Every day, several thousand soldiers engage in the fight with the coronavirus pandemic. Although there are many pandemic-related tasks to execute, the army does not forget about training. Soldiers perform combat duties, go to foreign missions and train on proving grounds.
When in the fall of 2019 the media started mentioning a mysterious virus in China, no one expected the epidemic to wreak such havoc on the Old Continent. The first COVID-19 cases in Poland were diagnosed at the beginning of March 2020, when the virus was already taking a toll on Italy and Spain. Almost immediately, the army was engaged in the fight with the pandemic. First, military pilots helped to transport Polish citizens evacuated from the Chinese city of Wuhan, and soon after that also military hospitals, preventive medicine centers and laboratories were put on standby. Task force groups were created, made up of operational troops, logisticians and soldiers of the Territorial Defense Force (WOT).
All Hands On Board
At the very beginning of the fight with the pandemic, the Ministry of National Defense decided to engage the Polish Armed Forces in two simultaneous operations: “Tarcza” (Shield) and “Odporna wiosna” (Immune Spring). Within the frame of the first operation, hundreds of operational forces soldiers, including those of the 12th Mechanized Division, 11th Armored Cavalry Division, the 6th Airborne Brigade, and WOT brigades, provided daily support to Border Guard, watching out for illegal trespassers trying to avoid sanitary control on entering Poland. They were supervised by the Operational Command of the Polish Armed Forces.
The Territorial Defense Force Command was the body responsible for the second operation, undertaken by WOT soldiers in cooperation with operational and logistics units, officer cadets and military police. They conducted activities that were to mitigate the consequences of the crisis. They supported local authorities, transported medicines and food to the elderly, provided help at health centers. They began cooperating with the Civil Aviation Authority and served at the biggest Polish airports, measuring arriving passengers’ temperature and collecting their epidemiological questionnaires. Within several weeks, they served 160,000 people.
“Almost immediately after the first case of COVID-19 infection was confirmed in Poland, the Commander of WOT decided to change the formation’s model of functioning from training to anti-crisis. The command created an anti-crisis activity team, which worked 24/7 coordinating tasks and giving orders to subordinate forces,” says Col Maciej Klisz, WOT Deputy Commander. Also, the officer cadets of the Military Medical Academy University designed and implemented an application called Support Platform for Self-governments, Health Authorities and Healthcare Entities, which helped the employees of the institutions to apply for military assistance. Within nine months, there were over 15,000 registered applications.
Operationals, Territorials, Cadet Officers
Additionally, for the time of the pandemic, the Minister of National Defense appointed 16 crisis intervention groups, made up of WOT soldiers and units supervised by the Armed Forces General Command and the Inspectorate for Armed Forces Support. Their main task was providing help to social welfare homes, e.g. evacuating their wards. 2ndLt Żaneta Balcerzak of the 12th Territorial Defense Brigade took part in such an operation in Kalisz three times. The six-person team she commanded evacuated almost 100 people in total. “They were mostly bedridden patients, so we had to carry each of them to a military ambulance,” she says. She worked at the social welfare home together with two WOT soldiers and three cadet officers for 27 successive days.
“In the peak period of the Odporna Wiosna operation, there were as many as 5,500 active WOT soldiers and officer cadets. We’ve calculated that from March to June, over 20,000 WOT soldiers, i.e. almost 84% of the whole formation, were engaged in the operation,” says Lt Klisz, adding: “After June 22 we smoothly switched into operation Trwała Odporność [Permanent Immunity]. Not only the name, but also the character of our support changed. The number of people infected with COVID-19 dropped, so we started acting more reactively. In the fall, the engagement in the operation increased again. Every day, about 7,000 troops take part in it.” The scale of military engagement in the fight with the pandemic is not decreasing. The soldiers, who initially only supported the police in controlling people in quarantine, later began to execute this task on their own. Every day, the soldiers take several thousand swabs, they look after veterans and senior citizens, delivering to them warm meals, medicines, or groceries. They also assist medical personnel in several hundred hospitals in Poland. Their support to the health service also took another form – from March to December 2020 soldiers donated 11,500 liters of blood. Those who have already recovered from the coronavirus, additionally donate their plasma.
