On July 27, Poland signed one of its largest arms deals ever for more artillery, tanks, and aircraft to modernize its military amid heightened tensions in Europe.
Warsaw’s $14.5 billion deal with South Korea — the largest ever for South Korea’s defense industry — includes 1,000 K2 Black Panther tanks, nearly 700 K9 self-propelled howitzers, and 48 FA-50 light combat aircraft.
The size of the contract and Warsaw’s decision to buy from an emerging military exporter also reflects thinking influenced by the fraught state of European geopolitics.
“The criminal assault carried out by the Russian Federation, targeting Ukraine, and the unpredictable nature of Putin means that we need to accelerate the equipment modernization even further,” Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak said in an interview with Polish outlet Defense 24.
Quickly modernizing the Polish air force is a priority for Warsaw, which is seeking to replace its 23 MiG-29s and 18 Su-22s — aging Soviet-designed multirole aircraft that are increasingly hard to maintain.
Poland already fields 36 US-made F-16s and it ordered 32 F-35A stealth jets from the US in 2020, but it is one of only three NATO countries with MiG-29s and the only European country that still flies the Su-22.
The 48 FA-50s from South Korea will help Warsaw advance that modernization effort.
The FA-50 is a capable light combat aircraft. It can reach supersonic speeds of Mach 1.5 and carry a variety of bombs and air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles. Poland will receive the enhanced Block 20 model that is compatible with NATO systems, according to Błaszczak.
However, Poland chose the FA-50s for not only its combat capability but also the speed with which it could be acquired. Warsaw also looked at other aircraft, including F-16s, but none could be delivered fast enough.
“It is of key importance to increase the levels of security as fast as possible for Poland,” the Polish defense minister said. The Polish Air Force is set to receive the first 12 FA-50s by mid-2023.
Further, the FA-50 is based on South Korea’s T-50 trainer and light combat aircraft, which Korea Aerospace Industries developed in collaboration with Lockheed Martin, which builds the F-16.
Therefore, the FA-50 shares design elements and components with the F-16, simplifying maintenance and pilot training.
“A pilot who has been trained on FA-50 only needs a few hours to start flying the F-16 on his own,” Błaszczak told Defense 24. “The cost of training as such is much lower, and thus we would be able to train more pilots.”
According to the contract with South Korea, an FA-50 maintenance and service facility will also be established in Poland by 2026. With this arrangement, Warsaw hopes to avoid the supply-chain and maintenance issues plaguing its MiG-29s and Su-22s.
“Thanks to that procurement, we gain a new direction for spares, which is especially important for high-intensity conflicts, when one of the supply chains could be disrupted,” Błaszczak said. “This would make it possible to maintain the operational availability of combat aircraft in Poland at a top level.”