Poland's defense minister wants a bolstered deterrence against Russia, but also a chance for the helicopters to be homegrown. That part of the plan has suffered a setback, forcing him to delay the tender's deadline.
Poland's government, eyeing Vladimir Putin's moves elsewhere in the region, is purchasing new military hardware. But Warsaw is not only seeking the best possible products.
"Polish workers will be given the opportunity to build state-of-the-art helicopters," said Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz a month ago in parliament in Warsaw. Three companies were invited to submit their bids for 16 utility helicopters. "They have until March 13," Macierewicz said at the time. But now, an armed forces spokesman has announced that this deadline cannot be met. They ministry is waiting for one of the bidders, until March 27.
Previous tender with Airbus controversially scrapped
The tender was only up for grabs in the first place because the government unexpectedly canceled the purchase of 50 European Airbus helicopters in the autumn of 2016. The Airbus group failed to meet Warsaw's requirements for investments in Poland, the government said when explaining its decision. After the deal was shot down, the French manufacturer was so upset that French President Francois Hollande canceled a visit to Poland at short notice.
Antoni Macierewicz is often seen as the ruling PiS party's second-most powerful member, after President Jaroslaw Kaczynski
In the meantime, Poland has launched a new tender for 16 helicopters. It may be possible that only Airbus' rivals in the original tender - Italy's Leonardo and American giants Lockheed Martin - now remain in the race. They both operate production facilities in southern Poland. In its election campaign, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party had promised voters that it would protect jobs in Poland. An expert in Warsaw suspects that in the end, only eight helicopters will be ordered from each company. It is not clear whether this number will suffice when the helicopters in current use are withdrawn from service in 2019.
Warsaw has not said whether three bids have actually been received. The opposition criticizes the lack of transparency. "Some details must, of course, remain confidential," Tomasz Siemoniak told Deutsche Welle in an interview. He was the defense minister in the previous liberal party government. "But now, we have practically no information. This is going too far," he says.
Civilians will take part in territorial defense
The last-minute cancellation of a deal worth billions was one of many controversial decisions made by Defense Minister Macierewicz. Another is the radical change of staff in top level military positions. The minister said he wanted to cut all connections to the communist era. However, important generals with valuable experience from Iraq and Afghanistan have also left ahead of schedule. Many younger officers may be pleased, as they can move up the ranks more quickly. Pay will also increase. But critics say that recently promoted staff members feel personally committed to the minister.
Another controversial measure is the formation of the territorial defense force (WOT), a new military armed service. As compulsory military service was abolished in 2010, the government wanted to boost deterrence against potential aggression. This fits a trend. As Russian saber-rattling continues, many countries in the Baltic region have reinstated compulsory military service. In Poland, around 53,000 civilians have enlisted in WOT, which reports directly to the defense minister and is prepared for emergencies. The government dismisses accusations that WOT may eventually be deployed to deal with internal unrest.
WOT is the point, asks the opposition
Reservists, civilians who have not yet served in the army as well as men and women from private civilian defense groups - something that has become very popular since the Ukraine conflict - are welcome to help out part-time. Most WOT soldiers still have their day jobs. Opposition politician Tomasz Siemoniak has his doubts about this concept. "It is not clear to me how this weekend army will be able to be ready to right. I find this is all a propaganda operation and a waste of money. It would be better to have 10,000 or 15,000 more professional solders than 53,000 WOT people." Also, he says, fewer people have signed up than envisaged.
The first WOT units have already been stationed along Poland's eastern border and 86,000 firearms have been ordered from Polish companies. The soldiers are not allowed to keep them at home.
By territorial defense, the government says that it means defense "close to home". Military planners are working on the assumption that an attacker would likely occupy Polish territory swiftly - but that resistance units would continue fighting behind the lines. The WOT units "are our potential for deterrence because they are they are there to organize general resistance to an attacker or occupier," says General Wieslaw Kukala, head of WOT.
Poland has bolstered its armored vehicle corps in recent years, including purchasing German Leopard tanks
Poland has the largest tank forces in the EU
Poland's army of 90,000 has modernized considerably since 2000. Warsaw has acquired new technology, including 48 F-16 fighter jets, CASA transport aircraft, armored personnel carriers produced by Rosomak, the "Krab" tracked howitzer and surface-to-surface missiles.
With its 600 tanks, Poland currently has the largest tank corps in the EU. The strongest are used "Leopard" tanks from Germany that are stationed in Lower Silesia. Macierewicz has plans for these as well. He wants to transfer some of the tanks to Poland's eastern border as a deterrent to Russia. Moscow has already announced its large-scale exercise "Zapad 2017." It will, presumably, as in previous years, deploy tens of thousands of soldiers on Belarusian territory. In previous exercises, Russian drills simulated missile attacks on Warsaw and Estonia.
Politicians agree that Europe and Poland's security is under increased threat compared to 20 years ago. It is also scarcely disputed that the confident minister Macierewicz is the second most powerful man in Poland's government after PiS party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski; he is also Kaczynski's deputy. However, it is still not certain whether Macierewicz enjoys the trust of all of Poland's allies.