Poland is faced with several options to replace its Sukhoi Su-22UM-3K fighter jet. (Adrian Pingstone)
WARSAW — Poland is scrapping previous plans to buy F-16 fighter jets in five years, but what it will buy instead is up in the air.
The Defense Ministry wants to wait and buy fifth-generation jets, which experts say could be F-35 joint strike fighters.
The deal would enable a technological leap for the Polish military by replacing its Soviet-designed aircraft with high-end fighters. But analysts say austerity measures could force the ministry to buy secondhand aircraft from a European ally instead, such as older-model Eurofighter Typhoons.
A third option could be an order of new Tranche 3B Typhoons, if Poland’s plan to further integrate the country’s defense industry with its European counterparts takes shape, local observers said.
The planned procurement of fifth-generation fighters was announced Feb. 20 by Gen. Tomasz Drewniak and Col. Dariusz Tarkowski, who represented the Defense Ministry at a meeting of the Polish parliament’s National Defense Committee. The acquisition was included in the ministry’s updated Feb. 5 Technical Modernization Plan for the Polish Armed Forces.
Deliveries of the fifth-generation fighters are expected to begin in 2022, with two aircraft supplied to the Air Force. The new combat jets would replace Poland’s Sukhoi Su-22 fighters.
The strategic document does not specify the model of the aircraft, but the ministry is reportedly considering Lockheed Martin F-35s among other options, reported local news site Defence24.pl.
Financing of the program is to begin in six years and it will be gradually increased, Drewniak said. Under the plan, in 2020, the ministry will earmark 170 million zloty (US $56 million) for the fighter acquisition, with the annual contribution raised to 330 million zloty per year in 2021 and 2022.
The announcement comes shortly after Poland unveiled its largest defense budget in history. This year, the Polish government is planning a defense expenditure of some 32 billion zloty, an increase of about 2 percent compared to the previous year.
Under the previous version of the technical modernization plan, the Defense Ministry aimed to acquire 16 fighters, with deliveries scheduled to begin in 2019. The selected model was the F-16, allowing Poland to expand its fleet of 48 F-16C/D Block 52 fighters. However, the original plan was scrapped.
Local analysts say the modification of the plan could mean the Polish government might opt for acquiring secondhand fighter jets from Western Europe.
“The ministry is trying to reduce costs by acquiring secondhand armament under various programs … from Western European governments,” an analyst from a government-run think tank said. “The [Leopard 2A4 and 2A5] tanks, which were recently purchased from Germany, are a good example of this approach … to the technical modernization of the military.”
Meanwhile, a major transaction by the Polish government could further alter the ministry’s plans. Poland is eying an increased integration of the country’s defense industry with its European counterparts, as Warsaw is reportedly considering acquiring a stake in Airbus Defence & Aerospace. Should the deal go through, the ministry could opt for purchasing European-made aircraft instead of the F-35, according to the analyst.
“An alternative solution [to the acquisition of F-35s] for Poland could be to get involved in the Eurofighter program,” the analyst said.
The Eurofighter Typhoon is a joint project of Airbus Defence & Space, Britain’s BAE Systems and Italy’s Finmeccanica aerospace and defense group. The German government has reportedly decided to cut its Typhoon order from 180 to 143 aircraft as part of austerity measures, undermining what is considered to be Europe’s largest defense program.
In addition, the British, Italian and Spanish governments are said to be in talks over whether to scale down or cancel the Typhoon Tranche 3B order, the introduction of the newest model. Under the Tranche 3B commitment, London is to receive 48 aircraft, while Rome and Madrid are to obtain 25 and 14 Typhoons, respectively.
New Trainer Jets
The planned procurement of new fighter jets is part of a string of acquisitions designed to modernize the Polish Air Force. In late February, the Defense Ministry completed another aircraft tender by awarding a contract for eight M-346 trainer jets with an option for a further four to Alenia Aermacchi. The Italian manufacturer edged out bids placed by BAE Systems with its Hawk, and the T-50, developed by Korea Aerospace Industries with Lockheed Martin.
The 1.17 billion zloty contract was signed Feb. 26, finalizing the ministry’s effort, which dated back to 2010 and the relaunch of the tender in 2013.
The acquired aircraft will replace Polish TS-11 Iskra trainers manufactured by Sikorsky’s local subsidiary, PZL Mielec. Deliveries of the M-346s are scheduled from 2016 to 2017, according to the ministry. ■