President Trump Should Offer to Sell M-1 Tanks to Poland
When Poland joined the NATO alliance in 1999, its military was saddled with rapidly obsolescing platforms and equipment largely of Soviet design. In response to the Russian seizure of Crimea and its massive military buildup, Warsaw initiated a major modernization program intended to provide its military with advanced capabilities. One key element of that effort is to upgrade or replace the Polish army’s fleet of old armored fighting vehicles, particularly its battle tanks. The Ministry of Defense acquired some 250 German-made Leopard tanks and would like to acquire more. Unfortunately, virtually none are available. Instead, Warsaw should consider acquiring U.S. M-1 Abrams tanks, the same platform that the U.S. Army plans to place in Poland as part of the rotational deployments of Armored Brigade Combat Teams (ABCT).
Russia’s seizure of Crimea and its ongoing efforts to destabilize Ukraine focused NATO’s attention for the first time in some two decades on the threat from Moscow. It became imperative for the alliance to rebuild the conventional military capabilities that had been allowed to atrophy. Moreover, it was recognized that NATO needed, in particular, to create a robust forward presence in Eastern Europe to make it clear that an attack on one member would be met by the military power of the rest.
Poland is the linchpin of NATO’s defense in the east. Deployed in Poland, NATO forces will be able to respond not only to direct attacks on that country and those farther west, but to Russian aggression against the Baltic States and those bordering the Black Sea. This is why Washington and Warsaw agreed to the deployment of the critical elements of a U.S. armored division, including a rotational ABCT and the prepositioned equipment for a second ABCT.
The Polish government recognizes that it is on the front line when it comes to the defense of the alliance against potential Russian aggression. This is why Poland is one of only seven NATO members to spend at least 2 percent of its GDP on defense. Equally important, Warsaw has oriented its defense expenditures to increase the capacity of its military while also improving its capabilities.
For more than five years, Poland has been pursuing a broad military modernization program intended to ensure that its armed forces can mount a credible defense of the homeland and conduct integrated operations with other NATO forces. The size of the Polish army is being increased from 100,000 to 200,000, and a new Territorial Defense Force is being stood up. The army has already received some 250 used Leopard 2A4/A5 main battle tanks as well as new 155mm self-propelled howitzers, 120mm self-propelled mortars, U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, and up to eight batteries of the Patriot air and missile defense system.
The Polish air force is already flying 48 F-16C/Ds and plans to replace its remaining, obsolescent Russian fighters with 32 F-35A Joint Strike Fighters. The air force also has acquired a fleet of 10 C-130H/Js.
A key goal of Warsaw’s overall modernization program is replacing the Polish army’s remaining obsolescing tanks with more modern platforms. Today, Poland has one of the largest fleets of tanks in NATO. It is a mix of German-made Leopard 2s, older Russian T-72s, and domestically-designed PT-91s that are based on the Russian T-72.
The Polish army desperately wants to further modernize its tank fleet. The last of its 250-odd Leopard tanks were delivered in 2015. Many of these require upgrades to a higher standard of performance. The upgrades will be performed by Polish industry in collaboration with the German company, Rheinmetall.
But the rest of the Polish tank fleet is of uncertain value in a future conflict with Russia. Even the upgrades planned for the PT-91 will not bring it up to the standards of the most modern NATO or Russian main battle tanks. Western analysts have questioned the ability of the Polish tank force to successfully hold off the masses of modern Russian tanks that would confront it in the event of a conflict between NATO and Russia.
Options for modernizing the remainder of the Polish tank fleet are limited. The Leopard is no longer in production, and there are virtually no additional Leopard tanks available on the market. Countries that still operate Leopards, such as Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland require them for their own defense. Many wish they could acquire more themselves. Even with its best efforts, the Polish army is looking to a not-so-distant future in which about two-thirds of its main battle tanks will be obsolete.
One option that Warsaw should consider is acquiring M-1 Abrams tanks from the United States. The M-1 is one of the only Western main battle tanks still being produced. With U.S. heavy armor flowing into Poland, it makes sense for the Polish army to acquire their own M-1s. Several brigades of Polish M-1s would be a powerful complementary capability to U.S. ABCTs operating in that country. The interoperability of Polish armored forces with U.S. ABCTs and armored divisions would be tremendously enhanced. In addition, the development of an M-1 supply chain and repair capability in Poland would markedly enhance the overall sustainability of forward operating U.S. armored forces.
Polish industry could assemble tanks from kits produced in the United States. The model for this arrangement is the long-standing co-production agreement between the U.S. and Egypt, under which that country builds M-1s from kits. Over some 30 years, the M-1 tank factory in Egypt has produced approximately 1,200 Abrams and provided approximately 2,500 domestic jobs.
The president should suggest the sale of M-1s to Poland in any bilateral meeting he has with the Polish president at the upcoming NATO Summit in London. Such an arrangement would address both Poland’s self-defense needs and NATO’s goal of establishing and sustaining a robust forward presence. It would also help to secure the health of the U.S. tank industrial base and maintain high-paying U.S. jobs.
Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.