With the Polish Minister of National Defense, Mariusz Błaszczak, on the interest in military service and the challenges faced by Polish soldiers, talk Paulina Glińska and Magdalena Kowalska-Sendek.
Who are the people creating the Polish Armed Forces in 2021? Who is a typical Polish soldier?
The Polish Armed Forces are a reflection of the entire society, its inseparable part. Obviously, candidates for soldiers must have certain characteristics and predispositions. They should be people of high morals, identifying themselves with the society, the homeland and patriotic values. After all, military service for your country is a constant, it’s not a typical 8-hour job, you are a Polish soldier on and off service.
From the moment the Territorial Defense Forces (TDF) (Wojska Obrony Terytorialnej, WOT) were created, a Polish soldier is also a doctor, an entrepreneur, a nurse, a postman, a teacher, a student or a farmer. Thanks to the TDF, the army is now a place for everyone, and military service doesn’t mean you have to give up your professional career.
You have emphasized many times that our army is to be stronger and more numerous. What is the plan to reach that goal?
First and foremost, we can’t close down military units, like our predecessors did. We need to create new ones and encourage young people to enter service. Increasing the numerical strength of the army is my priority. As an example, we successfully created and certified the 18th Mechanized Division. It operates in the east of Poland, where old units are being developed and new ones are gradually formed. The army is returning to places where it used to be stationed years ago, such as Biała Podlaska. I will mention the TDF again, as the formation already counts almost 30,000 soldiers. New brigades and battalions are created all the time, for example in Limanowa. Almost every weekend, there is a ceremony during which the TDF troops take their oath of enlistment. People simply want to be a part of the army in their own local environements. I guarantee that everyone who wants to join the ranks of the Polish Armed Forces and meets the requirements, will definitely be given such an opportunity. I constantly encourage people to take this step.
The MoND has launched the “Become a Polish Soldier” campaign. What have been the effects so far?
We have successfully recruited many volunteers for military service, but we are not prepared to rest yet. On the contrary, the results of the “Become a Polish Soldier” campaign are so promising that we are going to consistently develop the project.
Do you know how potential candidates are reacting to the changes in the recruitment process?
They are reacting very well. The things that used to scare them off – several months of waiting for decisions, in addition to often over a dozen visits to the Military Replenishment Council, medical committees, psychologists – have been replaced with a modern, simple and logical recruitment process. We have a pro-active network of places with a ready offer of service, we’ve introduced electronic transfer of documents. We’ve created a recruitment website and an application – zostanzolnierzem.pl. Over 26,000 candidates have already registered there. The whole system is currently much better and much more efficient. We can see great results. The recruitment process is 140 days shorter, there is a possibility to apply for the Polish Armed Forces online, and there are military recruitment centers where candidates can handle all necessary formalities in one day – all this makes the recruitment process really easy and simple.
Apart from the new recruitment system, the army has also decided to shorten the time of preparatory service. Today, a month is enough to become a professional private, and if a candidate is a military class graduate, preparatory service lasts only a dozen or so days. Doesn’t this shortened time have a negative effect on the level of the candidates’ training?
Absolutely not. We put every effort to make sure that the shorter training doesn’t lose any of its quality and substance. The goal of basic training is to build a soldier – create a service ethos, teach the essentials, develop certain habits, but also offer a wider perspective. Specialist training takes place already in the target military unit. This solution has already proven to work. The important thing is that due to these trainings we are rebuilding the potential of our reserves, and as we all know, this area had been neglected for many years.
What, in your opinion, draws people to the army?
It won’t be a surprise if I say that it is a calling. A military uniform is an ennoblement and an obligation. Young people want to have influence on important matters, and our common security is undoubtedly one of such matters. Military service gives them such an opportunity. The material aspect is also important. The army guarantees financial stability and a high standard of life. I have given two substantial raises to soldiers, the last one in 2020, after which the average salary is over PLN 6,153 – almost 2,000 more than in 2015. I’ve also made sure pension rights are no longer a subject of discussion or speculation. Soldiers can feel secure and look into their future with optimism.
There is no doubt military service requires dedication and sacrifice. This was the case during the fight with SARS-CoV-2. In the peak moment of the pandemic, thousands of soldiers were engaged in the fight with the COVID-19 crisis. It was a particularly difficult test for the Territorial Defense Forces.
That’s true, the TDF troops had to pass the most challenging test. It is a young formation, some of its brigades and battalions are still in preparation, and the troops were already forced to go out on the streets and to hospitals to provide assistance and help. Given the circumstances, I must say they handled things incredibly well, being constantly available and ready to help. They became an essential element of the national system developed to fight with the coronavirus, and also one of its symbols. Alongside the TDF, operational forces also worked with full dedication to support local authorities, as well as our health services, chemists and logisticians. During the pandemic, soldiers did virtually everything. Each and every day, when the number of infections was the highest, several thousand troops set off to execute tasks connected with fighting the pandemic. They tested people, worked in emergency rooms, hospitals, sanitary-epidemiological stations, social welfare centers, but also supported the Police and the Border Guard. Soldiers delivered food, took care of senior citizens and veterans, assisted medical staff in health centers. They were an important binding element in the system during all the waves of the pandemic. The soldiers proved their worth in the time of need. It is one of our duties.
