Poland is rearming itself at high speed — could Canada take a lesson from Warsaw?

Poland's President Andrzej Duda attends a press conference in the Polish Navy port of Gdynia, Poland on Dec. 6, 2022. Duda and his defence minister have welcomed the first delivery of tanks and howitzers from South Korea, hailing the swift implementation of a deal signed in the summer in the face of the war in neighbouring Ukraine. (Michal Dyjuk/Associated Press - image credit)

A wind-swept pier at a naval port in Gdynia, Poland was the scene last December of an extraordinary display — one that Canada's defence community looks upon today with envy.

Lined up track-to-track on the pier that day, their gun barrels elevated, were two-dozen Thunder K9-A1 self-propelled howitzers manufactured in South Korea. Nearby, 10 Black Panther K2 54-tonne main battle tanks were parked.

The armoured vehicles and big guns represented the vanguard of a $13 billion US blockbuster defence agreement between Warsaw and Seoul.

What made the scene exceptional was the fact the contract between the two nations was signed barely four months before the big tanks and guns rolled onto the pier.

In the defence procurement world, that is light-speed. The deal has been a topic of conversation ahead of the annual Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industry trade show, which begins Wednesday in Ottawa.

Michal Dyjuk/Associated Press
Michal Dyjuk/Associated Press

South Korea plans to deliver to Poland 180 K2 tanks, 212 K9 howitzers and 288 K239 Chunmoo K-MLRS (Korean Multiple Launch Rocket System) similar to the American-built HIMARS system, which has proven critical to Ukraine's defence in its war with Russia.

And that's only the tip of the iceberg. Eventually, Poland intends to buy up to 1,000 of the South Korean tanks, 688 of the howitzers and 48 FA-50 jet fighters, which can be used as trainers and light combat aircraft.

It is a massive rearmament program, driven partly by Poland's need to replenish stocks of equipment donated to Ukraine and partly by the fear of what might come next should Russia succeed in toppling the government in Kyiv.

"We decided to do it as quickly as possible because we are the front country," said Tomasz Grodzki, speaker of Poland's Senate, in a recent interview with CBC News.

The speed of Poland's procurement project stands in stark contrast to the pace of military procurement in Canada. Ottawa still has no firm timeline for a plan — announced in March by Defence Minister Anita Anand — to fast-track on an "urgent operational basis" the purchase of portable anti-tank missiles, uncrewed counter-drone systems and ground-based air defence systems for troops in Latvia.

When announced Anand said she expected a staggered delivery of the systems between late 2023 and sometime in 2024 but there is no firm schedule.

The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld
The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld

Defence procurement expert Dave Perry chalks it up to the lack of a sense of urgency in Canada.

"Poland is right on the border and I think has a much more clear focus, and much greater sense of urgency, that its troops need equipment, not 10 years, or 15 or 20 years from now, but they need equipment now," said Perry, vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. The institute has occasionally hosted conferences sponsored by defence contractors.

"Even the projects that we deem to be urgent requirements seem to just have projects move to the front of a slow-moving line, rather than having any unique or special process to genuinely expedite them to ensure that we get that material into the hands of troops as quickly as possible, or at least for when they're going to need it."

Canada must abandon 'illusions' about Russia

Unlike the case in Canada, there is no political disagreement in Poland over defence policy and military procurement and the deal with South Korean was passed swiftly.

"We decided unanimously — both sides of the political scene in Poland — to not delay," said Grodzki, who added that Poland's proximity to Russia — and its long history of being controlled or absorbed by its neighbour — is a major factor in his country's determination to arm itself.

The defence deal is expected to push Poland's defence spending up to four per cent of its gross domestic product, he added.

Grodzki said it's not up to him to assess the internal politics of an ally — but he urged Canadian politicians on an individual level to leave behind their "illusions ... about the nature of Russia."

"I understand [Canada], it's a distance from Ukraine, from Russia. So maybe it's a little bit more difficult to understand that the world is changing," he said.

Czarek Sokolowski/The Associated Press
Czarek Sokolowski/The Associated Press

Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki will visit Canada on Friday. He and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are expected to discuss "the regional defence and security challenges resulting from Russia's brutal and unjustifiable war of aggression against Ukraine," according to a statement from the Prime Minister's Office.

During Trudeau's recent visit to South Korea, there was intense speculation in local media about whether Canada would consider purchasing submarines from Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering (DSME) and Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI).

A senior Canadian government official, speaking on background, said the subject of buying submarines was not raised by either side when Trudeau met with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol.

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, South Korean companies have stepped up their presence in the global arms market. The country's ambassador to Canada, Lim Woongsoon, said that hasn't been driven entirely by a desire to fill the gap in the international arms shortage created by the war.

Like Poland, South Korea has a belligerent neighbour.

"Under the growing threat from North Korea, [South] Korea should always be ready to defend ourselves," the ambassador said. "Therefore, we have more than 500,000-strong standing army, with a huge production line for the large-scale delivery of weapon systems" to meet the country's domestic needs.

The abundance of equipment is one reason why the country was able to quickly deliver armoured vehicles to Poland.

South Korea's weapons exports rose to $17.3 billion last year, partly on the strength of the deal with Warsaw, which will see most of the tanks constructed at a factory in Poland — something Lim said his country's military export policy encourages.

"Our policy for military exports is that we seek to build security partnerships with the purchasing country, not just a one-off business transaction," he said.

"That's why we are rather open and generous to technology transfer and joint local production in the purchasing country. Since we see the military exports as the starting of our long-term security partnership, we stand ready to provide all parts and pieces necessary for maintenance and upgrade over a prolonged time."

Even though it is arming Poland, a NATO ally, Seoul has shied away from selling weapons to Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly threatened South Korea last October, saying if it armed the government in Kyiv, he would ship advanced weapons to North Korea.

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