long enough to fit e.g. everyone’s favourite truck-mounted firestarter, as demonstrated by a special forces MC-130J Commando II on a stretch of Swedish road last year. Both would also represent huge improvements over the C-295M, and provide important increases to the strategic mobility of the Finnish Army in particular. While being able to quickly shift a platoon from one end of the country to the other seldom is important, being able to do so with a company just might already be so. Same goes for 15 tons of ammunition or spares.
The C-130 isn’t the only game in town, another type Keränen mentions as worth considering is the (K)C-390 which the Netherlands opted for when replacing their C-130 fleet (in the process making the Dutch something along the lines of fourth air force worldwide to have at some point operated the Hercules and retired the type without replacing it with another Herc, a seriously impressive statistic that is hard to match for any aircraft type). However, Keränen notes that with the other Nordic countries going for the C-130J Super Hercules, that is the forerunner in his mind.
Again, it should be stressed that this is a general speaking his personal mind without likely having done much in the way of calculations or detailed analysis of the logistical needs and benefits of what would primarily be a resource for the Army, Special Forces, and civilian crisis response role (including medical evacuations). Still, Keränen goes as far as noting that with Sweden, Denmark, and Norway all either operating or being in the process of acquiring the Super Herc, a joint-Nordic Hercules squadron serving all four countries could be a solution. We are (finally) all going to be treaty allies after all, removing the main question mark that has hung over similar solutions so far. And getting back to the stretched/not-stretched, the current situation seems to be that Sweden will stick with the short-cargo Hercules when stepping up from C-130H to C-130J territory through the acquisition of something between four and six ex-Italian aircraft. Norway and Denmark however both operate four C-130J-30 each. With Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat picking up the story and having a longer interview with both Keränen and Lt.Col. Petteri Kurkien at FDF Logisitics Command (which also handle acquisition programs), we get some further insight into Keränen’s thinking. In particular he states that he doesn’t seem any use in getting single aircraft, as you need a minimum of two to have at least one on call at any given time. Two to four is the number that could be relevant for Finland (as mentioned four is something of a Nordic standard). At the same time, Finland has the Casa which represent a capability that the other Nordic countries lack, so an argument can be made for Finland being able to make do with fewer aircraft. However, a counter-argument can also be made that the Finnish geography and sea to the west and south means that Finland might be interested in having a greater capability if we e.g. suddenly want to shift a Finnish battalion to Estonia or fly a Swedish air defence battery to Kouvola.
One thing to note is that while the C-130 has been converted to the tanker role in a number of configurations – including in Swedish service but most prolifically in the form of the USMC family of KC-130 tankers with the KC-130J as the latest iteration – these have always employed the hose and drogue-system. In essence there are two ways of doing aerial refuelling, of which the hose and drogue is simpler but less efficient in a number of ways compared to the competing flying boom-system. No points for guessing which is the favourite of naval aviation and which has become the USAF standard. As such, KC-130 has been able to refuel the F/A-18 Hornet and the JAS 39 Gripen, but not the F-16 or the F-35A.
Enter the KC-390 ‘agile tanker’, a joint project between L3Harris and Embraer announced earlier this year. It would be fitted with a boom, and have the ability to transfer fuel to F-35A. The total fuel capacity of the current KC-390 Millennium is 35,000 kg, which is more or less in line with the 38,300 kg of fuel a KC-130J is able to offer from its internal system, external tanks, and additional cargo compartment fuel tank. The agile tanker is still very much a paper product, but it is something worth keeping in mind when discussing aircraft. At the same time, a boom-tanker is inherently less versatile in the transport role compared to hose-tankers which doesn’t require much in the way of modifications to the rear ramp or cargo compartment.
However, as noted by Keränen there is currently no ongoing program, and this was echoed by Minister of Defence Antti Kaikkonen to YLE this morning, who stated that we have no “immediate need”. So we could just leave this for now, and get back in a few years.
…but where would be the fun in that?
