Armor: Poland Rearms Big Time


April 6, 2023: Poland ordered a thousand South Korea K2 tanks, most of which will be produced in Poland under license. The 55-ton K2 is similar to the American M1 but without annoying American export controls. K2 has a 120mm gun that can also fire guided missiles as well as extensive electronic systems and an autoloader. That means the crew size is three.

Poland is rapidly replacing its older tanks, giving most of them to Ukraine. Before the Russian invasion Poland had 233 German Leopard 2s. These were acquired between 2002 and 2015. Poland also had 230 locally manufactured PT-91s. This is a major upgrade of the T-72 but are still not the equal of Western designs (M1, Leopard 2, Challenger 2 and Leclerc). Ukraine is slowly receiving small numbers of M1s, Leopard 2s and Challenger 2s. Because of that, the PT-91s are welcome. Ukrainian tank and maintenance crews don’t require much additional training to use the PT-91.

South Korean troops began receiving the K2 in 2014 and currently has 250 of them. Ten were sent to Poland in late 2021 for evaluation. The Poles were impressed and, after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Poland increased its order from 180 to a thousand, with 180 still built in South Korea and the rest in Poland. By the end of the decade Poland will have the largest tank force of any European NATO member and superior in quality, if not quantity, than the Russians.

The K-2 replaced older American M-48 tanks, and completed the transformation of the South Korean tank force. Three decades ago, South Korea developed, and built, its own K-1 tank using assistance and licensed tech from the United States. The 51 ton K1 is based on the American M1 design, but is somewhat smaller and equipped with the same 105mm gun used by the U.S. M60 tank. The K1 has a 1,200 horsepower diesel, instead of a 1,500 horsepower gas turbine engine in the M1. Production of the K1 ended in 1997, with about a thousand built. There have since been some upgrades to the fire control and communications systems, as well as the development of the K1A1, which has the same 120mm gun as the M1, along with other equipment used by the M1, but not the K1. The K1A1 is apparently part of the K2 development project, as only two K1A1 prototypes were built, and successfully tested.

The new K2 does not use any American tech and that means South Korea can freely export the K2 to anyone. The K2 has an improved 120mm gun, capable of firing an anti-tank missile, as well as the usual gun munitions. The K2 weighs 55 tons and outclasses anything North Korea, Japan or China has. The K1 outclassed North Korean tanks but the K2 is better protected and more capable. The K2 has a number of new electronic defenses. It will have a laser detector that will instantly tell the crew the direction the enemy laser beam is coming from. Most tanks use a laser rangefinder before it fires its main gun. The K2 fire control system also enables the main gun (120mm) to be used to hit low flying aircraft (helicopters, mostly). There are also numerous improvements to the K1 mechanical and electronic systems, as well as more armor (both composite and ERA). This will make the K2 easier to use and maintain. An autoloader reduces the crew to three men.

South Korea hoped to get a lot of export orders for the K2, but until 2022 only had a deal with Turkey to sell $400 million worth of K2 technology to be used in a new Turkish tank. Egypt is interested in a manufacturing license but has not signed a deal yet. The Polish acceptance of the K2 was encouraging but Egypt has financial problems as well as 1,200 American M1 tanks. Most of these M1s were built in Egypt under license. While the K2 has an impressive list of new tech, some of it not available on the M1, the M1 has lots of combat experience and has dominated any tank force it has encountered.

Poland is also buying 1,400 locally designed and manufactured Borsuk (Badger) IFVs (infantry fighting vehicles). Poland has already retired its Russian designed BMP IFVs, retaining only a few used for special duties. Poland also has 690 of the 22-ton Rosomak 9x9 wheeled IFVs. These are built in Poland under license from Finland’s Patria. Delivery to troops began in 2005. Some pre-production models were sent to Afghanistan in 2001 where Polish peacekeepers needed something like Rosomak. The wheeled armored vehicle performed well in Afghanistan, withstanding Taliban attacks using RPGs.

Half the Rosomaks for the Polish army are used as support vehicles (ambulance, command vehicle, resupply). Borsuk is a heavier tracked vehicle with an unmanned turret armed with a variety of weapons controlled by one of the vehicle crew from inside the IFV. While the wheeled Rosomak also has a crew of three, it can carry eight passengers, compared to six in the Borsuk. Development of Borsuk began in 2014 and at the end of 2022 there were some prototypes available and mass production was to begin in 2023. Once the Russian invaded Ukraine in early 2023, production plans for Borsuk were speeded up. Prototypes were assigned to combat units to be used in training. Poland is in a hurry to obtain all these new armored vehicles as well as new self-propelled artillery and guided rockets and vehicles similar to the American HIMARS vehicles carrying and launching six GMLRS guided rockets. Poland is getting its new artillery and guided rocket systems from South Korea.

Russia has openly named portions of Poland as one of its future targets for absorption into “Greater Russia”, otherwise known as the Russian empire. Belarus, the Baltic States and some former Soviet territories in Central Asia are also on the acquisition list. None of these targets for Russian aggression are willing to go peacefully. As the largest and wealthiest East European NATO member, Poland is leading the way by rearming to confront any future threat. After Russia invaded Ukraine, Poland decided to increase the size of the armed forces to 300,000 personnel and spend at least three percent of GDP on defense. NATO agreements suggest two percent of GDP but few European NATO members reached two percent. Now more NATO members are reaching or exceeding two percent and the increases are higher the closer the country is to Russia.




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