Polish Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak (Mike Morones/staff)
Tomasz Siemoniak came to Washington last week at a tense time as Poland watched Russia’s military movements near the Ukrainian border and on the Crimean peninsula. In recent weeks, he has met with defense ministers from all Central and Eastern European countries.
In Washington, Siemoniak met with US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other government officials, including Sen. Carl. Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The Polish defense minister spoke with Defense News on April 16.
Q. Can you talk about your visit to Washington?
A. The main part of the agenda definitely is the meeting with Secretary Hagel in the Pentagon. There are some elements that are connected with history as well, because we are visiting the Arlington Cemetery tomorrow and we are also visiting the battlefield of Manassas. We are meeting Sen. Levin and Professor Zbigniew Brzezinski. [We’re also] meeting Marcin Gortat, who is a Polish basketball player in the NBA league. He is a person who is very much engaged in providing assistance to veterans and to children of veterans in Poland, and we really appreciate what he does.
So, in Poland we have attached great significance to these talks. And Polish public opinion is very much interested in what is happening here, especially because at the same time there are different, important things happening in NATO.
Q. How do feel about the state of the NATO alliance?
A. We are heading to the NATO summit in September in the UK. The question was about what kind of NATO we are going to have after [the International Security and Assistance Force in Afghanistan]. Paradoxically, because of the crisis [in Ukraine], we know what NATO needs after ISAF is completed.
This is an alliance that [needs to] perform its traditional role, focusing on the collective defense of its allies. But also the alliance must remember and must be true to its commitments in other parts of the world; the point is not for the alliance to withdraw from such operations as Afghanistan or operations in other places.
But it is also important for most of the member states to go back to the level of defense spending that would guarantee that capabilities would grow and not deteriorate. Poland has acted in the other direction, because for the last five years our defense spending in real terms has grown by 25 percent. But when you look at a table that would put the trends on the different member states of the alliance, we could see that in most cases, or in many cases in real terms, the defense spending dropped.
There are two reasons for that situation. First of all, it is about a financial crisis and the necessity to introduce radical cuts, and defense is a very convenient place where you cut first. And it was also because of the sense of, over Europe, that there no threats anymore. That we should focus rather on such operations as the one in Afghanistan or in Africa, and the traditional threats that were a problem for Europe for dozens of years do not exist anymore. But it turned out to be a false statement, and the history reminded Europe about itself.
Q. What would you like to see the US or NATO provide Poland? Would you like to see greater presence of US aircraft or troops?
A. I would like to focus on the long-term consequences resulting from this crisis. What we would like to see very much in Poland is the development of NATO and American infrastructure and an increasing military presence of both the US and NATO in our country.
This is about all of the elements that contribute to the development of our defense capabilities, starting with an air defense [and] Air Force. An excellent example of that is the F-16 aviation detachment that has been operational in Poland for the last year and a half. See the capability it opens up. It allows for a really rapid reception of American support, because the American troops in the aviation detachment have a permanent presence in the airfield of Lask, so there is no problem to receive any additional support immediately.
Special operations forces and the support of our special operations forces is a very strong point in our agenda. We are now talking about the deepening of the F-16 program, and we are in the process of acquiring the [Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff] missile to be mounted on F-16s.
Please note that we are not [pursuing] the idea of increasing the American military presence in Poland, nor of us decreasing our own effort and our own obligations. But if we do it together with the United States, it would generate great synergy for security in the whole region.
Q. How large of an American or NATO presence do you envision? Do you envision base size or a smaller rotational presence?
A. I wouldn’t like the discussion to focus now on the specific number of troops, because it is not only about Poland. It is about the alliance. What has been happening today in Brussels indicates that our military authorities of the alliance ... they make their assessment on the basis of the situation of all the member states and the situation of individual countries in the region. I do not want to create an impression of it being a race. I would not like it to be a race of the member states of the alliance from the eastern regions of NATO.
Poland is very much interested in increasing the allied American presence in Poland. What is important to us is to cover diverse areas with this presence. But Army presence or an Army base would be a very visible testimony to the American boots on the Polish ground. I count on these discussions, as well as discussions in the Pentagon that will bring us closer to the solution.
And it is generally about US presence in Europe. Since the end of the Cold War, the American presence kept being reduced. From the military perspective, it does matter how many American troops are in Europe. It is not that important in what particular place in Europe the American troops are deployed. However, it seems that the physical presence in Eastern Europe now is very much justified. We have significant grounds for putting American presence in the eastern regions of Poland.
Q. Can you talk about some of the new military equipment Poland is looking to buy?
A. We are now in the process of the tender for 70 multirole helicopters. Our calendar assumes that the contract would be signed in late 2014 or early 2015. We are in talks with three bidders. It is an incredibly complicated tender. Competitors are really very strong. Our expectation is that the production process of the helicopters would be largely based in Poland.
Two out of the three bidders who are involved in the talks, Sikorsky and AgustaWestland, they have invested in Poland by the acquisition of the manufacturing plant. The third bidder, which is Eurocopter, they declared that they will either build or buy a plant to produce the helicopter in Poland.
And our plan is that upon the completion of this process and the acquisition of those helicopters at the turn of 2017, 2018, we will start the process for the acquisition of combat attack helicopters.
Q. Poland has expressed interest in buying aerial refueling tankers. Are there plans still to do this?
A. Because we have considered a number of different options, I decided to send a letter of intent concerning our joining the European [Defence Agency] program. We simply came to a conclusion that this capability is too expensive for us and we don’t have a need to have our own capability at this time.
There are also other programs of this sort in Europe that allow for the increase in copter capabilities of individual member states without the necessity to buy all those capabilities individually, and this is how we are involved in the AWACS program or the [C-17 Strategic Airlift Capability]. If the air-to-air [tanker] program will develop as well as the previous ones ... I think that it will be as successful as the previous programs.
Q. What are some of your other modernization priorities?
A. The priority for us is the air defense, short-range missiles defense. We recently also awarded the contract for the trainer aircraft; it is eight modern Italian aircraft that we decided to buy. We are developing the program for the acquisition of UAVs.
Q. What are some of your military service acquisition goals?
A. In terms of the Navy, we had quite a long pause in the acquisitions, but now we have adopted a concept to develop the Navy by 2030. We initiated the development of mine destroyers as well as the modern patrol craft. Now we are in a dialogue with the bidders for [a] submarine.
As far as the Army is concerned now, last year we extended the program for the acquisition of the armored personnel carrier. It is produced in Poland and it is licensed by Finnish [company] Patria. We want to develop, increase its presence in our Army. Last year, we also got 119 [Leopard 2A5] tanks from Germany. We want to have two brigades that would operate the Leopard tanks.
It seems that our 10-year-long modernization program covers all the most important areas of the needs in terms of our capabilities. In the previous 10 years, a service of the armed forces that was mostly modernized was the Air Force. We purchased 48 F-16s, 16 CASA transportation aircraft and a helicopter program, so these are elements that are going up with the Air Force. ■