There’s already been weeks since the last announcement of the trademark FDF surplus deals where Finland suddenly increases military capability through the acquisition of used equipment on the cheap, and while the Swedes have apparently ran off with the Italian C-130J Super Herculeses, another major NATO-country is also preparing to dump a sizeable number of aircraft on the market. Remember that fact about just a handful of countries having ever moved away from the C-130? Well, just over half of those have settled for the Airbus A400M Atlas, an aircraft that is larger, more expensive, generally better in most ways, and one which did not fly the year Gamal Abdel Nasser became president of Egypt. It is also a pan-European project plagued by delays and cost-overruns as well as poor availability, but which now seems to be headed in the right direction (if all this makes you think of NH90, you are probably not too far off). Airbus will almost certainly offer the A400M for Finland in case of a formal process taking off, but it is likely to be overkill for any Finnish requirement.
However, over in the country of his majesty king Charles III, his Royal Air Force is about to ditch their whole C-130-fleet to go all in on the A400M. RAF operate a mixed fleet of C-130J (local designation C.5) and C-130J-30 (local designation C.4), of which the better part of the C.5 (yes, the shorter ones) have been sold off to Bangladesh and Bahrain, with a single aircraft becoming the new ‘Fat Albert’ support aircraft of the USN Blue Angels. However, there is a sizeable number (as in, thirteen which is way more than four) stretched C.4 still waiting for what will happen to them post-2023 when they are supposed to be taken out of service. The flight hours for these were published in april last year, and while all were more or less in the 10-15,000 flight hour span then (and you can likely add quite a few hours since) there is still some life left in them. ZH885 had flown 31,888 hours when it went to the US, just to give an example.
Exactly how much life is an open question, and rests on how straining the hours have been, with the number of landings and take-offs (which hopefully are the same) being an important factor as well. It is known that the UK Hercules-fleet was in need of undergoing a centre wing box replacement which would allow them to serve into 2035, and that the fleet-wide contract was worth 110M GBP. While this is obviously a lot of money for something that will still need to be retired in 13 years it needs to be put into perspective: ZH885 apparently went for 29.7M USD back in 2020, which might or might not have included the refurbishment done in the UK before delivery. After a quick inflation adjustment a new-built C-130J should be approximately 94.0M EUR today, approaching three times the 35.0M EUR (adjusted) cost of ZH885. If Finland could get say 15,000 flight hours each out of four ex-RAF C-130J-30 and get them for under 40 million Euro a piece, even with investment in infrastructure and so forth we could be looking at a complete program for say 250M EUR which would ensure a Finnish airlift capability on par with that of our neighbours on short notice and stretching into the next decade (after which we would have gone down the rabbit hole of most operators and realised how much we love having big aircraft and need to buy a bunch of new-built transports, but that’s for another day).
Das #Bundesheer hat einen 10-jährigen Aufbauplan erstellt, der bis 2032 Investitionen von 16,6 Mrd. Euro vorsieht. Investiert wird ua. in Luftabwehr, Abfangjäger, Transportflugzeuge, Drohnen, Hubschraubern und Kampfpanzern. pic.twitter.com/fuOHrKQAcg
However, we might have to be quick if we want in on the UK aircraft, as Finland isn’t the only one to reflect on the need for bigger transports. Austria this week announced their 10-year plan, which include among other things a replacement for their four current legacy C-130 Hercules. The aircraft’s original owner? Well, glad you asked. The RAF.
The massed attacks on Ukraine today again raises the question about different approaches to managing the long-range ballistic and cruise missile threat, and while I don’t claim to have written the book on the issue, I did write a chapter with that headline for a Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) report a few years ago. As such, I have given the topic some thought. The bottom line is, it’s difficult and there’s no single answer.
To begin with, we need to differentiate between ballistic missiles such as Iskanders which are really difficult to shoot down, and cruise missiles which fly towards the target as (often small) unmanned aircraft. While a number of ground-based air defence systems are able to target at least some ballistic missiles, these are of the high-end (and as such expensive) kind, and their coverage against ballistic missiles is significantly smaller than against other flying things due to the ballistic missiles approaching their targets more or less vertically at extreme speeds.
