Poland Seeks Next-Generation Main Battle Tank to Replace Its Aging Soviet-Era T-72s

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 73

Polish T-72 tanks (Source: primeportal.net)

The Polish Ministry of National Defense (MoND) has expressed interest in acquiring next-generation main battle tanks (MBT) for the country’s ground forces. On May 30, the MoND’s Armament Inspectorate issued a call to domestic and international arms manufacturers to submit offers for consideration. The document represents the opening phase of the MBT acquisition process, its aim being to first provide the Polish MoND with a clearer understanding of the current state of the international tank market. MBT manufacturers have until the end of June to present their models to the Polish defense ministry (Iu.wp.mil.pl, May 30; Polska Zbrojna, May 31).

With the exception of Russia and Ukraine (and many of the latter country’s machines sit in storage), Poland’s Armed Forces brandish the largest MBT force in the region—around 830 tanks. Even Germany currently wields only around 240 MBTs—though this number is expected to rise to approximately 328 later this year, once about 100 older Leopard 2A4s are taken back out of storage and modernized (Defence24.pl, April 17). The Polish tank force is overwhelmingly composed of aging Soviet-era models, dating back to the 1970s: about 350 T-72M1s (with less than 200 more in the reserves) as well as about 232 Polish-built and somewhat more modernized PT-91 Twardy tanks (based off of the T-72). Poland’s newer tank stocks include 142 German-made Leopard 2A4s (which are undergoing modernization—Polska Zbrojna, December 28, 2015) as well as 105 recently purchased more advanced model 2A5s (Nowastrategia.org.pl May 30; Polska Zbrojna, May 31).

The Polish government first alluded to the fact that it will launch a new acquisition process for next-generation MBTs several days earlier, on May 23. During the roll-out of Poland’s new Defense Concept, Deputy Defense Minister Tomasz Szatkowski told reporters that the military was abandoning earlier plans to develop the Gepard (“Cheetah”), a multi-modal platform that was to serve as the basis for multiple armored, tracked vehicles for the Polish land forces. One early option under consideration was for the Gepard platform to form the foundation of a light tank—to be named the Anders. Later, in 2013, Poland’s defense contractor Obrum, jointly with the United Kingdom’s BAE Systems, produced a mock-up prototype known as the “PL-01”—essentially a stealthy and up-armored version of the Anders and based heavily on the Swedish CV90120-T light tank (Military-today.com, accessed June 1). According to Defense Minister Szatkowski, the Gepard concept never amounted to anything tangible: “the Gepard is something that was supposed to be everything, but would have been nothing,” he stressed (Polska Zbrojna, May 31).

The Anders tank (or its PL-01 offspring) and the broader collection of Gepard-based armored vehicles would have replaced Poland’s T-72s and (potentially) PT-91s in Polish mechanized brigades. And it would have worked alongside the Leopard 2s in armored brigades. However, the Gepard program faced years of obstacles, delays and technical difficulties, not least because of a lack of domestic expertise in actualizing the multi-modal concept as well as the program’s self-imposed restrictions on seeking foreign partners or foreign-made parts and components. The Polish defense ministry’s signal that it is abandoning the Gepard in favor of a new MBT acquisition process resets the clock and will undoubtedly push back efforts to replace the oldest tanks in Poland’s land force by several years (Defence24.pl, May 23). The 2017–2022 Technical Modernization Plan for the Polish Republic’s Armed Forces had originally envisioned the Gepard entering service in 2022 (Nowastrategia.org.pl, October 19, 2016).

For now, it is not altogether clear what kind of MBT the Polish MoND is actually looking for. The Armament Inspectorate’s May 30 document is vague about expected capabilities, although it does mention that any tank up for consideration must be able to combat other tanks, fire on stationary and aerial targets, withstand strafing attacks, sniper fire, grenades, mines and improvised explosive devices (IED), as well as feature “active security and defense systems for the vehicle.” According to Szatkowski, Poland has two choices when it comes to the acquisition: it can either look for “third-generation plus” MBTs currently on the market, such as the German Leopard 2A7, Turkish Altay or Israeli Merkava, or it can join a pre-existing multinational research-and-development program to produce the first Western “fourth-generation” MBT. Currently, only Russia claims to have built a fourth-generation tank—the T-14, which is supposed to start entering service in the coming years. Szatkowski asserted that Germany and France have been encouraging Poland to join their fourth-generation MBT development project, and he mused that if Warsaw is treated as an equal partner in the process, it could seriously consider this possibility (Polska Zbrojna, May 31).

Until a replacement for its T-72s is found, the Polish defense ministry announced, on June 4, it would undertake some modest upgrades to this older tank as well as work on developing a new 125-millimeter round that will be more capable of penetrating modern armor plating (Defence24.pl, June 5). Poland’s regional neighbors, meanwhile, are also modernizing this MBT model in their Armed Forces. Both Ukraine (see EDM, January 25, 2017) and Russia (see EDM, October 4, 2016) are in the process of thoroughly upgrading their T-72s, as is Belarus (IHS Jane’s, May 23, 2017); while the Czech company Excalibur Army recently unveiled its “Scarab” modernization package for this tank (Defence24.pl, June 1).

It remains to be seen how many new main battle tanks the Polish MoND will actually seek. Immediately after pledging to procure a next-generation MBT platform, the recently published Polish Defense Concept pointedly notes that the “first and foremost goal of the future Polish Armed Forces will be the ability to mobilize for conducting effective collective defence operations, not the struggle for superiority or projection of power” (Mon.gov.pl, May 2017, p. 47). This suggests a focus on advanced technology to ensure full inter-operability with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies—and thus presumably a higher price tag per MBT unit. Yet, Deputy Defense Minister Szatkowski further declared, “For years it has been said that quality is more important than quantity. This is only partially true. Both of these have value. Therefore, our efforts will be to increase the size of the army” (Polska Zbrojna, May 31). Thus, the Polish government can likely be expected to balance advanced features and capabilities with the need to procure as many new MBTs as the defense budget allows. The massive tank and artillery battles that have raged on and off in eastern Ukraine since 2014—involving hundreds of tanks on both sides—are testament to such thinking. As Joseph Stalin is often said to have uttered, “Quantity has a quality all its own.”