On 10 April, a Polish air force Tupolev Tu-154M VIP aircraft crashed at Smolensk-Severny airbase in western Russia, in the worst disaster in Polish military aviation history.

Among the 96 people killed were President Lech Kaczynski, along with the chiefs of the general staff, joint operational headquarters and the air force, land forces, navy and special forces commands.

According to some sources, the loss of so many high-ranking officers could create a considerable long-term problem for the Polish armed forces as a result of the lost collective experience.

Land forces commander Maj Gen Tadeusz Buk, for example, had been responsible for preparing troops for the Polish mission in Afghanistan. He had also served as the deputy commander general of the Combined Security Transition Command in the country from 2006-7, and held a senior position during the coalition campaign in Iraq.

The military's chain of command has not been immediately disrupted by the accident, however, with all duties having been passed on to the generals' deputies.

Maj Gen Krzysztof Zaleski replaced killed air force commander Lt Gen Andrzej Blasik on a temporary basis, for example, before acting President Bronislaw Komorowski appointed Lt Gen Lech Majewski to the post on 20 May.

A side-effect of the Smolensk tragedy has been that Warsaw has no long-range VIP aircraft available, with its other Tu-154M being overhauled in Russia and due to return in July.

The air force's Special Air Transport Wing has three Yakovlev Yak-40 transports and three PZL W-3 Sokol helicopters airworthy.

The operational fate of the remaining Tu-154M is uncertain following the crash, with LOT Polish Airlines having been asked to charter two Embraer 175 regional jets for at least two years to support the nation's VIP transport requirements.

This arrangement will cover the time needed for Warsaw to acquire a new fleet. Local reports have suggested that it could order two large aircraft, such as the Airbus Corporate Jet or Boeing Business Jet, plus four long-range business jets, such as the Bombardier Global Express, Dassault Falcon 7X or Gulfstream G450/550.

Mi-24, ©Polish Military Contingency in Afghanistan 

Poland has operated upgraded Mi-24 assault helicopters in Afghanistan since 2008. Picture: Polish Military Contingency in Afghanistan

Poland's main military focus is on its commitment to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, with its last personnel having left Iraq in October 2008.

The Polish Military Contingency in Afghanistan (PKW-A) began operations in March 2002 with 150 special forces and logistics personnel, plus a support ship. The unit continued its operations while another 200 personnel were sent to Iraq in March 2003: an allocation that was strengthened to 2,500 troops in the second half of the same year.

The Iraq mission saw Poland command the Multinational Division Central-South, and deploy an Independent Air Assault Group equipped with four Mil Mi-8T and six W-3W transports, and from late 2004 six Mi-24D assault helicopters.

The aircraft were employed for tasks such as personnel, equipment and VIP transport, reconnaissance, close air support, medical evacuation and convoy overwatch.

Three personnel were killed and three injured when a W-3W crashed in Iraq in December 2004, while the crew of a Mi-24D escaped injury in a July 2006 mishap.

Poland was simultaneously strengthening its Afghan contingent, creating the brigade-level Task Force White Eagle unit, now responsible for controlling the south-eastern province of Ghazni from five bases.

To coincide with the draw-down of troops in Iraq, the PKW-A in August 2008 gained an Independent Air Assault Group detachment of four Mi-17-1Vs and four Mi-24Vs, after modifications made by the WZL-1 Military Aviation Works in Lodz.

Both types received infrared suppressors over their exhaust ducts and infrared countermeasures equipment to protect against missile attack. The Mi-17s got new engines for improved "hot and high" operating performance.

The Mi-17s also received ballistic protection, flare dispensers and new communication and identification friend-or-foe equipment for the deployment, plus provisions for four door- and window-mounted PK machine guns. A fifth can be installed at the rear of the fuselage after removing the rear doors.

Mi-17s are the only coalition helicopters apart from the Boeing CH-47 Chinook which can perform supply flights to the Ajiristan outpost, which is surrounded by mountain peaks reaching a height of 12,100-15,700ft (3,700-4,800m).

One more Mi-17 and two Mi-24Vs were added during a subsequent rotation, taking to 11 the total number of helicopters deployed. These logged some 2,200 flight hours between 29 April and 26 October last year, and transported over 32t of equipment.

One Mi-24 was written off last July after performing an emergency landing following a loss of power, with the incident the result of enemy fire. Its crew escaped injury.

Roughly 1,600h were flown in almost 1,000 sorties in the following six months, with the Mi-17s transporting almost 5,800 personnel and 56t tons of cargo. However, a second Mi-24V was damaged when it performed an emergency autorotation immediately after take-off from Ghazni airfield. Two replacement Mi-24Vs were sent to Afghanistan earlier this year.

