By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (April 22, 2003) -- This month's signing of a military hardware deal with Poland is expected to kick off a long-term relationship between the United States and the former Warsaw Pact nation, according to Air Force officials.
On April 18, Polish officials signed a deal to purchase 48 new F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft from the United States, a deal reportedly worth nearly $3.6 billion. But that dollar figure is secondary to the real value of the deal, said the Air Force International Affairs' Europe, NATO and Eurasia division chief.
"Yes, a very beneficial side effect of this is the industrial benefits for the ... firms involved," Col. Rod Shaw said. "But this is about access, influence and interoperability for our expeditionary Air Force. When we sell aircraft, support and weapons, that is a means to an end. This aircraft systems sale becomes a centerpiece for a strategic relationship that will span 25 years or more -- the lifespan of this aircraft."
Key to that relationship will be opportunities for Poland's military to participate in exercises with the United States and the other 18 NATO nations, Shaw said. Currently, nine nations in that alliance fly the F-16. They include Belgium, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Portugal, Italy, Turkey, Greece and the United States.
"We envision that after Poland is proficient at flying and maintaining (the F-16), we would want them to take their operational capability to a new level through participation in exercises like Red Flag and Cope Thunder," Shaw said.
Also key to the relationship, and perhaps more important, is the ability for Polish forces to participate in NATO operations, he said. In the past, the militaries of some nations in the alliance could not meet the airpower requirements of the combined forces air component commander. With the new hardware purchase, Poland will be able to meet those requirements.
"They won't be there today or tomorrow," Shaw said. "It will take them a while to learn to fly and maintain -- but they won't be limited by the capability of their airplane."
For the Polish military, the deal includes more than the actual airframe. Also included is support equipment and training for Polish pilots and maintenance crews. Pilots will be trained by airmen from the Air National Guard's 162nd Fighter Wing at Tucson International Airport, Ariz., Shaw said. Maintainers will also train with 162nd FW airmen and with specialists from the aircraft's manufacturer, Lockheed-Martin.
"The concept is a well established one for us called 'training the trainer,'" Shaw said. "We will train the initial cadre of pilots and maintainers, and they will go back and train their follow-on personnel."
According to Shaw, the foundations for this deal began seven years ago when the Polish military began looking for a new fighter aircraft. As is typical for such a purchase, the country looked at several options. Sweden and France also offered alternatives -- Sweden with the JAS-39 Gripen and France with the Mirage 2000-5.