COVID-19 also put the whole system of military hospitals and laboratories on alert. Medics of the Military Medical Institute took part in missions in Italy, Slovenia, the USA, and the knowledge they gained was used to create national solutions for the fight with the pandemic. The military also prepared temporary hospitals and isolation rooms. Additional 500 uniformed medicine students are on standby. The officer cadets studying at the Military Medicine Faculty of the Medical University in Łodź are to help doctors, nurses and orderlies, depending on their knowledge and qualifications.
Art of Compromise
Participation in the fight against the crisis is not the only challenge the army faced in 2020, as their main task is to maintain ready to protect national security. To this end, regardless of the pandemic, Polish soldiers continued their training and perfected their skills on proving grounds across Poland. F-16 combat duties in the NATO Response Force and international exercises were also continued. The MOND admits that with so many additional tasks, it was not easy. “We had to work out a rational compromise to reconcile the necessity to train the army with epidemiological safety requirements,” emphasizes Minister of National Defense, Mariusz Błaszczak.
When in March 2020 the first case of a COVID-19 infection was confirmed in Poland, the army was in the last phase of preparations to Exercise Anakonda and later Exercise Defender Europe 2020. For the first time in many years, due to the coronavirus threat, the participants of Exercise Anakonda, organized by the Operational Command of the Polish Armed Forces, were exclusively Polish soldiers, around 5,000 of them, from the Army, Air Force and Navy units. The pandemic also limited the second exercise, whose aim was to check procedures for redeploying large forces from the USA to the Old Continent, followed by several joint exercises. Exercise Defender Europe 2020 was to include 37,000 soldiers from 18 countries, but due to the coronavirus the redeployment was withheld and only the troops who had already managed to come to Poland earlier were engaged in the activities. There were already 4,000 allies present on our territory at the time. Soldiers of the 12the Mechanized Brigade, the 9th Armored Cavalry Brigade and the 6th Airborne Brigade executed tasks together with the allies from across the pond. Their activities were supported by the Air Force and the engineering forces – a total of 2,000 soldiers.
There were also several smaller exercises. The aim of Exercise Allied Spirit 2020, a part of Exercise Defender Europe, was building interoperability skills. Among other things, soldiers practiced water crossings, which were originally to be organized by Americans, Germans and Brits. Due to the pandemic, though, the duties were transferred to the Poles, who organized landing crossings for the troops and ferry crossings for the equipment.
“Despite the necessary corrections made to the original plan, arising from the COVID-19 threat, many strategic objectives concerning readiness were achieved,” informed the American command after the maneuvers ended. Gen Jarosław Mika, General Commander of Branches of the Armed Forces, was also happy with the exercise. “During such operations we can gain valuable experience on every level. The strategic level was quick redeployment of large forces to a faraway territory and preparing a plan of their use. As to the operational and tactical levels, the exercise in Drawsko allowed us to verify the former experiences concerning our cooperation and to give direction to our future actions.”
Gen Mika also draws attention to the second half of the year, when a series of exercises, mostly directed to armored and mechanized detachments, was organized. “Around 10,000 soldiers trained almost simultaneously on all proving grounds in Poland during tactical military exercises Gepard, Pantera, Ryś or Tumak,” says Gen Mika. During Exercise Tumak the troops of all units of the 16th Mechanized Division exercised together with soldiers of NATO Battle Group Poland stationing in Mazury – over 5,000 soldiers in total. “The troops operated not only on the proving ground, but also outside it. The detachments were located in Elbląg, Braniewo, Bartoszyce, Iława, Orzysz, up to the eastern border. Such scale of exercises had never before been seen in the history of our division,” says Col Piotr Fajkowski, Head of Training at the 16th Mechanized Division. The soldiers executed tactical and firing tasks, and intervened together with other services when one of the offices in Mazury was taken over by terrorists.