Poland's ability to move such equipment has been hampered by its lack of a strategic transport capability. After retiring its last Antonov An-26 in January 2009, the air force's largest transport asset is the Lockheed Martin C-130E. Its 11 Airbus Military C-295s are used to transport troops to Afghanistan, but the type's limited endurance makes the journey to Asia a hard task.

Poland's project to introduce the C-130E has been the subject of major delays. According to its original schedule, all five secondhand aircraft should have been delivered by the end of this year. The air force's first aircraft was handed over late in March 2009, while its second arrived in April 2010. Two more C-130Es should be delivered this year, followed by the last one in December 2011.

To cover for the delay, the air force received one ex-US Air Force C-130E last December under a loan deal. This was badly damaged in Afghanistan in a February mishap that is the subject of an ongoing investigation. Polish-operated Hercules logged fewer than 220 flight hours in 2009, and just 35h in January.

The nation has a share of 150h a year on the new NATO/Partnership for Peace Strategic Airlift Capability's fleet of three Boeing C-17s. Its first use of the type was to carry Polish troops and equipment in November. Its most recent application was to transport home the bodies of those killed in the Smolensk crash.

To boost its deployed capabilities, the defence ministry decided in March to permanently base one of its C-295s in Afghanistan, to support ISAF transport, airdrop and medical evacuation tasks. The 13th Air Transport Squadron asset recently arrived in the country, along with 20 air crew and technicians.

Acting President Komorowski in April approved an extension to Poland's military presence in Afghanistan until at least October 2010, increasing the PKW-A to 2,600 personnel, including a bigger special forces presence. Another 400 reserves will be held at high readiness in Poland and 1 billion zlotys ($305 million) has been assigned to improve the standard of equipment available to Polish personnel serving with the PKW-A.

This is from an overall defence allocation of 25.5 billion zlotys - a modest total that has led to the air force scrapping plans to acquire two multirole tanker transports also capable of VIP transport tasks. No new multirole combat aircraft will be procured before 2018.

The troop increase in Afghanistan will be supported by having air group assets operate from two bases, and from September an Aeronautics Defense Systems Aerostar tactical unmanned air vehicle system is to be used. Warsaw in February ordered two systems, each comprising four aircraft, two ground control stations and take-off and landing equipment, under a deal worth 89 million zlotys.

Poland has also ordered four secondhand Mi-17-1Vs and one Mi-172 from Russia for 313 million zlotys. These will be upgraded by the WZL-1 aviation works, with the first to be ready for combat missions by year-end.

The defence ministry has also ordered new pod-housed self-protection equipment, including missile warning systems and chaff and flare dispensers for the Mi-17 and Mi-24. WZL-1 is to prepare a prototype fit for each aircraft type for flight-testing before November, and the first upgraded Mi-24V should be ready for use by July 2011.

In addition to its involvement in Poland's military commitment to Afghanistan, the nation's air force is also providing the NATO air policing mission for the Baltic states.

Flying from Lithuania's Siauliai air base since 30 April, the "Orlik 3" contingent will continue until 31 August, using RSK MiG-29As from the 1st Tactical Air Squadron at Minsk Mazowiecki.

About 80 people have been assigned in support of the task, including pilots, technicians and logistics personnel, in addition to soldiers from the Polish military gendarmerie.

This represents the Polish air force's third period of duty in protecting the airspace of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania using the MiG-29.

The service conducted one "Alpha" scramble against an undeclared Lithuanian PZL-104 Wilga civil aircraft during its three-month stint in early 2006, and flew 69 training sorties and 170h between March and June 2008. The latter included practice intercepts against Lithuanian helicopters and transport aircraft, and mock dogfights with its one Aero Vodochody L-39C.

Despite a previous announcement by Polish defence minister Bogdan Klich, the air force opted against sending its Lockheed Martin F-16C "Jastrzabs" to Lithuania as a result of "economical calculations", and because the base infrastructure at Siauliai is more suitable for the operation of Russian-built aircraft.

F-16s were also to go to Iceland for another NATO air policing commitment this year, but this was abandoned, due to the global financial crisis.

However, acting commander-in-chief of the air force operational command, Lt Gen Slawomir Dygnatowski, says "it is possible that we will deploy Jastrzabs for an expeditionary mission in 2010".

 MiG-29, © Capt Tomasz Korytowski/Polish Air Force
The "Orlik 3" commitment represents Poland's third MiG-29 detachment to Lithuania. Picture: Capt Tomasz Korytowski/Polish air force

Additional reporting by Grzegorz Sobczak

Source: Flight International