Pilica, Wisla, Narew. How the Polish Army builds air defense
Photo: Plut. Aleksander Perz / 18 DZ
Pilica, Wisła, Narew, Poprad and Noteć – in the Polish Army, codenames derived from the names of rivers are given to the systems forming successive layers of air defense. The Armament Agency, which reports to the Ministry of Defence, has just signed two key contracts in the Pilica plus program, worth a total of about PLN 13 billion. What other kits make up the Polish air defense? What is the state of implementation of the Wisła, Narew and Pilica programmes?
On Friday, the Ministry of Defense announced the signing two contracts in the Pilica plus air defense program. Several hundred CAMM missiles and iLauncher launchers were ordered for around £1.9 billion, or nearly PLN 10 billion. The contract was concluded with the British branch of the European missile concern MBDA.
The second contract is an order for 22 Pilica plus anti-aircraft missile and artillery systems for approximately PLN 3 billion. Some of the sets will be built from scratch, some will be built by rebuilding the Pilica sets (without the plus), ordered in 2016. The contract will be implemented by a consortium consisting of the state-owned Polska Grupa Zbrojeniowa and its subordinate companies, of which Zakłady Mechaniczne Tarnów is the key.
Deliveries of Pilica plus and CAMM missiles are scheduled for 2025-29.
What do these agreements mean for air defense in Poland? What is the state of implementation of Pilica plus and other anti-aircraft and anti-missile programmes? We explain below.
The smaller defends the larger
In the military, air defenses are built in layers. They are made up of systems with different ranges and possibilities of detecting and combating the threat. Firstly, it allows you to keep some economy. A ballistic missile fired at us will most likely be fired with the best anti-missiles we have. Such a projectile is potentially very dangerous, in addition, it moves at a very high speed, which makes it difficult to shoot down. But when we detect a slow drone, with little explosive or “only” reconnaissance, we’d rather let it come in closer to destroy it with something cheaper than a multi-million-dollar rocket apiece.
Secondly, if an enemy missile or plane breaks through the first line of defense, you can try to shoot it down when it comes within range of the next line, all the more so because systems specialized in combating those threats that are far away are less capable of dealing with what is very close. So if it suddenly turns out that an air defense system with the most demanding parameters – and such are extremely valuable, even priority targets from the point of view of the enemy – is flying something that was (literally) under the radar a moment ago, it may turn out that that all hope lies in the anti-aircraft units that, somewhere in the vicinity, operate on a system used to engage targets at shorter distances. Such a system has parameters that seem inferior at first glance, but in fact complement what a set designed to defend at longer distances can do.
Hence the basic principle for anti-aircraft units – if an important object, for example a city or grouping of own troops, is defended by an air defense system with the most stringent parameters, a system specialized in combating threats at shorter distances operates right next to it. His job is to protect defenders. And it is for such tasks that the Pilica plus will be used in the Polish Army.
Where did that name even come from? In Poland, it is accepted that codenames derived from the names of rivers are given either to successive layers of air defense, or to radars to detect incoming threats. The medium-range air defense system, i.e. the furthest in Polish conditions, is of course the Vistula River, the queen of Polish rivers. Odra and Warta, the second and third longest on the maps, served as the names of anti-aircraft radars. Narew, the fifth longest, is for the Ministry of National Defense the name of the program to acquire short-range air defense systems, i.e. in our conditions of the middle layer. On the lowest floor, i.e. where the range is defined as very short or close, there is more variety. There is Poprad, there is Noteć, there is also Pilica.
In this river nomenclature, although we already have 24 years since Poland entered the FOR THIS and 32 years since the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, it is not difficult to find inspiration from the times of rightly past brotherhood with the Soviet Army. It was there that the anti-aircraft systems were given names such as Neva (flows through St. Petersburg), Dvina (flows into the Gulf of Riga), Desna (tributary of the Dnieper), Volkhov (flows into Lake Ladoga), Pechora (flows mainly through Komi Republic in the Far North), Dubna (tributary of the Volga) or Angara (connects Baikal with Yenisei).
Such Newa – although it should be emphasized here: modernized by the Polish industry – a year ago it was an air defense system with the longest range at the disposal of Polish soldiers.
