|Poland needs to ensure a "substantial contribution to NATO," says Mr Siemoniak|
Courtesy of the Ministry of National Defense
Ewa Boniecka: How would you describe the condition of the Polish army?
Tomasz Siemoniak: The Polish Armed Forces are in the process of comprehensive transformation and modernization. Our aim is to make them modern and ready to respond to the challenges of today and tomorrow. For the last two decades we have made significant progress in this regard. But this is a long-term commitment, requiring a standing engagement and overview from the political level, as well as a predictable financial perspective.
As to the latter, we have been able to secure (since 2001) in our state budget the steady proportion of 1.95 percent of GDP annually for defense. This achievement places us among those few NATO and EU member states that keep their defense spending at a level which allows [them] to increase [their] military capabilities.
Looking at the shape of our armed forces, I would say that there are domains in which our army is relatively modern, up to the NATO standards. Our F-16s, onshore anti-ship missiles or the ROSOMAK armored personnel carriers are certainly positive examples. But there are domains where we still have to undertake serious efforts to catch up. This applies first and foremost to our air defense and our navy. The expectation to modernize these capabilities was expressed by President Komorowski and Prime Minister Tusk. We are in the process of consolidation of specific plans [concerning] how to develop [or] acquire these capabilities till 2030. A new modernization plan for the years 2013-22, partially responding to these challenges, should be finalized by September this year. It is however not possible to undertake all these problems at the same time, thus we sometimes face difficult choices.
Do you think that in the world today a state’s security depends mostly on its participation in a strong military alliance or rather on having its own large army with advanced equipment?
Currently, countries like Poland cannot protect their security as sole players. The “defense autarky” is not an option for us. This is not affordable – and not necessary. Thanks to our membership in NATO, Poland and other members do not have to build their own autonomous defenses. We use NATO as a system that connects allies’ forces and makes them much more effective and cheaper. That is why so much emphasis is nowadays put on improving multinational cooperation in the Alliance. From this perspective, NATO membership is a matter of a rational choice. It gives us reasons to believe that our allies would be ready to effectively assist us, if such an assistance is required.
At the same time we need to do our homework and ensure a substantial contribution to NATO. We have to find a balance between relying on others and counting on ourselves. The principle of a “fair burden-sharing” obliges every ally to contribute to the common goals of the Alliance. If we want to be an important member of the Euro-Atlantic community we have to possess modern and effective armed forces. To this aim, Poland is investing zł.29 billion annually in its defense – we acquire new equipment and capabilities, transform structures and train forces. Furthermore, we show solidarity with other allies’ efforts around the world. That is why we were in Iraq, and still are in Afghanistan. This is also a visible sign of our commitment to NATO.
During its latest summit in Chicago, NATO formally adopted the doctrine of Smart Defense. What does this mean in practice?
It is an expected response to our common needs in the time of financial austerity. The initiative provides for more multinational cooperation, specialization and prioritization. This means that certain military projects oriented at acquiring new capabilities could be realized jointly, in groups of interested members, supporting the needs of the whole Alliance. Such cooperation requires, of course, a high level of political confidence.
This is a new model. The Alliance is still struggling to finalize its conceptual framework and use its potential to the full. But it certainly provides prospects for some new quality in capability development. Poland perceives it as a possibility to engage further in multinational cooperation and get access to required capabilities. That is why we have volunteered to join a dozen projects with new options in sight.
We have to, however, be realistic and should not expect miracles. Although this way of increasing military capabilities is important for us this should be perceived as complementary for our routine planning activities. Some aspects still have to find clarity. For example, the issue of availability of capabilities acquired in this way for other allies and the Alliance is still to be defined.
Also the European Union continues with a similar initiative called Pooling and Sharing. There is an obvious need to ensure consistency between these efforts.
You recently paid a visit to the US where you conducted extensive talks about the missile defense program to be built in Europe. Are you convinced that regardless of the outcome of the US presidential election, that program will be realized and that the interceptor base will be installed in Poland in 2018?
The legal agreement on the anti-missile interceptor base between the governments of Poland and the US came into force last September. Thus this is a legally binding commitment. The preparations for the work on the ground are also progressing. Hence I expect this project to continue. After my talks in Washington, among others with the Secretary [of Defense Leon] Panetta and the Head of the Missile Defense Agency, I am confident that the program is not in doubt.
The initial stage of the missile shield in Europe has been recently accomplished – there is an early warning radar located in Turkey and the anti-missile AEGIS systems installed on ships in the Mediterranean Sea. There is a timetable for the completion of the second stage of the system, which will be located on the ground, in Romania. The following stage, on Polish soil, is expected to be realized in 2018. All these stages have financial support from the US Congress.
Furthermore, the whole program of missile defense in Europe is realized within the framework of NATO, with the decisive participation of the US and the political decisions about the missile defense system in Europe have been taken jointly by all allies.