Cruise missiles are easier targets. They come in different shapes and sizes, and rely on a combination of small size, speed, and in some cases stealth and/or electronic countermeasures to avoid interception. However, the most common defensive measure of cruise missiles is the rather straightforward method of keeping low. Flying at low altitude means that the window ground-based systems have to acquire and target them is low, and the problem is further emphasised if the air defence battery is set up in terrain such as forests, hills, or urban areas. But everything is relative. The high cruising speed is still subsonic for the majority of systems, meaning that few missiles are travelling at higher speeds than fighters or strike aircraft do. The size is small compared to fighters, but still comparable to, or larger than, many drones. As such, to make a complex question overly simple – if an air defence system is able to counter fighters and drones, cruise missiles aren’t out of reach. The most extreme version of this is evident in a widely circulated video shot today which appears to show an old Igla MANPADS used to take down a cruise missile.
#Ukraine: Not all of the cruise missiles fired into Ukraine from Russian aircraft and ships hit their target- here we see extremely rare footage of Igla MANPADS being used to take down a Russian missile on its way to the target. pic.twitter.com/zzajBZljnq
While this is an extreme case, it also illustrate the point well. Note that the shooter has ample time to figure out what is happening and set up the shot in the flat and open terrain.
The best counter to cruise missiles is however not old MANPADS nor top-of-the-line systems such as Patriot or SAMP/T. Rather it is modern medium-range systems, with NASAMS being the obvious choice here due to Ukrainian familiarity with the system. A number of other systems such as the CAMM would also fit the bill. The key detail is that these provide greater number for a given cost compared to more high-end ones. And when it comes to adding coverage, the number of batteries will always matter more than the range of individual systems. This is of even greater importance in Ukraine’s situation, as the country is large and with Russia resorting to terror bombings the number of potential targets is huge.
However, that is not to say that other air defence systems aren’t of interest to Ukraine. Getting shorter-ranged systems or older ones will free up the more capable ones to the counter-missile mission. With the drone threat also having ticked up recently with the supply of Iranian systems, it is evident that all kinds of air defence systems are extremely valuable to Ukraine for the time being.
Another way to kinetically ensure that missiles aren’t raining down over Ukraine is to hit the systems launching these. This include Russian strike and bomber aircraft, naval vessels including submarines, and launch vehicles such as Iskander units. Obviously, hitting airfields, maritime infrastructure, missile storage sites, and so forth will also achieve the desired effect. Many of these targets are however situated deep inside Russia, and as such Ukraine have difficulties reaching these both due to the lack of suitable weapon systems as well as due to reported Western restrictions on using Western supplied weaponry to reach targets on Russian soil. At this stage of the conflict, providing suitable weapons for Ukrainian long-range strikes on military targets deep inside Russia should be a no-brainer.
But getting complete cover will always be prohibitively expensive and require more resources than Ukraine or anyone else would have available. As such a big part of the answer is usually dispersion, fortification, and creating redundant systems, all of which are naturally more relevant against an enemy actually trying to hit something useful rather than just trying to kill civilians. As such, the real way to stop Russian missiles will be a Ukrainian victory. This will require stepping up support in a number of areas. This includes more of what has already been delivered, including both weapons and financial aid. However, it is also high time to supply new capabilities. This includes finally getting Ukraine those Leopards, as well as starting training on modern western multirole fighters. The F-16 is the obvious candidate, and while it could provide a measure of defence against cruise missiles, the big deal is the general ability to pound targets on the ground with modern weaponry and drastically increase the Ukrainian ability to defend their skies from enemy fighters and helicopters. Because as the war currently sits, the Russian strategy seems largely to be to burn everything they can’t have down to the ground, and the sooner we’ll take the matches from the arsonist, the less damage he’ll be able to cause.
Harpia Publishing has long been noted for their steady stream of high-quality softcovers which typically feature modern aviation topics with rich illustration. With Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles – Current Types, Ordnance and Operations by Dan Gettinger (ISBN: 978-1-950394-05-0) they are however breaking new terrain. As volume 1 in their Strategic Handbook Series, it sports not only a different cover design, but is also a hardback. At the time of writing I am not aware of any other planned volumes in the series, but time will tell. One thing that does remain, however, is the significant number of colour photographs spread throughout the book.
Unmanned combat aerial vehicles are not a new concept – depending on you choice of definition, a case can be made for them stretching back at least to WWII – but it is safe to say that the Global War on Terror was what really brought the concept to life. Following that, UCAVs and loitering munitions have been a staple of many conflicts, with the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war providing an important window into just how devastating they might be if left uncountered.