Let’s leave it inhospitable Russia and let’s go back to Poland. In the Vistula program Ministry of National Defence intended to purchase eight batteries of medium-range air defense missile systems. It ended up dividing the order into two stages, where in the first two batteries were obtained. Each consists of two fire units – each consisting of one radar, four missile launchers and the means of communication, command, power supply and so on. The American Patriot system, a child of Raytheon, was chosen. The contract was signed in early spring 2018, and deliveries were made in the second half of 2022. It was the largest arms contract in the history of Poland – worth USD 4.75 billion.
The advantage of this agreement is the purchase of the American integrated air and missile defense command system IBCS (Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System), a product of Northrop Grumman. It allows not only to command the Vistula, but also to connect other Polish “rivers” forming the remaining layers of air defense. In theory, it looks like this – the approaching danger is detected by the Wisła Patriot radar, but the anti-missile will be launched by another set, for example Narew, because IBCS will calculate in no time that this is the most optimal solution.
The second plus is the purchase of over two hundred, i.e. the target number of PAC-3 MSE missiles for both stages of Wisła, from Lockheed Martin. It’s a very expensive weapon (several million dollars per rocket, and “several” is closer to ten than five). In addition, highly specialized in combating ballistic missiles. This makes the Polish Vistula not so much an air defense system as an anti-missile defense system.
The downside of the Polish Wisła Anno Domini 2023 is the still untargeted number of batteries, radars and launchers. It is still not known which missile will complement the PAC-3 MSE as a low-cost missile, as the military called it (still not cheaper, but still much cheaper than the one we have already purchased). Yes, with the PAC-3 MSE we can shoot not only at the enemy’s ballistic missiles, but also at his planes, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles and cruise missiles (in Russian nomenclature: winged missiles – they fly much slower, below the speed of sound, but they can change course , so they try to hide from the defenders by using the terrain). These are all targets that are easier to knock down, so the PAC-3 MSE will handle them, but is it worth it to shoot the enemy’s cheap air attack with an expensive rocket? No, it’s not worth it and that’s why we need a cheaper rocket to Wisła.
In May 2022, the head of the Ministry of National Defence Mariusz Blaszczak signed an official request to the American government for an offer for the second stage of the Wisła program. The Ministry of Defense asks how much it will cost for six batteries, including not only launchers and missiles, but also new, omni-directional radars. A prototype of such a device (LTAMDS) has already been developed, and the US Army began testing it in May 2022. We still do not have an official answer from the American side, but it can be expected that the value of the contract will be gigantic. Let us recall: the first, theoretically smaller stage of Wisła was the largest arms contract in the history of Poland.
What the Polish army don’t like the current Patriot radar? This is not an antenna that rotates and tracks everything around. It is an immobile wall of very expensive semiconductors that “sees” what is happening in a slice of the sky with an angle of opening of about 120 degrees, which is a third of what we need. The soldiers who operate it must choose the direction in which to aim it.
It’s not enough for us. A Russian missile over Poland may come from the Kaliningrad region, above Belarusfrom Ukraine (as long as it breaks through the local defenses), but it may as well be launched from a ship or plane in the Baltic Sea, first fly west, then change course and at the height of Świnoujście fly over the Szczecin Lagoon and further into the Oder valley, and then hit a target in Silesia or Lesser Poland. The ranges of the Kalibr ship cruise missiles allow for this. The Russians launched them from ships in the Caspian Sea against targets in Syria, on the way the missiles flew over Iran.
The anti-aircraft Vistula has its strengths and weaknesses, but its seed is already in the Polish Army and this is the most important thing. However, when on February 24, 2022 Vladimir Putin unleashed a war against Ukraine, the anti-aircraft Narew in Poland was just starting to be implemented. In September 2021, the Ministry of National Defense signed a so-called framework agreement with Polska Grupa Zbrojeniowa, i.e. a concern that groups state-owned defense industry companies. In November, the first executive contract was signed – it concerned project management. In the same month, CAMM missiles from the British branch of the European missile house MBDA were officially recommended for Narew. There were to be a dozen or so executive contracts in total, and the last one was to be signed by the end of 2023.
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