Polish army faces uncertainty after commanders die

Bu Gabriela Baczynska

WARSAW (BestGrowthStock) – The loss of Poland’s top military commanders in a plane crash raises questions over its mission in Afghanistan and the NATO ally’s drive to modernize the armed forces.

The chief of the General Staff and the heads of the army, navy and air forces were among the 96 people including President Lech Kaczynski, to perish when their Tupolev TU-154 aircraft crashed as it tried to land in western Russia.

“This is the greatest tragedy in the history of the Polish armed forces,” Stanislaw Koziej, a retired general and former defense minister, told Reuters.

“There has never been such a case where the top command of the army and its commander-in-chief (Kacynski) all died at the same time.”

The crash coincides with the dispatch of an additional 600 troops to reinforce Poland’s 2,000-strong contingent in the NATO mission in Afghanistan and with reforms aimed at modernizing the military after a decision to scrap conscription.

Analysts said the crash could hamper decision making both for the Afghan mission and other major projects. The modernization drive envisages creating a fully professional, well-paid military totaling 200,000 personnel.

“This tragedy will have consequences for the Afghan mission for sure, though it is hard to say where things will go for now. We have lost the intellectual elite of the Polish army,” said Wojciech Luczak, a military expert.

Among the dead was General Franciszek Gagor, chief of the general staff, who had been mooted as a possible candidate for a future senior post in the NATO alliance.

Kaczynski and his entourage perished while traveling to the Katyn forest in Russia to mark the murder of some 22,000 of Poland’s military, political and intellectual elite by Soviet forces in 1940, months after Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler invaded Poland.

WHY FLYING TOGETHER?

The crash has raised questions over basic procedures and the state of Poland’s government air fleet.

“How is it possible that all these top people, military and civilian, came to be traveling on the same plane?” said Luczak.

“We have to re-think the whole functioning of the air force. This tragedy is just the latest in a series (of accidents) and shows we cannot keep on improvising all the time due to a lack of proper equipment.”

A military plane carrying 20 people, mostly senior Polish air force personnel, home from an air security conference crashed in Poland in 2008. All on board perished.

After that accident Poland introduced new security measures forbidding the heads of military units to fly together with their deputies.

The deputies of the generals killed on Saturday have already taken over their superiors’ duties and Poland’s defense minister is expected to nominate new permanent replacements soon.

Poland’s Acting President Bronislaw Komorowski, who served as defense minister in 2000-2001, must approve the nominations.

“The military cannot function without its top brass and replacements have to be chosen soon. Komorowski knows the military quite well and has always been seen as a person who cared about the armed forces,” Janusz Onyszkiewicz, a former defense minister, said.

Onyszkiewicz noted that civilians killed in Saturday’s crash would also need replacing. They included Deputy Defense Minister Stanislaw Komorowski and the head of the National Security Bureau (BBN), Aleksander Szczyglo.

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(Writing by Gareth Jones and Gabriela Baczynska, editing by Matthew Jones)

Polish army faces uncertainty after commanders die