The book kicks off with a chapter labelled “Definitions and Analysis”. This does what it says on the lid, defining key terminology used such as the classes of aircraft or munition or what is operational service. You might not agree with all classes, but they provide a useful frame of reference and are used consistently throughout the book. After this it looks at current trends in the field. This all takes place in a dozen pages. The final chapter is “Theatres”, which gives an overview of operations with loitering munitions and UCAVs grouped according to the theatre of operations, and this one stretches to 19 pages. The 132 pages in between these two is called “Manufacturers”, and goes through country for country more or less every project that has reached mock-up stage or even somewhat convincing renders. Besides the obvious big players in the game, this means that there’s quite a few rarities presented (familiar with Georgia’s TAM T-31? I wasn’t).
This chapter is obviously the main event, so let’s make one thing clear – the book is a reference work rather than something you sit down a read cover to cover. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing, but it is something that isn’t immediately obvious going by the cover. With the war in Ukraine and numerous other conflicts large and small seeing ever increased usage of these kinds of systems, the book fits with Harpia’s eerie tendency to publish new titles just before they get rocketed to the top of “current events”-pile. Unmanned systems have never been mine primary focus, and I will readily admit that with the tempo new systems appear if not over the Ukrainian battlefield then at least in the discussions surrounding it, having a handy reference guide is nice. On the flip side, if you are looking for books about the history of the systems and the doctrines behind their use, this isn’t the book for you. Neither is it if you are looking for detailed information on the primary systems in use – the sheer number of systems presented means that any single one will have the basic facts, but not much more. The same can be said for the Theatres-section, which certainly held new information for me – in particular about the less-publicised African conflicts which have seen UCAVs used – but which added little to my understanding of the more well-known conflicts which have featured heavily in other writings.
All in all, the book certainly fills a niche and will likely continue to be the primary reference book on the topic for quite a while. The step from softcover to hardcover is a nice touch, and clearly sets it aside from Harpia’s other offerings. Highly recommended – with the caveats noted above that if you aren’t looking for a reference work, this one isn’t for you.
The book was received for review free of charge from Harpia Publishing.
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.
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.
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).
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.
The tanks might have been the big part of the Polish-Korean framework agreement and the overall discussions about increased cooperation in general, but they weren’t the only thing in there. As tanks never are better than the combined arms supporting them, the role of artillery and infantry fighting vehicles in the overall package is worth a look.
672 K9 Thunder 155 mm self-propelled artillery pieces were included in the framework, at a cost of approximately three billion Euros (including supporting vehicles). If the K2 Black Panther is breaking new ground, the K9 Thunder has on the other hand a solid market share in the SPG-market over the last decade, including being ordered by Finland, Estonia, and Norway in the northern half of Europe. Interestingly, the current Polish AHS Krab is half K9 Thunder and half AS-90 Braveheart. In the glass half-full scenario, this scenario this is great because the new artillery share chassis with the old one, allowing for easier maintenance and logistics. In the glass half-empty scenario, this raises the question why they just don’t build more of those?
The answer is the upgrade path. Since the British never got around to actually buying the Braveheart, the Poles are the sole users of the turret (Marksman in Finnish service comes to mind…), and would have to pay for any upgrades themselves. At the same time, the improved K9A1 has now become the new standard in ROK service, which include an upgraded fire control system (with improvements to both hardware and software), an auxiliary power unit (APU) which allows for operating the vehicles without using the main diesel, integration of GPS to the INS for faster and more accurate positioning data, as well as the integration of new ammunition for longer ranges (up 54 km according to official figures). Safety features not allowing the turret to rotate over an open hatch is also included, as well as improved vision systems including for night-driving and reversing. Some of these improvement are certainly more important than others (the APU, safety features, and FCS improvements are the ones that comes to mind), and as mentioned these are not concepts but rather things that are found in the current production standard.
As such, very much in-line with the K2 Black Panther project, Poland will acquire 48 K9A1 Thunder from Korean production lines with the first 18 delivered already this year (again, let’s remember this is still only a framework deal, and as far as I understand will still require the signing of the contract proper for this to actually happen). These will form two battalions (squadrons or Dywizjon in Polish terminology), presumably made up of three 8-gun batteries for a total of 24 guns per battalion (notable that this means all guns would have a position within the wartime OOB, as opposed to the situation for the tanks).
