In September 2019, the State Department approved a $6.5 billion deal to sell Poland thirty-two F-35A Lightning II stealth jets, along with training and maintenance packages. Poland’s intention to procure F-35s for its Harpia fighter program had been evident earlier in 2019.
Any F-35s received by Poland would be of the latest Block 4 model of the F-35 with internal weapons capacity expanded from four to six weapons, software patches integrating many new weapons including nuclear gravity bombs, and improved sensors, datalinks and computers.
The Lightnings will replace Poland’s twenty-eight MiG-29 short-range tactical fighters and thirty-two beefy Su-22 attack jets inherited from the Soviet era, and serve alongside the Polish Air Force’s (PAF) forty-eight F-16Cs and Ds. The F-35 acquisition is the crown jewel of a much broader military modernization effort by Warsaw forecast to cost over $47 billion dollars through 2026.
There’s little doubt that the Lightning will transform the capabilities of the Polish Air Force. Yes, the Lightning may not be as agile as a MiG-29, but enemy fighters and anti-aircraft missile batteries will struggle to detect and target the stealth jets until too it’s late.
That’s not to say the F-35 is invulnerable or undetectable—infrared sensors and even radars can still pose a threat at shorter ranges, especially when combined with agile interceptors. However, military exercises and history alike suggest detecting and shooting first is a decisive advantage.