WARSAW — East European militaries are increasingly deploying UAVs, with governments planning acquisitions and local defense companies developing systems to bid against Western manufacturers.
Poland's ongoing 139 billion zloty (US$37 billion) military modernization program for 2013 to 2022 includes the purchase of a wide range of combat and reconnaissance drones, with deliveries scheduled to begin in 2016, according to the Defence Ministry's strategic document. In July, Poland's Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Tomasz Siemoniak said that acquiring a fleet of combat UAVs is a procurement priority.
Warsaw has established two programs for its drone acquisitions. is aiming to purchase drones under two programs. The first one, which foresees the purchase of short-range reconnaissance UAVs, will be awarded to local defense companies, according to Siemoniak.
"We want to allocate this order to the Polish defense industry, because we believe there is sufficient potential in Poland to manufacture small reconnaissance drones. This is why we are not looking for increased [foreign] competition," Siemoniak told local broadcaster Polskie Radio Trojka on July 15.
Local manufacturers of such UAVs include privately owned WB Electronics. Its FlyEye drone is enabled with a maximum speed of 170 kmh and can operate at a maximum altitude of four4 kilometers above mean sea level, according to data released by the manufacturer.
Under Poland's second drone program, estimated to be worth at least "several billion zloty," the military will acquire larger combat UAVs either from the US or Israel, according to senior ministry officials. In total, the Defence Ministry is aiming to purchase 350 drones.
Deliveries of the combat-enabled, middle-range drones, which will be purchased under the procurement programs called Gryf and Zefir, are expected to begin in 2017 and 2019, respectively, according to data from the Polish ministry.
The plan to divide the drone procurement into two programs, the first directed toward locally made UAVs and the other including acquisition of foreign UAVs, has been criticized by some observers and media. According to the critics, the ministry will purchase the least expensive type of drones from Poland-based manufacturers but use the majority of the funds to buy UAVs from foreign producers.
"I don't understand this. After all, the production of [all the] drones for the armed forces could be based on the capacities of the Polish industry," Gen. Waldemar Skrzypczak (ret.), the former deputy defence minister, told opposition weekly Gazeta Polska.
However, analysts said the government could try to include local defense companies in both procurements even if the combat UAVs are purchased from foreign suppliers.
"Israeli and US manufacturers have significant experience in the manufacturing of combat drones, they have the necessary know-how," an analyst from a government-run think tank in Warsaw said. "But Polish defense companies … could become involved in the manufacturing of related communication systems and other relevant equipment."
Ukraine Eyes Polish UAVs
In Ukraine, the government is developing its combat capacities in relation to the ongoing conflict in the country's east, pitting pro-government forces against Russia-backed separatists. This includes the planned acquisition of drones, as announced by Oleksandr Turchynov, the secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defence Council, at the Arms and Security defense industry show in Kiev in September 2014.
Turchynov said Kiev aims to purchase combat UAVs from Poland, and that the drones of interest to the Ukrainian military have a weight load of up to 15 kilograms, which can include weapons, and that they could be used to "eliminate" enemy targets as part of Ukraine's anti-terrorist operations in the country's east.
While the Polish government seems to prefer purchasing foreign combat drones, Poland’s WB Electronics has signed an agreement with Thales UK, which makes the Watchkeeper drones. and tThe company claims it could produce combat drones.
Siemoniak has repeated that the Polish defense industry is ready to sell weapons to Ukraine to help it fight the support its military efforts against insurgents.
Czech Republic, Romania
The Czech Republic also is another country considering expanding its UAV fleet. In May, Gen. Jiri Baloun, the deputy chief of the Czech armed forces, said the Czech military wants to increase its use of drones. Currently, the military Czech Armed Forces operates Israeli Raven UAVs.
On a related note, the increased use of military drones also has been advocated by Czech President Milos Zeman, local news agency CTK reported.
Romania is another Eastern European country scaling up its involvement in military drone operations. In June, the Romanian Ministry of Defence told local journalists it is planning to allocate about €25 million euros (US$27.5 million) to NATO’s Global Hawk RQ-4 Block 40 program under which the alliance aims to purchase four UAVs from Northrop Grumman by 2018.
Northrop Grumman said its drone provides a new generation of surveillance capability that allows it to monitor large areas in all weather owing to its AN/ZPY-2 multi-platform radar technology insertion program (MP-RTIP) sensor, an advanced air-to-surface radar. Romania will be one of the 15 NATO member countries to take part in the program.