However, as with the K2PL, the real meat of the dish comes in the form of an additional 624 K9PL based on the improved and planned K9A2, and which from 2026 will be license produced locally. The K9A2 will bring a serious change in the form of dropping two crew members to go to a three-man crew with a fully automated turret. This also allows for an increased rate of fire thanks to the autoloader functioning as a small assembly line with the next charge and round already being readied before the shot has gone. A more detailed CGI-version of the workings of the new unmanned turret is found in the video below.
While the growth in numbers isn’t as remarkable as for the tanks, we are still looking at more than double the current inventory of the self-propelled artillery that is being replaced (this is a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation based on approximately 360 2S1 Gvozdika and 100 Dana retiring while the planned 122 AHS Krab are delivered and kept in service). In essence, if the Wikipedia-numbers are roughly correct we’ll see a growth from 23 artillery battalions to a combined force of 33 battalions (5 of which are AHS Krab). However, a key detail is that this is missing the AHS Kryl, a local wheeled self-propelled gun based on the Israeli ATMOS 2000, for which there had been plans that between four and seven battalions (96 to 168 guns) worth of AHS Kryl would be acquired to replace the Dana – just for the Rosomak-equipped brigades in the lower plan, and for all units operating Danas in the higher one. Whether the AHS Kryl now is dead remains to be seen, but it would likely be a better match for a Rosomak-brigade than the K9PL, so throw in another four battalions for a total Polish force of 37 artillery battalions, and you might not be too far off (120 AHS Krab, 96 AHS Kryl, and 672 K9A1/K9PL) – though again it should be remembered that the Polish forces have seen several rather ambitious materiel plans that have not come to fruition over the last decade, so we’ll wait for the contracts until calling this one.
Looking at these number, the choice of the autoloading K9A2 as the base for the majority of the future artillery force is notable. While the crew for the howitzers themselves is far from the only personnel needed to run an artillery battalion, the difference between five or three soldiers aboard every one of the 672 K9 is still 1,344 persons. Added to this, there’s an additional 1,000 tankers less in the K2 Black Panthers compared to if the non-autoloading Leopard 2A7 or M1A2 Abrams had been bought. For an Army that is growing at a serious rate and in a climate when many armed forces struggle with being competitive on the labour market, these are non-trivial numbers. It also obviously raises the question about whether the AHS Krab hulls could receive the autoloading turret and in essence become K9PL at some point during their career (and for Finland, whether we could see Polish turrets on our K9FIN Moukari at some point in the distant future)?
An interesting detail in the Polish order is that it include not only the K10 ammunition resupply vehicle which is in use with the ROK and has proved rather popular among export customers (though it did fail to sell to Finland), but also the K11 Fire Direction Control Vehicle (FDCV), a command vehicle developed for the Egyptian order. The story of Hanwha’s attempts at selling a command vehicle for the K9 is a somewhat complex and confusing one. The K9 replaced the M109A2K/K55 in ROK service. This had been produced under license, and a local command vehicle was developed on the chassis, designated K77. My understanding is that the K77 is still serving on as the command vehicle for the K9-units, and a number of internet sources have been passing around pictures of the K77, wrongly labelling it as the K11. To further complicate things, there has been a K10C2-variant being offered, which like the K11 uses the K10 ARV as its baseline, but is a more advanced vehicle than what the K11 turned out to be.
(9/n) K10C2 is a battery command vehicle based on K10. Once you strip out K10 you have a huge space to play with – 8 standing work-stations plus associated C4 kit. Automotive and mobility match with K9/K(X)10. They also suggest you could have one with a counterbattery radar too. pic.twitter.com/F1wPORl8yn
As one of the key details in the localisation of the Polish vehicles is the ability to work with the Polish Topaz-battle management system, how literal one should read the announcement of the K11 being the Polish C2-vehicle is an open question. It is entirely possible that it is yet a third member in the K10FDCV/K11-family, not really being more closely related to the K11 than to the K10FDCV-proposal, but that Hanwha has simply re-branded the C2-line. However, as details on the Egyptian K11 are scarce enough, any deeper analysis between what are essentially a paper concept, a yet undelivered version, and a version that’s probably only now being properly defined is bound to be pure guesswork more than anything else. The one question this does open up is whether ROK will eventually get around to replacing their K77 with K11 (of some version) now when the vehicle has achieved launch customers and as the framework agreement does include development work of new versions going both ways.
