WASHINGTON — Following Russia's incursion into Ukranian territory in 2014, the easternmost countries in NATO began to increase their focus on defense requirements. Poland, in particular, has been very vocal about plans to increase defense spending while modernizing its military equipment. Tomasz Szatkowski serves as Poland's deputy minister of national defense. He sat down with Defense News for an exclusive interview during a June 23 visit to Washington to discuss Russia, plans for joint procurement and his country's new defense strategy.
You recently released a new defense review, laying out broad priorities for Poland. Walk us through what that looks like.
The defense review is very important because it is affected by changes in the security environment around Poland. Namely, the threat coming from the east and its nature, the classic military threat and full spectrum threat. We cannot ignore classic military threat as well, and that plays very much into what we are talking about in the defense concept. We are very much focused on the article 5 of the Washington treaty, meaning we very much rely on allies and we are very positive about the allied presence in Poland and the eastern flank. At the same time, this doesn't remove the publication on our side to build up our capabilities, and that's what this concept is about.
Ok, so what are the modernization priorities you're focused on?
We are going to increase the defense spending from 2 percent up to 2.5 percent at 2030. But our priorities, some of them remain the same; some of them have slightly changed. So we are continuing the procurement process of the air missile defense systems. We are looking at other low levels of air defense and anti-aircraft capabilities. We are looking at increases of anti-tank capabilities. We are going to significantly increase investment in strike, in precise strike, self-propelled artillery, both tube and rocket. This is going to increase many-fold. Reconnaissance — simple, robust and reliable reconnaissance — should provide our strike systems with the accurate information.
This is all going to be built around the A2/AD, anti-access area denial [concept] to render Poland as a sanctuary for the allied freedom of movement on the eastern flank. It will serve not only Poland but the whole eastern flank, which will benefit from the bastion of forces. In terms of maritime capabilities, for instance, we are de-emphasizing the surface fleet which is less useful in the A2/AD environment, and we are putting more emphasis on submarine warfare, on underwater unmanned vehicles and on coastal defense and mine warfare.
Missile defense procurement has been a big focus in Poland for a while, but it seems to constantly be out of reach. Do you expect to have this done in the near-term?
It’s a difficult challenge ahead of us. We want to build such a system, and we would like to build it with our key ally, meaning the U.S. At the same time, this is a very difficult chapter in development of those systems. We would like to procure a system which will be in service for many decades. We would like to buy a system that would be interoperable with the U.S. forces, and also we would like to get the Polish industry involved, as well. So there are a lot of challenges. We are committed to the program, but still, it will take some time until we reach the level of the LOA.
How important is industrial participation when looking at new programs?
Industrial partnership is important to us. We want to rebuild our defense industrial base. At the same time, we are aware that we cannot be, and will not be, self-sufficient, and we need to build long term partnerships both with the U.S. industry and European industry.
A number of E.U. countries recently announced a new plan for joint procurement of defense items. Do you see a role for Poland in that plan?
It’s a cyclical process. These themes come up in cyclical approach. This time, it’s been re-emphasized, and we look forward to such ideas. However, we would like to see a balanced approach so that Poland and other countries on the eastern flank would not become purely clients of the defense industrial base of so-called old Europe. So we are open to collaboration. We are thinking of the next generation tank as a possible project we could do with our European partners. But again, that has to be done on a partner basis, in a balanced approach where Polish industry gets involved and all of us benefit.
You've been investing in domestic production of helicopters and unmanned systems. Could those fit as well?
Naturally. We already have [a] presence of both European and U.S. industry, in terms of helicopter platforms in Poland, and that could be expanded into other programs. For instance, we are putting more emphasis on attack helicopters in this review, and possibly such numbers could justify creating a joint program with either U.S. or European industry.
Some European nations appear to be reassessing their relationship with the U.S. under the Trump administration. What is the relationship like between Poland and the U.S. at this juncture?
The U.S. is our key partner. The U.S. is a key pillar of NATO. When you look at presence of allied forces in Poland, the U.S. is a key ally here. It leads the enhanced forward presence battle group. One armored brigade combat team is rotating through Poland and other countries of the eastern flank, and Poland is becoming the hub for the U.S. presence on the eastern flank. We have fortified our partnership to a number of missions. We were present in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are increasing our contribution to the Afghanistan mission, and also the Counter-ISIS Coalition, which we are present in since last year. There are a number of ways. We are now looking at how to make it a more long-term project so that we have good cooperation on the command and control level, on the planning level, possibly even joint formations [with American forces].
Are there enough American forces in the region to deter Russia from making incursions into the eastern flank of NATO?
This is a sufficient presence if we are to send a signal that if something is going on, that would involve allied troops. But this is not sufficient in terms of numerical balance. There is still an imbalance, a disadvantage, of the NATO alliance on the eastern flank.
How concerned are you about Russia's upcoming Zapad exercise, which will feature heavy military movements along your border?
We look at that from a longer perspective. We see a buildup that was initiated in 2000, when Vladimir Putin came to power. Since that time, you see only increase in Russian spending; you see ambitious modernization programs that were initiated 10 years ago and have broad effects, even if there were some delays. So the readiness and capacity of Russian troops has increased significantly, and we need to draw conclusions out of that. Zapad is one of a series of exercises, the biggest exercises this year and the biggest on [Russia’s] western flank since [a] couple of years, and such exercises create sometimes conditions for aggressive action. So naturally, we are concerned; we are trying to monitor the situation with our allies.
Do you find yourself challenged by asymmetrical threats from Russia?
Naturally. This is a day-to-day reality. The information warfare, we see a foreign activity in Poland on a daily basis. We’ve also seen some cyber attacks that were related to NATO and the U.S. presence in Poland. We know our neighbors for centuries, so we are not surprised. Second thing is polish society is quite immune to that sort of approach. We’re aware of it; we’re working to be even more immune, but this doesn’t create much harm at the moment.
Do you see the relationship with Russia improving in the next few years?
Unfortunately, the historical experience tells us that this is the enduring dynamic. The expansionism has been part of the Russian policy for centuries. This is also one of the ways to solve some [Russian] internal problems. So it is very likely that the dynamic will last for a number of years to come.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.