Poland is the most strategically placed of the new NATO members

Andrew Doyle/WARSAW

Poland occupies the most strategically important geographical position of the three former Eastern Bloc countries recently admitted to NATO's ranks, buffering as it does northern Europe and the CIS countries of Belarus and Ukraine. In other words, Poland is a true front-line state within NATO and is under particular scrutiny as it realigns its equipment and procedures with those of the longer-standing alliance members.

In common with fellow new members Hungary and the Czech Republic, the most immediate tasks to be undertaken by Poland include modifying the command, control and communications infrastructure to be fully compatible with that of NATO.

The air force has also begun to upgrade its front-line fighters with Western identification friend or foe (IFF)and other communications equipment, and is training its pilots in English to ensure full interoperability during NATO operations. In the longer term, Poland is preparing to introduce Western fighters to its inventory.

The task of overseeing this sea change in the air force's role falls to Maj Gen Kazimierz Dziok, commander in chief of the Polish air and air defence forces. Dziok began his military career as an army cadet in 1960 and, after attending flying officer school, he was assigned his first flying duties in 1963, piloting Mikoyan MiG-17s. He subsequently rose to the rank of pilot commander of his attack regiment.

Dziok attended the General Staff Academy in Warsaw in 1976, and was appointed commander of the fighter bomber division in 1985, by which time he was piloting Sukhoi Su-22s. Following a spell in charge of the air defence corps in the early 1990s, he was appointed to his current position in 1995.

"From the first day of NATO membership, we've had to accomplish goals which were established by the Polish Government," says Dziok. "The first important goal was to adjust the air defence system to NATO's standards.

"The next step," he adds, "is to upgrade our MiG-29s to a level at which they can perform activities in NATO airspace." The first of the 22 MiG-29s to undergo the modifications, which are performed in-country, has already been deployed. As well as being equipped with new IFF systems, the aircraft have been fitted with Western global positioning and instrument landing systems.

"The last step," continues Dziok, " and, in my opinion, the most important, is to teach Polish personnel and pilots the English language." This work includes educating Polish staff in the use of NATO protocols, and revising the structure of Polish documentation in line with NATO standards.

"Of course, we have some experience of this because we have co-operated within the Partnership for Peace programme, and through military relations with countries such as France," says Dziok. "In these duties we gained some experience, which we can use now." He adds that strong relationships have been developed with fellow NATO air force commanders. "They give me a lot of help in different domains," he says.

Air force officers have attended courses in the UK and USA, while experience has been gained through joint exercises, which usually take place once a year. These have been undertaken with countries such as France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. This year, for example, Polish air force Su-22 pilots have spent two months flying in France in joint exercises.

In May, a five-day joint exercise with the UK and US air forces will take place over western Poland, and will also involve the Czech Republic, Germany and Denmark. This will give Poland the opportunity to show "how big a step we have made", says Dziok.

More extensive co-operation

So far, 10 MiG-29 pilots have been fully trained in accordance with NATO operational standards, after attending a three-month course in Denmark. Other personnel have been attending short and long term training courses in the Netherlands. "I hope now we will start more extensive co-operation and get more help from our friends," says Dziok.

In areas such as the upgrading of the command and control infrastructure, the assistance that Poland has received has been more limited. "So far, we haven't had very much help," says Dziok. "One thing we got from the USA was about $6 million for the Polish ASOC [Air Sovereignty Operations Centre], which is used to exchange information with NATO concerning the airspace situation over Poland."

The country will shortly be required to allocate one squadron to NATO's immediate-reaction forces and another two to the Alliance's rapid-reaction forces.

The Polish air force's long-term strategy, which runs to 2012, centres on deeper modernisation of its MiG-29s and Su-22s, and the introduction of new multirole fighters and transport aircraft. Other tasks to be completed include the upgrading of the country's air bases and the establishing of a search and rescue capability.

Dziok confirms that the air force is evaluating four types for its fighter requirement - the Boeing F/A-18, Dassault Mirage 2000, Lockheed Martin F-16 and the Saab/British Aerospace Gripen - but it does not rule out the four-nation Eurofighter Typhoon in the longer term. Some industry experts predict, however, that the latter type will prove to be prohibitively expensive for East European nations, even in several years' time.

