Key point: Russia has more than NATO to worry about.
In February 2019, the Polish ministry of defense issued plans to procure thirty-two “fifth-generation [stealth] jets” for its Harpia fighter program to replace the Polish Air Force’s aging Soviet-era MiG-29 and Su-22 jets.
As the F-35 Lightning II is currently the only fifth-generation stealth fighter on the market—unless you count the Su-57 sold by Russia, Poland’s chief potential adversary—there’s little doubt as to which aircraft is being referred to. In April 2019, the United States confirmed it was considering selling F-35s to Poland, as well as Greece, Romania, Singapore and Spain.
Previously, the Harpia program placed the F-35 had in competition with faster and more agile 4.5-generation Typhoon, Super Hornet and F-15X jet fighters. By canceling the competition, the Polish government reveals it believes the survivability advantages offered by the F-35’s stealthy radar cross-section and the abilities of its networkable sensors outweighed its shortcomings as a dogfighter or interceptor. One issue, for example, is that S-400 surface-to-air missiles batteries in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad could theoretically interdict over half of Polish airspace.
However, Warsaw’s ditching of the competition may reflect concerns over the high accident rates of its aging MiG-29s, as well as decreasing F-35 unit costs to around $80 million per plane. Supposedly, Poland could begin operating F-35s as soon as 2024.
The F-35 would mark a new chapter in the PAF’s long and eventful history in aerial warriors—and mark a return to a pilot-centric paradigm air warfare the Poles were once famous for.