Obligations to Allies
The 21st Podhale Rifles Brigade also had to face a big challenge – the soldiers performed a year-long duty in the NATO Response Force. The force is made up of detachments from 12 countries, and has to respond within several dozen hours in the event that one of the NATO member states is under threat. Taking the duty meant that the Rifles’ readiness was permanently tested. “It was a very intensive year for us. We started with logistical operations, such as distributing ammunition or equipment upon alert, later redeploying it, and with each passing month the bar was raised. Despite the epidemic-related restrictions introduced at one point, the army still had to function – in any circumstances, regardless of the time, space or strength of forces at its disposal,” says MajGen Jarosław Gromadziński, Commander of the 18th Mechanized Division, whose subordinate unit is the 21st Podhale Rifles Brigade.
On top of that, the Polish Special Forces troops also performed a year-long duty in the NATO Response Force, and F-16 combat duties were upheld. The rules for the functioning of the Polish Military Contingents and preparing their subsequent rotations did not change either. Missions within Baltic Air Policing were performed in the time of the pandemic by pilots of, for example, the 32nd Tactical Aviation Base in Łask, protecting the airspace over the Baltic States. Polish soldiers serve in Iraq and Afghanistan during the pandemic. There are also plans to send a new contingent to Turkey soon.
“Currently, the Polish Armed Forces are taking part in nine foreign missions: in Iraq, Afghanistan, Romania, Kosovo, Latvia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Central African Republic, Italy and Lebanon. A total of almost 1,900 soldiers and military personnel are engaged in these missions,” informs LtCdr Anna Maciejowska-Krześniak, Deputy Spokesperson of the Operational Command of the Polish Armed Forces. The officer explains that regardless of the pandemic, all allied commitments have remained in force and the number of contingents has not been reduced. “The tasks are executed according to the mission’s mandate, although some consultants in Afghanistan do it online. The mission in Iraq is currently undergoing reconfiguration,” adds LtCdr Maciejowska-Krześniak.
The Operational Command of the Polish Armed Forces also explains that soldiers who serve outside the Polish borders are obliged to abide by the sanitary regime rules, just like they are in Poland. In order to minimize the risk of transmitting the virus, soldiers have to undergo a two-week isolation before flying out and take a coronavirus test. A similar procedure is implemented after the soldiers return to Poland.
Chance for Reservists
The course of the pandemic forced changes not only in the schedule of international and national exercises, but also training plans – for example, the spring selections for the special operations forces units were cancelled, and some of those units temporarily withheld basic trainings. Changes were also introduced in WOT – in March, scheduled training of units was suspended, only training of the command staff and instructors was upheld. “We prepared a training program on reacting to crisis situations of non-military character and we began to act according to that program. Soldiers who were not engaged in the fight with the crisis worked to maintain their firing and tactical skills. The rest were directed to provide help to health care personnel, public administration and other uniformed services,” says Col Aleksander Głowacki of the WOT Command.
The pandemic also influenced the reserves training program. The trainings held in military units were to be attended in 2020 by many more reservists than in the previous years, even 46,000 of them. However, those plans were quickly verified, as the compulsory trainings planned for the first half of the year were cancelled already in March. In June, though, when the situation eased up a little, the army came forward with an offer of voluntary exercises. The proposal was addressed to people that had already performed active military service and had taken the military oath: former professional soldiers, volunteers after preliminary or compulsory military service, as well as graduates of the Academic League (Legia Akademicka) with completed military training.