As to the context of the American presidential election, let me say that the current plan rests on the decisions of President Obama. One should bear in mind, however, that the Republicans always wanted to develop a similar program and went even further in shaping the content of this project. Thus I do not expect the program of missile defense to be directly dependent on the results of the presidential election in November. I believe the last stage of the system could pose a political challenge in the future, providing the ability of preventing attacks from intercontinental ballistic missiles. Yet I am also optimistic about the possibility of finding a compromise on the issue.
There is already firm Russian opposition to building the NATO missile defense system in Europe. How do you see this situation?
The issue of NATO’s missile shield is a NATO decision and no other country should have a right of veto in this regard. This is a matter of principles for allies. Since this is a defensive system we continue to believe that the shield should be developed regardless of any objections by other countries.
By all means, there is a space for cooperation with third partners, especially Russia, on the issue. As agreed during the previous NATO summit in Lisbon, NATO and Russian MD systems could be interconnected and could both contribute to the security of a broadly understood Euro-Atlantic area. Poland supports such an option. We believe a compromise is possible and desired.
This should not, however, be seen as a precondition for the development of an allied system – the work on NATO’s part should continue despite the political difficulties in the discussion with the Russian side.
How is the process of establishing an American aviation base in Poland progressing? It has also aroused Russian protests.
The process is on the right track. This project is being realized on the basis of a Polish-American bilateral agreement. According to the schedule an American contingent, including F-16 multirole fighters and military personnel will be deployed on a rotational basis in Lask aviation base. From my perspective it is a symbolic and important event. For the first time US troops will be present on Polish soil “almost permanently” serving as evidence of close cooperation and a real alliance between our countries. I want to underline that the presence of the American Aviation Detachment should be perceived only in that way. This is a relatively small contingent. As such it cannot pose any threat to any country.
One of the biggest tasks you are facing is connected with the end of the NATO operation in Afghanistan and the withdrawal of troops by 2014. Poland accepts this end date and is obligated to organize the withdrawal of Polish soldiers and equipment. What steps have to be taken by the Ministry of Defense?
At the beginning of this year the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces prepared the concept of the withdrawal of our forces from Afghanistan. As to the equipment, some of it will return to Poland. The rest, due to high transport costs, will be utilized or donated to the Afghan forces. We are conducting negotiations to do this safely and efficiently in cooperation with our allies. In addition, thanks to multinational initiatives that Poland participates in, we have access to some specific transport capabilities. Of course we will also use our own logistics [capabilities]. Given this, I don’t expect to face significant problems with the withdrawal of the equipment and personnel.
Earlier this year, a bill concerning veterans was enacted into law. It concerns soldiers who serve outside our country. It is a desired step but I’ve come across many opinions claiming that your Ministry is not efficiently applying the act and that the experience gained by veterans during their missions is not properly used by our army. How do you respond to this?
We have prepared two big informational campaigns about this [act] in which the president and prime minister were engaged. But of course more can always be done. What is important for me is that veterans who were injured in missions and operations can enjoy significant benefits, such as rehabilitation and easier access to hospital treatment. These 500 to 600 veterans are our priority and we try to reach them in the first place. We do quite a lot to help them and their families. We also want to help as many of them as possible to return to our armed forces. I must say I do not agree with the opinions expressed by some media that the experience and abilities of veterans are not adequately used. Thousands of our officers and soldiers were participating in operations outside of our territory: in Afghanistan, Iraq or Chad. Many of them were promoted and entrusted with important duties. They are changing our forces which are now significantly different than 10 years ago.
There are also critical opinions expressed by some military experts, even generals such as Roman Polko, that we have very outdated structures of command. According to some American officers serving in Afghanistan, middle level commanders are tied by bureaucracy and are afraid of taking decisions during their combat duties. Could you comment on this?
I agree with this opinion to some extent. Since 1989 we have reduced 400,000 soldiers to 100,000 and we have changed the profile of the armed forces from a conscription-based force to a professional one.
However certain structures of command and control at the strategic level remained unchanged. We are aware of the problem. A couple of weeks ago legal amendments that effect the central command system were presented. They refer to the problem of adjusting the command structures to the size of our forces, reducing bureaucracy and improper proportion between the number of senior positions at headquarters and in units deployed. It applies also to the model of the military career. My intention is to promote real professionals in all structures. We assume that the whole reform will start to be implemented from January 2015.
Your tenure comes during the second term of the Civic Platform-Polish People’s Party government and it has been one year since you were appointed to the position of Minister of National Defense. Which decisions, taken so far, do you consider to have been the most difficult?
Certainly the decisions I made in reaction to the Miller Commission’s report on the Smolensk catastrophe were very difficult. I decided to dissolve the 36th Special Air Transport Regiment and dismiss senior officers in the Air Force. I did it in a very difficult political climate. I also made decisions concerning transport means for top politicians and other VIPs, replacing military planes with planes and crews hired from Polish Airlines.
Editor’s note: This interview, originally conducted in Polish, has been heavily redacted by Poland’s Ministry of National Defense. WBJ therefore chose only to make light edits, meaning it doesn’t read as smoothly as it might. The decision to publish the text as it stands was made due to the significance of the issues it addresses.
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