No country has been more full-throated in calls to arm Ukraine against the invading Russian army than Poland.

The government in Warsaw was the first to urge NATO members to send fighter aircraft to the Ukrainian air force, and offered to supply Ukraine with its own post-Soviet RAC MiG-29 jets.

Now, the Polish government is revving up its military investments, aiming to spend 4% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defence by the end of 2023 – more than any other NATO member by a percent of GDP.

Air power is central to that plan.

“Air defence… becomes the most-crucial and most-sensitive area that we have to work on,” Adrian Kubicki, Poland’s consul general in New York City, tells FlightGlobal. “That can be provided using fighter jets.”

The strategy reflects a more-muscular security policy that Poland says was in the works before Moscow’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Still, Polish officials say the Russia-Ukraine war has brought increased urgency to its plans.

“This is where the global security is being decided,” says Kubicki.

In an interview with FlightGlobal, the diplomat and former public relations employee at LOT Polish Airlines laid out his government’s security strategy, including why Poland plans to hike military spending on equipment including fifth-generation Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets.

Poland shares borders with both Russia – via the Kaliningrad enclave – and with Moscow’s ally Belarus. The country also abuts Ukraine; that frontier has proven highly valuable for the purpose of moving humanitarian and military assistance from NATO territory into Ukraine.

Ironically, Kubicki says that despite its volatile neighbourhood, Poland in many ways feels safer than when the war started.

“The paradox is [that] our security has been enhanced due to a lot of efforts and a lot of work that we’ve done together with our NATO members and allies to actually enhance the security,” he says.

Poland’s sense of security also results from what Kubicki describes as Russia’s poor performance in Ukraine.

“We overestimated the Russian capabilities for this invasion and their military strength,” he says, while citing successes of Ukrainian defenders, who “acted bravely and are still fighting against the odds”.

The consul general is careful to note that Warsaw’s defence plans, particularly its planned acquisition of a modern fighter aircraft fleet, were in the works as far back as 2019. Poland signed a letter of intent to purchase 32 F-35A stealth fighters in early 2020 – two years before the Russia-Ukraine war began.


Source: US Air Force

Poland has an agreement to purchase 32 Lockheed Martin F-35A stealth fighters, which it expects to begin receiving in 2024

Kubicki says that decision was shaped by his country’s bitter history with Russia – and what he calls Poland’s “unique expertise” in dealing with its giant neighbour to the east.

“Out of 300 years of our recent history, Poland spent over 250 years being subjugated by Russia in different forms,” he says, adding Poland has for years been expecting a return of expansionist aggression from Moscow.

“This move by Russia was anticipated,” Kubicki says of the Ukraine war. “We always knew that the mentality of Russia has not changed, that eventually, in the right circumstances, Russia will be willing to pursue those ambitions of restoring the Great Russia.”

The term Great Russia dates to the Tsarist period and refers to Russia and European portions of its then-empire, including parts of modern day Ukraine and Belarus. Modern Russian nationalists, including President Vladimir Putin, have invoked the concept as historical justification for the Kremlin’s expansionist goals.

Kubicki says Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine convinced Polish authorities that Moscow would act to restore its leader’s vision of Great Russia.

“We somehow knew that after 2014 – when Ukraine became pretty much abandoned, in terms of the international reaction to the annexation of Crimea – it [was] only a matter of time [until] when Russia was safe to make another move.”

Flash forward nine years, and Poland’s forceful calls to arm Ukraine with the West’s latest weaponry make more sense. While Warsaw has led on issues such as sending fighter aircraft to Kyiv, the Polish government has also proven to be a shrewd actor in convincing more-reluctant partners in Washington and Berlin to join its tougher approach.

While the Biden Administration initially hesitated to send equipment deemed to be too sensitive or overly provocative, the USA has since supplied Ukraine with advanced air defence systems, long-range precision strike munitions and main battle tanks.

The US Air Force even figured out how to retrofit American-made air defence-killing anti-radiation munitions for use on the Ukrainian air force’s Soviet-era fighters.

Kubicki says Poland rejects the USA’s original approach of seeking both to bolster Ukraine and placate Russia’s elite decision makers.

“It didn’t work,” he argues. “Poland and the Polish administration always knew that it was not going to work, after being indifferent to what Russia did to Ukraine in 2014.”

Failing to stop Russia now, Kubicki says, would leave Europe and NATO with a greater security threat.

With that in mind, Poland is moving rapidly to expand its military forces.

The Warsaw government plans to raise internal defence spending to 4% of its GDP, up from 2.4% in 2022. Poland’s GDP came to $679 billion in 2021, the most-recent year of data from The World Bank. Four percent of that is roughly $27 billion.