Gateway To the Army
One of the people who applied for the training was Petty Officer (Res) Fabian Sienkiewicz from Koszalin. In October 2019, he completed preliminary service in Petty Officer Corps, but due to personal reasons he had to postpone his plans related to the army. After the pandemic broke out, he lost his job, so he was glad to hear about the volunteer training. That way he spent three months in the 12th Mechanized Brigade. “The first month was the hardest. I wasn’t very fit, and we had to exercise intensively every day. Gradually, though, with each passing day, I started feeling better,” says the reservist. He emphasizes the training gave him a lot. He not only learned new things, but also shored up his finances. Another volunteer was Platoon Officer Cadet (Res.) Dariusz Janiszewski from Stargard. He came to the training to check his skills and increase his qualifications. “In 2002, when I finished studies, I did my six-month compulsory military service for graduates. I passed my officer exam, but I needed to complete proving ground training of a certain length to become a 2nd Lieutenant.” Ultimately, around 21,000 reservists were called to military training in 2020.
Similar limitations had to be introduced in preliminary service. In May, a training for 2,400 volunteers was cancelled, but in June the army came forward with an offer to organize an additional one. Trainings were conducted at 13 units. “We prepared them thinking of all the people who had lost their jobs due to the pandemic. A total of 700 people volunteered, and almost 550 soldiers managed to complete their training,” explains Col Korneliusz Łaniewski of the Organization and Replenishment Directorate J1 of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces.
In order to make the way into the military even easier, a new recruitment system was introduced in September. It shortened the procedure from 190 to 50 days. Also, Military Recruitment Centers have been created, where candidates’ military records are created and where they undergo a set of necessary medical tests, talk to a psychologist and attend an interview. The very model of basic training within active military service was also modified. “Earlier, people interested in military service had to complete each phase of such recruitment process separately, in several different places. It was a nuisance for the candidates,” says Col Radosław Niecikowski, Head of the Provincial Military Staff in Szczecin. Additionally, the system is now supported by an internet recruitment service. According to the data collected by the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces, up to November 27, 2020, almost 14,000 people interested in various types of military service registered on the website.
Regardless of the branch of the armed forces or the units they represent, soldiers unanimously admit that 2020 was an unusual year: requiring hard work, challenging and tiring. As Gen Jarosław Mika emphasizes: “The COVID-19 pandemic certainly had impact on the activity of the Polish Armed Forces, but our army once again proved it is a flexible institution, which quickly and smoothly adapts to new conditions of service. Despite significant limitations, we executed all priority undertakings.”
What will the upcoming months bring? The military will certainly continue to participate in the counter-crisis operation. However, there are already new challenges awaiting the army. In the middle of 2021, soldiers will take part in an exercise planned for several thousand troops. There are also plans to participate in international trainings.
Response to Notification
The North Atlantic Treaty has a lot of tools that enable it to quickly and easily provide help to its member states.
The department responsible for activities undertaken in the event of similar threats – the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC), is an intermediary between the institutions offering help or equipment, and the recipients who require assistance. Due to the work of the EADRCC, in May 2020 NATO transport aircraft supplied the countries of the Western Balkans with, i.a., surgeon masks and disinfectant liquids sent by Poland. Also, respirators from the NATO stock were delivered in November to Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia and the Czech Republic. RS
The scenarios of military exercises had probably never been verified as frequently as in 2020.
Due to the concern about the soldiers’ health, significant restrictions and changes were introduced to exercise programs and scenarios. In the spring, the army faced a dilemma concerning the most extensive NATO maneuvers, Exercise Defender Europe 2020. The original scenario assumed exercising strategic redeployment of a significant number of US troops to the Old Continent, mainly to Poland and the Baltic States. Ultimately, the maneuvers were organized, but on a smaller scale and with a modified program – they involved only those US troops who had already come to Poland. Accompanying exercises, such as Dynamic Front, Joint Warfighting Assessment, Saber Strike and Swift Response, were cancelled. In June, when the first wave of the pandemic eased up, Exercise Defender Europe 2020 Plus was organized, along with one of the main Defender exercises – Allied Spirit XI, both in full compliance with all sanitary rules and safety restrictions.
The programs of other maneuvers were changed in a similar way. For example, the scenario of this year’s naval Exercise Baltops 2020 was adjusted to the situation of epidemic threat. It was organized exclusively on the sea and in the air. The amphibious landing operation and the elements of the exercise that were to take place at ports were abandoned. Another exercise held in compliance with strict safety procedures was Dynamic Mariner organized on the French coast. The interactions between the participants were limited to a necessary minimum.
