Adam Easton in Warsaw -
Poland announced its biggest ever military procurement deals on April 21, choosing to defend its skies with US-made Patriot missiles and selecting France's Airbus helicopters for testing prior to a potential purchase.
The deals are part of Warsaw's plan to spend around PLN130bn (€32.6bn) between 2013-2022 on military modernisation. Under the programme, Poland will also purchase armoured personnel carriers, submarines and drones.
Officials admit they have accelerated the programme following Russia's annexation of Crimea and its support of Ukrainian separatists.
"Today, very important decisions deepening and strengthening the modernisation process of the armed forces were taken, in a situation where we live and work and seek the security of the Polish state in a generally dangerous world, where the level of security has regressed due to the Russian-Ukrainian military conflict," President Bronislaw Komorowski said as he announced the deals.
Scrapping an existing tender, the government has approved a recommendation by the Ministry of Defence to instead launch direct talks with the US government to acquire up to eight batteries of the next generation Patriot medium-range air and missile defence system made by US arms manufacturer Raytheon. Komorowski said Defence Minister Tomasz Siemoniak will travel to the US in May to start discussions.
A contract, estimated at PLN20bn-26bn by analysts, could be signed by early next year and the first batteries of the already operational PAC 3 + Patriots in place by 2018. The next generation Patriots will be delivered in 2022-25, the defence ministry said.
Komorowski was the first to advocate Poland acquire its own missile defence system in 2012. The timing of the announcement, just a few weeks before he seeks a new term in office in presidential elections on May 10, is probably no coincidence.
The threat of missiles just across the border in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad has made Poland's determination to gain its own missile shield more palpable.
"Russia has extensive tactical ballistic missile capability in Europe and Poland feels intimidated, if not threatened by this capability," Marek Swierczynski, senior defence analyst at Polityka Insight told bne IntelliNews. "We've heard about Iskander missiles being deployed in Kaliningrad that could strike almost anywhere in Poland."
The US system had been competing against a bid from France's Eurosam - a consortium of Thales-MBDA - which had offered the SAMP/T system. The tender process had provoked complaints over its organisation and transparency.
Poland joined Nato in 1999 and has long considered the US its most reliable defence partner. US troops began training their Polish counterparts in the use of Patriots in 2010, and for the last two and a half years a small group of US airmen have been stationed on a full-time rotational basis at Poland's Lask airbase.
Following Russia's annexation of Crimea, President Barack Obama travelled to Warsaw last June to reassure his Nato allies in the region that the US is serious about their defence.
"The US reaction showed the Polish authorities that they were a much more reliable partner and ally than the EU countries. That played a major role in this decision. It's further proof of Poland's strategic alliance with the US," Swierczynski suggests.
At the same time, Poland has been a member of the EU since 2004, which has benefited the country's economic growth and development enormously. It has recently been striving to reserve itself a place at the top table amongst the bloc's most powerful members.
In particular, that effort has strengthened during the Ukraine crisis. Those efforts perhaps influenced Warsaw's decision to favour the French option as it replaces its existing Soviet-era Mi8 helicopters. France's Airbus Helicopters beat off two other bidders for the PLN8bn contract.
"While the largest procurement went to the US, Europe had to have its stake in the second largest, and happily enough, it was also the best design according to the Polish military's requirements," Swierczynski says.
The Caracal helicopter that will be tested is the largest of the models on offer and can carry 12 troops with full equipment, a key requirement. The Polish army, air force and navy will use the helicopters to transport troops, perform search and rescue and carry out anti-submarine missions.
The choice will, however, likely prove controversial with local unions. Airbus Helicopters was the only one of the three bidders that does not own a plant manufacturing helicopters in Poland. The French company has said if it wins the contract it wants to buy the WZL plant in Lodz to assemble and service its aircraft.
Rival bidders are already on the ground, however. US-based Sikorsky Aircraft produces its Black Hawk S70i model in the PZL Mielec factory in south eastern Poland; Italian-British AgustaWestland owns Poland's largest helicopter plant, PZL Swidnik near Lublin.
Union leaders have threatened to take to the streets if their companies are not selected. That will do little to cheer Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz. With elections due in the autumn, she was forced to climb down in the face of strikes from coal miners earlier this year - a show of weakness that has seen several other groups chance their arm since.
"There will be a backlash," Swierczynski predicts. "The unions and the other bidders will not let the government get away with this decision too easily. I'm certain there will be legal challenges."
If the Caracal helicopters perform well in tests a contract could be signed this year, although appeals could delay the process. If not, Poland could take delivery of the first machines in 2018.
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