Can Russia Overrun Poland's Large Tank Fleet?
But exactly how capable is the Polish tank fleet? How effective are its upgrades? And what are its plans for the future?
Here's What You Need to Remember: Russian tank superiority could be offset by the heavy use of Spike missiles on the defensive by Poland. The Leopard 2PL along with acquiring additional stocks of surplus 2A4s to modernize to that standard could prove to be the bulwark of a new Polish tank fleet, but that modernization is not yet formalized.
Poland’s tank fleet is one of the most numerous in Europe, fueled by the country’s large (for Europe) military spending and based on the tank fleet inherited from the Polish People’s Army. It consists of a mix of plain T-72M1s, domestic T-72 variants and various versions of the Leopard 2. It would be the first line of defense in a theoretical ground conflict between Russia and the West. But exactly how capable is the Polish tank fleet? How effective are its upgrades? And what are its plans for the future?
The most plentiful tank in Polish service is the T-72M1, with 350 tanks in the Polish inventory and two hundred in active service. These are pretty much standard T-72As from 1979, featuring an early-generation 125-millimeter 2A46 gun, active night vision and a laser rangefinder that feeds data to a 1A40 FCS. Armor is basic Soviet composite technology: a sandwich of textolite and steel. The turret had the “Dolly Parton” turret armor. These tanks provide a basic level of fighting capability but are terribly dated compared to any tank that Russia would field. The armor on these would likely be penetrated by any modern antitank munition, bar light RPGs.
The next-most numerous tank is the PT-91 “Twardy.” Around 232 of these tanks are in active service. Some were created from scratch, and others from modernized T-72M1s, although there are not significant differences between these two. The Twardy is far more survivable, featuring a Polish SSC-1 Obra laser warning receiver, DEUGRA fire-suppression system, ERAWA-1 and 2 ERA armor packages, and the WGD-1 “Erb” and WPD-1 “Tellur” smoke grenade launchers. Some kind of radiation-absorbent material (RAM) was applied to the chassis and ERAWA packages to decrease the radar cross-section of the PT-91. The armament remains the 2A46 cannon, with a new Polish DRAWA-1T fully digital FCS. Some changes were made to the autoloader to improve reload time. Sights were improved to passive night vision for all crew positions, and the gunner has received a first-generation thermal sight from Israeli sources. Some thermal sights have been replaced with domestic third-generation thermal sights (PCO’s KLW Asteria-1) as they reach their end of life. A more powerful Polish Wola S-12U engine rounds out the upgrade package, providing 850 horsepower to the T-72M1’s 780.
Due to the ERAWA package, the PT-91 is significantly more survivable than the Polish T-72M1s. While ERAWA-1 ERA is estimated to be on the same level of effectiveness as the Kontakt-1 ERA of 1980s Soviet design, ERAWA-2 has been shown to be fairly effective. It’s comprised of two layers of explosive stacked within a single brick. This design helps it defeat tandem penetrators, such as those found on the PG-7VR RPG warhead, ATGMs and cannon shell designs. ERAWA-2 was found to defeat Russian ATGMs in testing up to the Konkurs. It defeated the 3BM15 and 3BK14M 125-millimeter APFSDS and HEAT projectiles, albeit inconsistently. However, these are all fairly old projectiles, and ERAWA-2 is not optimized to defeat kinetic energy penetrators. Modern Russian APFSDS and HEAT projectiles would likely defeat ERAWA-2.
Despite this, ERAWA-2 on backing armor simulating the PT-91’s upper-front glacis plate was found to defeat the Panzerfaust 3-IT’s tandem-charge HEAT warhead, which is estimated to have more than nine hundred millimeters of RHA penetration. From this information, we can speculate that PT-91s would still be easily penetrated by modern Russian tanks, but would probably be able to resist most Russian infantry RPGs and light- to medium-weight Russian ATGMs. That being said, ERAWA-2 is markedly inferior to late Soviet (Kontakt-5) and modern Russian (Relikt) ERA packages, as these are known to defeat kinetic penetrators at effective rates in addition to multicharge HEAT warheads.
Other aspects improve the survivability of the tank, but not in ways that are as discretely measurable. The addition of the RAM makes sense, given heavy Russian use of ground-search radar in reconnaissance. The laser-warning receiver gives the tank improved situational awareness, and is even used in a basic version of an active protection system (APS). It’s possible to slave the close range WGD-1 “Erb” smoke-grenade launchers to the laser warning receiver to automatically deploy smoke upon detection of a continuous laser beam, indicative of a guidance beam being used to guide a shot missile. Given the wide use of this mode of guidance for Russian ATGMs, this is an important asset. However, it is inferior to the full Shtora APS as seen on the Russian T-90, T-90A and T80UK tanks. The full Shtora suite on those tanks provides laser-jamming capability as well with the infamous radiating “eyes” on each side of the gun. PT-91s lack that capability but their LWR system is deployed fleet wide.