No other NATO members – not even top defence spenders like the USA and UK – divert such large shares of GDP to defence. According to NATO figures, the USA spent 3.5% of its total domestic production on defence in 2022, while the UK spent 2.1%. Greece committed a greater percent in 2022 than any NATO member – 3.8% of its GDP.

Polish air force FA-50

Source: Korea Aerospace Industries

Poland plans to field 48 KAI FA-50 light combat aircraft from later this year, ahead of the country’s expected acquisition of F-35s

NATO members have agreed to spend at least 2% of domestic production on defence – with 20% of military funds going toward modernising equipment, but many of the soon-to-be-31-nation bloc have failed to achieve that target.

A large part of Poland’s increase to 4%, according to Kubicki, will fund measures to bolster Polish air power.

While Poland is under contract to acquire the 32 F-35s, Warsaw does not expect to receive the first of the advanced fighters until 2024. To more rapidly build out its capability, and to complement its incoming F-35s, Poland also ordered 48 Korea Aerospace Industries FA-50 light combat fighters.

The first of Poland’s FA-50s are scheduled for delivery in the third quarter of this year. Acquiring two very different fighters was a planned move by Warsaw, one that balances having ”the most-appropriate, the best-suited aircraft for your fleet, versus the aircraft that you can acquire in the fastest term”, Kubicki says.

“I think we found a good compromise and we found a good balance,” he adds.

Kubicki notes the Polish air force will ultimately operate a mixed fighter fleet that will still include some MiG-29s. Poland currently operates 23 of the Soviet-style air superiority fighters.

“We don’t have a plan to pass to Ukraine the entire fleet of our MiG-29s,” Kubicki says.

The terms and timing of Poland’s planned MiG-29 transfer are still being negotiated. Poland previously asked Washington to provide it with additional Lockheed F-16 strike fighters as replacements for MiGs sent to Ukraine.

The Polish government declines to provide an update about those negotiations. But Kubicki says Poland’s need for aircraft replacements must “be taken into consideration” before it schedules any MiG-29 deliveries to Ukraine.

Slovakia on 23 March turned over four of its MiG-29s to Ukraine, becoming the first country to do so. The NATO member plans to deliver nine more of the jets in the coming weeks – its entire MiG-29 fleet.

The USA offered Slovakia 12 Bell AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters as compensation. The package, which comes with $600 million in funding from Washington, includes Lockheed AGM-114 Hellfire II air-to-surface missiles.

Kubicki says Poland’s MiG-29s “will reach Ukraine very soon”. He notes Poland is taking time to consult with NATO allies to ensure “our own security is not compromised”.

While advanced aircraft are a spending priority for Poland, the country is also eager for NATO to establish a permanent base on Polish soil. Currently, NATO rotates personnel and equipment in and out of Poland, including Royal Canadian Air Force Boeing CF-18 fighters and US Army combat ground troops, some 10,000 of which are typically in the country.

Kubicki describes a permanent troop presence in Poland as “very high on the agenda”.

“We expect… our allies to also contribute to our security,” he says, noting Poland’s commitment to exceeding the NATO 2% defence-spending target.

MiG-29 Poland

Source: Peter Foster/Shutterstock

The Polish government still plans to transfer some of its MiG-29 air-combat jets to Ukraine

The USA has numerous permanent military bases in neighbouring Germany – facilities Kubicki notes were established in the 20th century, when West Germany occupied NATO’s eastern frontier. That flank, he points out, has now shifted to Poland.

“There is no reason right now, no excuse why those bases should not be created or built on the Polish territories,” Kubicki says.

Warsaw seems to be coming closer to realising its wish.

The US Army on 21 March activated its first permanent garrison in Poland – garrisons typically oversee support functions for army installations. The army also intends to establish 11 permanent troops sites in the country. 

Located in the western city of Poznan, US Army Garrison Poland received its first two permanent soldiers on 10 March, according to the army.

The service has not revealed how many troops it may eventually station full-time in Poland. While the current plan falls well short of establishing the large military presence hoped by Poland, army leaders herald the garrison as signalling their commitment to the USA’s Eastern European ally.

“The relationship of the US and Poland serves as an example of the deepening ties throughout the alliance,” says Lieutenant General John Kolasheski. “[The] activation ceremony is a tangible reminder of the growth in our relationship.”

US ambassador to Poland Mark Brzezinski says the garrison will provide “permanent support for troops permanently stationed in Poland”.

The move should serve as reassurance to the so-called “Bucharest Nine” – NATO members in Central and Eastern Europe, including Poland, that joined the alliance after the end of the Cold War.

Those countries – all former Soviet Union republics or satellite states – formed to advocate for a stronger NATO presence in their region following Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

The new bases, and the Polish air force’s soon-to-be modernised fighter fleet, should be welcome developments for all of the alliance’s members, says Kubicki. “It’s in everyone’s best interest to have Polish air defence in the best of shape.”