The final tracked vehicles in discussion with the Koreans, and which currently are still outside of the framework agreement is the tracked infantry fighting vehicles, a role which in Polish service is handled by the obsolete BWP-1, in essence the basic BMP-1 which has served since the early 1970’s. The Poles have been moving forward with a domestic design under the Borsuk-program, which currently is undergoing trials and is aiming for an amphibious IFV with the mobility to keep up with main battle tanks. A key feature of the Borsuk is the unmanned ZSSW-30 turret. This is also locally developed and sport a 30 mm Bushmaster Mk 44 gun as well as a Spike ATGM launcher. The turret is also seen as a potential solution for the Rosomak, and as such would offer some benefits of synergy between the wheeled and tracked infantry fighting vehicles of the Polish forces.
However, the discussions about increased Polish-Korean cooperation means that a new contender has appeared in the discussion, the AS-21 Redback currently on offer to Australia (the Redback for those wondering being “one of the few spider species that can be seriously harmful to humans, and its liking for habitats in built structures has led it to being responsible for a large number of serious spider bites in Australia”. Nice little fellow…). The plan is apparently for a mix of Redbacks, Borsuks, and presumably Rosomaks, to be the battle taxis of the Polish Army.
Compared to the Borsuk, the Redback is heavier and not amphibious, features which make it likely that it is indeed better protected than the Polish vehicle (giving some credibility to the marketing slogan “Best protected IFV with lethal firepower“). A key detail is that it can take an eight-man squad (in addition to the crew of three), while the Borsuk is only able to fit six soldiers in the rear. Exactly how the units would be set up in the future six divisions of the Polish Army and what the breakdown between Borsuks and Redbacks would be is open, but notable is that if the full-strength of a Polish armoured division really is 360 tanks, the current 1,360 tanks on order won’t allow for six armoured divisions. A more likely OOB would then be something along the lines of two armoured and four mechanised (120-180 tanks) divisions, of which some (based in wetter regions) would potentially be well-served by lighter systems such as the Borsuk and AHS Kryl. However, it deserves to be emphasised that this is just speculation on my part, and the reasoning behind both Borsuk and Redback might simply be down to the Redback being cheaper and/or better, but there still being a need to keep domestic industry running by buying a serious number of IFVs from them as well. Would not be the first time that has happened to a country.
Edit: Seems the plan for now is that the Borsuk will be the main IFV, with the AS-21 going to the M1A2-units (i.e. the 18. Division if the current plans/speculation will hold true). Thanks to Damian for the input!
In terms of IFVs. Borsuk will be primary IFV that will cooperate with K2PL tanks. AS21 Redback derived heavy IFV will cooperate with M1A2SEPv3 tanks.
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.
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.
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.
When Hyundai Rotem was asked to develop a tank for South Korea, it used Leopard 2 as a model, not Abrams. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It licensed-produced the engine, gearbox and introduced its own version of the L/55 120 mm smoothbore gun. 8 of 18 pic.twitter.com/NKhSunet8Q
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.
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.
The narrative that Germany is an unreliable Defence partner comes from Putin apologists. It is ridiculous to suggest that Germany would not honour its NATO commitments. Ultimately, Germany is an industrial powerhouse on Europe’s doorstep not 5,000 km away. 18 of 18 / END
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
M1A2SEPv3 is considered by Polish Army as a superior tank, however Republic of Korea offers much more than just tanks. Besides K2PL which will be produced in Poland, there is also proposed cooperation on new tank, let's call it K3/K3PL. And there is more.
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 each. Edit: 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.
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 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!
Just one thing about Rosomak and 12th division has one (12th MechBde) wheeled brigade the other ones are tracked (BMP-1). 2th Mech Bde is typical heavy brigade (one tank Bn, two mechanized) and the third brigade (7th Coastal Defence Bde) has only BMPs, no tanks 1/n
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.
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.
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 twicethe 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.