Do you think Polish people noticed the army’s engagement? Did it translate into a bigger level of trust placed in the military?
Of course. As much as 83% of Polish people trust the military. It is the highest score among all public institutions and a very pleasing result, which proves that hard and honest work pays off. Polish people must feel safe. They must know someone is on duty and will react if need be. It is our obligation. Both in times of peace, when we constantly have to increase our defense capabilities, and in times of crisis, when we need to step outside our units to help in nearby hospitals. In both cases, the key is people’s certainty that the system will work efficiently and without delay.
In what degree did the last 18 months of the pandemic influence the soldiers’ training and activity, for instance their combat duties or sapper patrols?
As regards combat duties, combat readiness, deployment readiness, and the capabilities of the forces, we make no compromises. The pandemic cannot be an exception. The stakes are too high to give anything up or lower the standards. As to the training, it was a natural reaction to adjust to the requirements of the epidemic situation. During the crisis, we managed to carry out two incredibly important military exercises – NATO Exercise Defender last year and Exercise Dragon certifying the 18th Mechanized Division in the middle of this year. Exercises and trainings executed during the epidemic additionally tested activity of commands and armed forces in circumstances of unplanned limitations and changes. I am very happy with the effects. I often meet soldiers on training grounds, and I hear that the epidemic hadn’t defeated us, that we had survived and came out stronger. I like to think in the same way.
Epidemiologists forecast the pandemic will get worse in the fall. Will the soldiers support the health service again if need be?
There is no doubt about that. I can promise you our soldiers will be ready.
Despite the difficulties caused by COVID-19, our soldiers have remained engaged in foreign missions. They have been executing their tasks in the Balkans, in Italy, in Iraq, in Lebanon, and until recently, they also served in Afghanistan.
The epidemic had some influence on the Polish Military Contingent, for, as we know, the virus does not respect any borders. The threat was and is omnipresent. Our activity as such was modified to adhere to the reality of the epidemic – we introduced restrictions, also regarding contacts with local communities, we suspended our advisory activity in Afghanistan and Iraq, as it was connected with high risk of COVID-19 transmission. Nevertheless, our contingents maintained their capabilities and required readiness. They acted according to the mandate.
At the end of June, after almost 20 years of Polish presence in Afghanistan, our soldiers left that country. You’ve recently said that apart from the operation in Iraq, the mission in Afghanistan was one of the most demanding challenges faced by the Polish army after WWII. What was the reason behind ending the mission?
It was a decision taken by the North Atlantic Treaty. NATO has to be a collective body and act in solidarity. If we send our forces somewhere, we do it together. It has to work the same way when we withdraw the forces. This is the only way you can build a strong and solid alliance. Afghanistan is already history to us. Polish soldiers executed their tasks with great professionalism and returned home with pride.
Should we also expect the mission in Iraq to end soon?
There are no such plans yet. Besides, as I mentioned earlier, if we make such decisions, we will make them as an alliance. For the time being, everything remains the same, and Polish soldiers will be present in Iraq.
In what degree did Afghanistan change the Polish Armed Forces?
These 20 years of Polish presence in Afghanistan is a story of heroism and brotherhood on the battlefield, but also of the necessity to quickly adjust and operate in entirely new conditions, in a different environment, culture, climate, at the same time maintaining a high level of readiness. This mission is also a story of modernizing the army and introducing changes in training. After two decades, we can certainly say our armed forces are operational on an entirely new level, which was clearly confirmed when a US battalion was put under Polish command during the mission. Americans do things like that only if they have full trust in their ally. It is a very reassuring fact.
How did Afghanistan influence the changes in equipment and armament of the Polish Armed Forces?
The mission in Afghanistan brought us closer to our strongest allies. We operated side by side every day. We became familiar with their procedures and transferred these experiences to improve our army. It was also necessary to adjust to the level of our Allies as regards equipment, elements of training, soldiers’ personal kits. That’s why we developed KTO Rosomak, mine-detecting equipment, gave drones new capabilities, introduced Beryl rifles, among other things. The evolution took place in virtually every aspect as regards equipment and armament.
Our army has more and more NATO-related obligations. Since May, Polish soldiers have been stationing in Turkey.
Within the frame of that assurance mission, our contingent is operating in the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea region. Polish soldiers are cooperating with NATO Standing Naval Groups. If need be, they are to provide support to them. This mission is another proof that our soldiers are appreciated and highly regarded, particularly when we consider the fact it is executed in the vicinity of unstable borders, where conflict is constantly smoldering. We were given another responsible task by NATO due to our growing importance in the North Atlantic Alliance.
autor zdjęć: Jakub Szymczuk/KPRP, Wojciech Król/CO MON