Dziok advocates the purchase by Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary of a single fighter type to minimise training and support costs, and says that the three air forces are in broad agreement over their preferred candidate. He declines to reveal the favourite, although this is rumoured in industry circles to be the F/A-18.

"We've decided there must be only one type of aircraft in this region just to simplify maintenance and support equipment," says Dziok. "Of course, we're discussing all these aircraft, but-we know which one would be the best for us".

Some industry sources close to the centre-right Polish Government believe that a final decision on the fighter selection may not come until late next year - after which the process would have to be delayed because of the next general election.

As yet, no money is allocated in the air force's long term budget planning for the fighter acquisition, and this is likely to come from a separate fund. Poland's total annual defence budget stands at just over $3 billion. It is envisaged that the five-year lease of 18 used aircraft would cost around $200 million, while the purchase of new fighters will require several billion dollars.

Also jostling for a position on the government's shopping list are the air force's requirement for new VIP aircraft, and the army's request for 40-50 new combat helicopters.

The Polish air force has a front-line fleet of more than 200 aircraft. "The most important are the MiG-29s and Su-22s, which are going to be at operational status up to 2010," says Dziok. These types are scheduled to undergo substantial upgrades during this period.

An agreement was signed with Russian arms export agency Rusvooruzhenie and Sukhoi earlier this year for the upgrade of an initial 15 Su-22s with satellite and tactical navigation and IFF systems. More of the air force's 100 Su-22s could be modified at a later stage. A similar agreement is in place with DaimlerChrysler Aerospace for the upgrade of the MiG-29s to the same avionics standard as those of the German air force. All the work is being done in Poland by the WZL-Bydgoszcz workshop.

The air force's MiG-21s and MiG-23s, however, will be retired from active service next year, and the long term plan envisages a front-line fleet of 160 aircraft by 2012, after the new fighters have been introduced.

Deeper upgrade for MiG-29s

Poland is considering a deeper upgrade of its MiG-29s, which would involve replacing the avionics and weapons system with Western equipment. "The MiG-29 is a rather good aircraft and it is not worse than Western aircraft," argues Dziok. "We are thinking about a deeper modernisation, but it is expensive." An air-to-ground radar upgrade is also under study in the longer term for the Su-22s.

The planned introduction of a new fighter is also forcing the air force to re-evaluate its training. In the longer term, it needs a new lead-in trainer. Under study are the Aero Vodochody L-159 and British Aerospace Hawk.

The immediate problem of obtaining experienced pilots for the new fighters will be overcome by transferring the MiG-21 and MiG-23 pilots to whichever type is selected. The new advanced trainer will eventually be required, however, to allow new-entry pilots to gain enough experience to fly the Western fighters.

New pilots undergo 350h of flight training during four years of aviation school before progressing to Su-22s or MiG-29s. This comprises 150h on the PZL-130 Turbo Orlik and 200h on the TS-11 Iskra jet trainer. Dziok does not expect the troubled, indigenously developed, M-93 Iryda jet trainer to figure in the air force's long term training plans.

More pressing is the need to acquire 12 medium transport aircraft, which the air force wants by 2003 to replace its Antonov An-26s. "There is money for these aircraft in the modernisation programme and I think that everything will go according to plan," says Dziok.

Under consideration are the Alenia G222, CASA CN-235 and possibly a mix of Lockheed Martin C-130Js and C-27Js, the latter type an upgraded version of the G222. VIP transport aircraft are also needed, and a purchase of four to six Bombardier Challenger, Dassault Falcon or Gulfstream business jets is being looked at. The air force's pair of VIP-configured Tupolev Tu-154s will be retained, according to Dziok, who denies reports that Airbus A319CJs or Boeing Business Jets could also be acquired.

"In my opinion, the final decision concerning the modernisation will be made very soon and will cover both [medium transport and VIP] types of aircraft," says Dziok.

Source: Flight International