Some plans, though, had to be completely changed or cancelled due to the pandemic. For example, Exercise Cold Response taking place in the north of Norway involved around 20,000 soldiers from NATO states, Sweden and Finland. When there was a coronavirus outbreak in one of the camps, the Finnish authorities decided to withdraw their soldiers, and soon after that the whole exercise was discontinued. Exercise African Lion, planned for the turn of March and April on the territory of Morocco, Senegal and Tunisia, with the participation of the US command in Africa (AFRICOM), was also cancelled.
In some cases, exercises were successfully adjusted to the conditions of the pandemic. For instance, Exercise Cyber Coalition 2020 were organized online in November. Around 1,000 soldiers from 27 NATO states and partner states took part in the exercise, and their activities were coordinated by the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence in Estonia. RS
Three Questions to Rajmund T. Andrzejczak
The year 2020 will certainly be memorable. Do you think the only reason for that is going to be the coronavirus pandemic?
It is a year of many breakthrough moments. Out of a chronicler’s duty, I should start with mentioning the beginning of January, when the American soldiers killed an Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, which escalated the already difficult situation in the Middle East. It was also important to us, as we keep a Polish military contingent in that part of the world. And just when it seemed that the events in Iran, Iraq, or the Strait of Hormuz would be key as to the issue of global security, the coronavirus pandemic struck. First, we carefully followed the events in China, and later witnessed the transfer of the virus to Europe. Despite the pandemic, we never lost from our military radars the developments in Donbas and in the Black Sea region, and several months later in Belarus and the Republic of Artsakh. Although the conflict in the East has political grounds, it influences the whole security situation in the region. We observed mobilization of Belarusan armed forces, soldiers coming out to the streets, as well as military maneuvers taking place in the vicinity of our eastern border. At the same time, we extensively discussed the presence of the US troops on the territory of Poland, a decision was taken to establish the US Army’s V Corps forward command post in Poznań. On top of that, the whole world has been waiting for the first decisions of the new US president, Joe Biden. It is a lot for one year.
At the beginning of 2020, in an interview for Polska Zbrojna, you talked about priority directions of activity for our Armed Forces. Did the pandemic block the realization of those plans?
The priorities did not change, but I must admit that their execution was not always possible in the extent we were hoping for. I paid a lot of attention to checking combat readiness, although I wouldn’t like to elaborate on the subject. It is enough to mention the change of attitude to planning and organizing exercises during which the soldiers stayed outside the areas of their permanent stationing. These were non-standard activities, where forces and means had to be adjusted adequately to the needs and arising challenges. Also, we came up with many concepts of changes to be introduced in the area of legislation, and dealt with reserves trainings, although the pandemic also meddled with those plans a bit. Finally, 2020 was to be the year of physical fitness in the Polish Armed Forces. I am aware, though, that in the face of an epidemic crisis, grades from final PE exams don’t really matter. Today, I evaluate the soldiers’ efficiency through the prism of their activity outside the barracks, helping the society. I hope the pandemic will ease up soon, because despite the fact that our soldiers proved to be very effective in the anti-crisis operation, I would like us to pay more attention to training, as well as defense and deterrence strategy.
In what degree did the pandemic change the work of military commands and staffs? Are we witnessing a technological breakthrough in this area?
There was more of a cultural than a technological change. Applications, programs, internet and satellite connections are the same, but the intensity with which they are used changed. Soldiers are well accustomed to videoconferences. Those who serve in Iraq or Afghanistan, for example, have been using this way of communication for years. Today, however, it has become more widespread. We have online meetings with NATO states’ chiefs of military staffs and now it takes us an hour to deal with something that would once take a week.
Gen. Rajmund T. Andrzejczak is the Chief of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces.
autor zdjęć: DWOT, Michał Niwicz