Key Point: Poland probably can't afford to buy a lot of F-35s.
In September 2019, the State Department approved a $6.5 billion deal to sell Poland thirty-two F-35A Lightning II stealth jets, along with training and maintenance packages. Poland’s intention to procure F-35s for its Harpia fighter program had been evident earlier in 2019.
Any F-35s received by Poland would be of the latest Block 4 model of the F-35 with internal weapons capacity expanded from four to six weapons, software patches integrating many new weapons including nuclear gravity bombs, and improved sensors, datalinks and computers.
The Lightnings will replace Poland’s twenty-eight MiG-29 short-range tactical fighters and thirty-two beefy Su-22 attack jets inherited from the Soviet era, and serve alongside the Polish Air Force’s (PAF) forty-eight F-16Cs and Ds. The F-35 acquisition is the crown jewel of a much broader military modernization effort by Warsaw forecast to cost over $47 billion dollars through 2026.
There’s little doubt that the Lightning will transform the capabilities of the Polish Air Force. Yes, the Lightning may not be as agile as a MiG-29, but enemy fighters and anti-aircraft missile batteries will struggle to detect and target the stealth jets until too it’s late.
That’s not to say the F-35 is invulnerable or undetectable—infrared sensors and even radars can still pose a threat at shorter ranges, especially when combined with agile interceptors. However, military exercises and history alike suggest detecting and shooting first is a decisive advantage.
The F-35’s stealth capabilities are an especially big deal for Poland because Russian S-400 missile batteries deployed in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad can reach over 200 miles away to threaten airspace over half of Poland. Thus, Lightnings will allow the Polish Air Force to operate with greater freedom over Poland despite that Russian anti-access umbrella—and could play a key role in bringing that umbrella down.
The Lightning could also give the PAF a real capability to launch offensive strikes into hostile airspace, that would otherwise have been costly or impossible for its older jets.
Dr. Kryzstof Kuska, a Polish aviation analyst and contributor to several defense publications, cautioned not to overinterpret that potential.
“When it comes to Poland, it is hard to believe that in today's geopolitical conditions there would be an offensive role for those aircraft,” Kuska told me. “On the other hand, 5th generation fighters and the recent addition of JASSM and JASSM-ER missiles to the Polish arsenal sends a clear signal that, if needed, Poland has some conventional means to strike back.”
The AGM-158 JASSM is a standoff-range stealth cruise missile designed to attack well-defended targets from over 230 miles away, or 620 for the JASSM-ER model.
However, the F-35’s strategic significance may extend to its powerful infrared sensors, high-resolution radar with surface-scanning capability, and datalinks that allow it to transmit valuable sensor data back to friendly forces.
“From a broader perspective, the F-35 will be a game changer in the sphere of data gathering which will be very important for Poland. Practically each flight might bring some new bits and pieces [of data] which will provide a more clear and comprehensive picture on the situation on the eastern borders of the country.”
This is important because, according to Kuska, Poland has yet to procure substantial drone, satellite, or electronic-intelligence surveillance assets. Jet fighters are expensive reconnaissance platforms, but they could help patch over a glaring capability gap for Poland’s armed forces.
Quantity as Well as Quantity
But the F-35 order may not be a one-size solution to Poland’s security challenges.
“Poland might buy the thirty-two aircraft in two batches of sixteen (nothing is certain yet) so it will take some time to build up the force,” Kusa speculates. “Some of them will be used for training and sustaining pilot readiness, some will need regular maintenance and repairs and if you add to the ‘mix’ the current readiness rates of the F-35A, the situation doesn’t look good.”
A combination of teething issues, spare parts supply-chain problems, and generally high-maintenance requirements have left the F-35 with a poor operational readiness rate of around 40 to 60 percent.
“And there will be only a handful of machines at hand with the first batch,” Kuska continues. “At some point additional aircraft will have to be bought as the combination of thirty-two F-35s and forty-eight F-16s isn’t sufficient to meet all of Poland's needs—but it is hard to project the direction which will be chosen.”
Kusk argues the most affordable and cost-efficient way to do that might be to upgrade and expand its F-16 fleet.
“Buying forty-eight or even more F-16Vs and upgrading the already used F-16C/D Block 52+ Advanced fighters sounds reasonable for today.
The F-16V “Viper” model incorporates a more powerful, jam-resistant and discrete APG-83 Active Electronically Scanned Array radar, significantly enhancing its capability in Beyond Visual Range warfare, as well as digital cockpit displays and a helmet-mounted sight that can aim short-range AIM-9X missiles. Taiwan recently was approved for purchase of sixty-six F-16Vs at a price of $8 billion.
“In the long term, the F-35 seems more future proof,” Kuska concedes. “It will allow for a better integration with key NATO partners, and provide a clear upgrade path which is crucial as new systems are already on the horizon and the Joint Strike Fighter is ready to take them onboard.
“What is certain is that some sort of upgrade to the F-16 will have to be done in the next ten years [before production ends], which might mean that additional machines of this type might be bought and a standardization process might be conducted.”
However, Poland is already struggling to fund all the items in its broader military modernization program, including pricey deals for Patriot anti-aircraft missiles and HIMARS rocket artillery. Already, the replacement of Poland’s aging tanks, attack helicopters and submarines are arguably being neglected.
Therefore, it’s not immediately evident that the Polish Air Force can scrape together the billions necessary to upgrade and expand its F-16 fleet at the same time as it procures F-35s.
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including the The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter. This piece was originally featured in September 2019 and is being republished due to reader's interest.