The recent ouster of Poland’s government at the ballot box signals some significant potential changes to the security posture of NATO’s strongest ally in Eastern Europe. Under the next Polish government, U.S. defense firms may find tougher competition from European industry for big-ticket arms purchases by Warsaw. The total size of Polish defense spending may be smaller. Washington should take note and respond.
Poland’s Law and Justice, the leading party within the country’s previous ruling coalition, won the most seats of any single party in the Oct. 15 election — but not enough to hang onto power. In claiming victory, opposition leader and former Polish President Donald Tusk celebrated his party’s success. “Never in my life have I been so happy about seemingly taking second place,” he said.
Tusk’s excitement might be short lived. Without an outright majority in parliament, a future government under his centrist Civic Coalition party is likely to be weak and wobbly. Tusk will need the support of smaller leftist parties to form a government — and their interests will not always be aligned with his. Keeping these bedfellows within his political fold will almost certainly require the dispensation of large domestic spending programs, likely at the cost of Poland’s mighty defense budget, which is currently 3.9 percent of the country’s GDP. It may also require a reversion to Poland’s previous preference for “splitting the baby” on arms deals between the United States and European firms.
On the campaign trail, Tusk promised voters a return to pro-European Union policies. The last time that his party was in power it regularly divided major defense purchases between American firms and their EU competitors. The practice was intentional. Mega-deals with the United States, like the fielding of the Patriot air defense system, maintained a strong link with Washington. Other purchases from the EU allowed Warsaw to burnish its reputation as a “team player” in Brussels. While the outgoing government broke with this approach, Poland’s next government will likely return to it. As the former president of the European Council, Tusk might even have a greater affinity for the EU than before.
In the near term, the greatest potential for a change in Polish defense could occur in the air. Under the outgoing government, Warsaw spent big to purchase 32 F-35 fighters from the United States in 2020. It is now looking to acquire two additional squadrons of multi-role fighter aircraft. The lead candidates in this competition are the Eurofighter Typhoon, made by a consortium led by Europe’s Airbus, and the F-15EX Eagle II, made by America’s Boeing. If the next government decides to proceed with this purchase, the two companies will need to make a compelling political and geostrategic case for their option in addition to the capabilities of their aircraft.
On the ground, additional changes could be coming for Poland’s ambitious plans to field state-of-the-art main battle tanks. Earlier this year, the outgoing government signed a $5.8 billion deal with South Korea to acquire 1,000 K2 tanks from that country. This was in addition to $6.1 billion in deals with Washington to acquire hundreds of America’s M1A2 Abrams tanks over the next two years. While this sizable expansion of Poland’s heavy armor was meant to bolster Warsaw’s plans for a 300,000-person military in the coming years, the total bill might be too large for the incoming government to stomach.
New Polish governments traditionally revel in axing or modifying the defense decisions of their predecessors. When the Law and Justice party came to power in 2015, Poland incurred the “fury” of France when it cancelled a multibillion-dollar deal to purchase 50 Caracal multi-role helicopters from Airbus. Warsaw opted instead to build a Polish-made version of America’s Blackhawk. While major reversals in Poland’s strategic approach to its defense are not in the cards, it’s very possible that the incoming government will reshuffle Poland’s defense-industrial ties and scale down plans for a military buildup.
What is unlikely to change under the next government is Poland’s broader geopolitical orientation. The country will continue to take seriously threats from dangerous and destabilizing neighbors like Russia and Belarus. Meanwhile, it will remain a constant target for malign Chinese influence. For decades, Poland has leaned on its security relationship with the United States to mitigate these risks. That relationship benefits both sides. The White House can and should use all available diplomatic leverage with Poland to ensure that our defense-industrial relationship remains ironclad.
Meanwhile, Washington can expect Warsaw to maintain its support for Kyiv. However, a major test could occur if Ukraine faces stronger pressure to negotiate a settlement with Russia in the months ahead. In that event, the next Polish government may align closer with the positions of Germany or France instead of the expected strong line taken by allies like the United Kingdom, Lithuania, and Romania. Navigating these tensions will not be easy for Warsaw, and it will look to the United States for guidance.
Having won victory, the challenge for Tusk’s party will not only be in keeping it — but also paying for it.
Peter Doran is Senior Adjunct Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.