Good luck with that
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
The Polish Ministry of Defense is seeking drones for its military build-up. A lot of them.
“I am going to buy as many drones as needed for operation of various [military] units,” Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz said in August 2016. “Drones are a weapon [when used] in large quantities. Their efficiency depends on mass production. So we are talking about thousands of them.”
More specifically, Poland wants 1,200 drones, 1,000 of them combat-capable, according to one December report citing a Defense Ministry statement. But whether Poland can reach that goal depends on what kind of “combat” drones Poland wants.
It probably won’t reach it.
Ministry statements have named the U.S. MQ-9 Reaper, MQ-1C Gray Eagle and the Israeli Hermes 900 as potential buys. But there’s no way Poland can field them in such huge numbers. The United States has thousands of drones, but most of these are small surveillance aircraft, and the U.S. military possesses only a few hundred “MALE” — for medium-altitude, long-endurance — combat drones such as the Predator, Reaper and Gray Eagle.
Each one of those need several dozen personnel to keep maintained and airborne. The U.S. Air Force has more than 300,000 personnel and its worn-out drone pilots can barely keep up with demand.
The Polish Air Force has only 16,600 personnel as of February 2016, and only 98 combat-capable warplanes, including 36 F-16Cs, 12 F-16Ds, and 32 MiG-29 Fulcrums. If we assume the Army will also operate drones, then we can add another 48,200 personnel into the mix.
Poland is growing its defense budget faster than every other European NATO country, but buying such machines would compel an enormous and unsustainable increase in the size of its military. But it could buy a modest number of medium-sized combat drones.
However, there are other options.
One Polish company has developed a tiny “suicide” drone called the Warmate with a 1.2 kilogram warhead in its nose. It’s not so much a drone as a self-loitering guided bomb. “Warmate was bought by two countries [that are] involved in military conflicts, and these orders are huge,” said Wojciech Komorniczak of WB Electronics, Warmate’s developer, according to Flight Global. “We have started serial production of them.”
Also, the main reason for Poland’s military build-up is Russia. The second reason is the war in Ukraine, which added urgency. Poland’s conservative nationalist Law and Justice Party also won the 2015 elections with promises to strengthen the armed forces.
Poland’s tank force is already the largest in Europe west of the Bug River, and the country wants to buy U.S.-made Patriot missiles and upgrade its helicopter fleet. Polish companies have even teased new concept tanks — something we don’t see very often around the world.
Poland’s existing drone programs are also, at least until now, relatively slight. The country’s military leased a handful of unarmed ScanEagle drones for use in Afghanistan, and has some operating in its navy. The Defense Ministry opened a dedicated drone base at Mirosławiec in 2015, and Poland has acquired a few Orbiter and Aerostar surveillance drones from Israel.
Poland has another combat MALE UAV program, too, called Zefir. But in a more realistic fashion, it seeks to acquire only 12 drones. A 2016 deal with Israel has Elbit supplying “at least 20 drone systems of its Hermes 450 and Hermes 900 models with ground stations and additional equipment,” the Jerusalem Post reported.
The Hermes 900 is a proper MALE drone. The Hermes 450 is not.
But don’t expect Poland to acquire thousands of them. Smaller, dive-bombing kamikaze drones, maybe.