Armament wise, both the PT-91 and Polish T-72M1s fire the same range of 125-millimeter ammunition. In addition to Polish-produced versions of Soviet 3OF19 HE-Frag, 3BK14M HEAT and 3BM15 APFSDS rounds, there’s the domestic Polish APFSDS rounds. The most widely known one is the “Pronit,” a 125-millimeter round that uses an adapted penetrator from IMI Systems’ M711 Mk 2 120-millimeter APFSDS round. The actual rods were provided by Israel, some of which were faulty. This was a minor scandal in the Polish government. Claimed penetration is 540-millimeter RHAe at two kilometers, and the number of rounds is said to be very small in number. The successor cartridge has no publically known name (some call it “Pionki”). It is manufactured domestically and claimed to be able to penetrate 520-millimeter RHAe at two kilometers. With that level of penetration, it’s highly unlikely that PT-91s or T-72M1s firing at any Russian front line tank (T-72B3, T-80UM, T-90A) would be able to penetrate frontally, as they’re estimated to have over seven hundred millimeters of RHAe protection against kinetic energy projectiles.
In addition to the domestic PT-91 and surplus T-72M1s, Poland fields a sizable fleet of Leopard 2 tanks: 142 Leopard 2A4s and 105 Leopard 2A5s. These tanks are basically standard Leopard 2s without any modern revisions and feature the same German armor, thermals, stabilizers and FCS. Poland is looking to acquire more, but countries willing to sell their old Leopard 2 stocks are hard to find. Consideration is being made toward buying Swiss, Spanish, Greek or Finnish stocks.
Unfortunately for Poland, their 120-millimeter ammo for the L/44 cannons in their Leopard 2s doesn’t perform much better than their 125-millimeter ammunition. The primary ammunition is stocks of DM33A1 APFSDS rounds that were purchased with the tanks, rated at 560-millimeter RHAe at two kilometers. There also is the domestic PZ-531 APFSDS round, but this is rated at only around 500–520 millimeters RHAe at two kilometers. Some people speculate that this is the Pionki round, repackaged in a 120-millimeter casing. There also is the PZ-511 Polish-made 120-millimeter HE-Frag round. To make matters worse, there are anecdotal reports of Polish-made 120-millimeter rounds producing more smoke than their European counterparts, as well as a misfire incident that resulted in a death of a crew member. These may be indicators that Polish rounds are not yet up to the quality of other manufacturers.
To rectify these problems and the less-than-stellar armor packages of the 2A4 (as recently seen in Turkish operations involving them), the Polish military is planning to upgrade its Leopard 2A4s to the Leopard 2PL (or 2A4PL) standard. The upgrade is expected to keep the Leopard 2A4s in service for another thirty years. The package is comprehensive, including a new turret armor package giving it spaced armor similar to the Leopard 2A5, new spall liners and new storage compartments. A new gun breech will be added (while retaining the short L/44 cannon) that can accept new higher pressure DM11 and DM63 rounds and programmable ammunition. Similar to the 2A5’s replacement of the 2A4’s hydraulic turret mechanisms with electrical ones (due to the flammable nature of hydraulic fluids in the tank), the 2PL will have electrical turret mechanisms made by Polish firms. Thermal cameras in the REVI independent thermal commander’s sight and gunner’s sight will be replaced by the domestic Polish KLW Asteria 1. Various other systems round out the upgrade package, including additional APU, new fire suppression and improved battle data-management systems.
As a result of the extensive modernization, the Leopard 2PL will be a nonstandard Leopard 2 and thus not able to receive spares from the so-called LeoBen club, an international community of Leopard 2 users. Spare parts will have to come from a different logistics chain. The upgrade seems focused on force on force mechanized defensive warfare. The lack of side armor or hull armor upgrades doctrinally forces the Leopard 2PL to fight from a hull-down position on the defensive, as opposed to on the offensive. In contrast, COIN-oriented upgrade packages such as the American M1A2 TUSK feature improved side armor and numerous gunner shields that potentially obscure field of views of commander’s sights in favor of improved protection in urban environments. No upgrades are currently planned for the Polish Leopard 2A5 fleet, although modifications may have to be taken to fire modern ammunition.