It has been a year since the Homeland Defense Act went into effect. The new solutions, aimed to increase interest in the military, make the conditions of service more attractive and modernize the Polish Armed Forces. Have these goals been achieved?
When the Homeland Defense Act was introduced a little over a year ago, on April 23, some people thought it to be a bad idea. Skeptics pointed out the excess pace of the work on the new regulations and claimed that the solutions contained in the legal act, including more than 800 articles and merging more than a dozen existing laws, would not work. They stressed that a legal revolution such as the codification of military regulations requires more time.
Those who drafted and introduced the act, on the other hand, emphasized that the legislation, although approved at the time of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, was not created in the wake of it. Although it was in fact originally scheduled to come into force much later, the geopolitical situation and the war across our eastern border accelerated the whole process. “If we don’t take care of our homeland's security ourselves, no one will do it for us. NATO member states, especially those on the eastern flank, like Poland, must have a strong, numerous, modern, well-equipped and adequately funded army. It's the only way to send a clear signal: we are strong and capable of fighting. This act will ensure that,” said a year ago Mariusz Błaszczak, Head of the Ministry of National Defense.
The objectives of the act were clear from the beginning. One of the key ones was to increase the size of the army. In order to encourage volunteers to join the military, a new recruitment system has been introduced. “We simplified it and shortened the path to the army by creating, among other things, military recruitment centers (MRCs), where a volunteer, regardless of where he or she lives, can apply for enlistment. We have made changes in medical certification, creating central and district medical commissions and psychological centers. Because of all this, testing candidates for voluntary and territorial service now takes place at the MRC level. The whole process has become easier to manage, which has in turn optimized recruitment. The effects, in the form of a greater number of military volunteers, are easy to notice,” says BrigGen Mirosław Bryś, Head of the Central Military Recruitment Center. However, this is not the end, as work is in progress on more solutions intended to further facilitate the recruitment process. “Among other things, we are planning to expand the structures of medical commissions so that there is at least one district military medical commission in each voivodeship. All this is to make the recruitment process even more efficient and address the need to increase the size of the army,” explains Bryś.
The introduction of the law on voluntary basic military service proved to be a revolutionary solution on the way to a larger army. Although it has replaced the previous preparatory service, it is a much better offer for volunteers. For one, they can specialize in a particular field immediately after undergoing basic training, by completing up to 11 months of specialist training. After that, the path to the professional army is open to them. Secondly, the financial aspect is extremely attractive: already at the start a volunteer gets 4,960 zlotys (gross) per month, which is the same as the salary of a private in the army.
There is more. “If they fail, for example, medical tests for professional service, we can offer them service in active reserve or territorial defense forces. It is a truly flexible offer,” says Bryś. The advantages of the new solutions are also pointed out by Pvt Artur Damsz. The volunteer received basic training at the 2nd Combat Engineer Regiment in Kazuń. “My decision to join the army was influenced by many factors. Among them – a shorter path to the uniform and much less complicated recruitment procedures. Also, the offer of voluntary service itself seemed tempting to me. From the very beginning I got the impression that the army is a good place for professional development,” says Damsz.
From the day the Homeland Defense Act came into force up to April 19, 2023, voluntary basic military service has been performed or is being performed by about 25,000 soldiers in basic and specialist training. Meanwhile, nearly 9,000 of them have already been drafted to professional military service.
In order for the army ranks to grow, the Ministry of National Defense has also decided to increase enrollment limits at military academies. While fewer than 1,500 people began their studies in 2021, and more than 1,800 a year later, this year as many as 2,040 young people will have a chance to become first-year cadets at four academies (land forces in Wrocław, technical in Warsaw, navy in Gdynia and air force in Dęblin). Increased limits at the academies are followed by the gradually growing number of places in officer courses, aimed at both civilians and soldiers – privates and non-commissioned officers. This year's limit of around 1,000 students is more than double in comparison to last year, when universities offered a total of more than 400 places.
Another aim of implementing the new solutions was to make military service more attractive. The new act offers much more opportunities than before. One of the first steps was the liquidation of contract service, which in 2021 was still performed by 55% of all professional soldiers, mainly privates and non-commissioned officers. Under the new act, they have all become professional soldiers for an indefinite period of time. “Such a solution also means, of course, greater availability of the soldier, because commanders, given more flexibility in personnel policy, can transfer them to serve in another unit in accordance with the needs of the armed forces,” says Pvt 1st Class Specialist Agnieszka Morąg-Stępień, Chairwoman of the College of Deans of the Professional Privates Corps, and adds: “Soldiers themselves gained a lot – a greater sense of stability, the ability to plan their career in the army, more beneficial solutions in terms of housing entitlements, and more.”
These were not the only favorable changes in personnel policy. The act introduced, for example, the rank of private 1st class specialist – giving soldiers in the youngest corps the opportunity for professional development – as well as the principle of line promotions. “Previously, a military rank was assigned to a specific post: soldiers had to change their position when promoted to a higher rank. In practice, they often lost the opportunity to gain more experience in their specialty. The act made it possible to be promoted from corporal up to junior warrant officer, and now when soldiers get a new rank, they can continue to develop in their field,” explains Pvt 1st Class Specialist Grzegorz Całka at the Internal Communications Department, the Ministry of National Defense Operations Center.
In terms of development and career prospects of professional soldiers, changes in the regulations on recruitment to NCO courses also proved extremely important. These include regulations aimed at eliminating the glass ceiling, previously encountered mainly by privates who wanted to develop, to be promoted to the NCO corps, but despite adequate length of service, experience, high scores in evaluation, they could not participate in the courses for reasons such as existing limits. In the late fall, a few months after the act went into effect, the head of the MoND issued guidelines for introducing changes to NCO courses. They concerned training programs, shortening recruitment procedures, but the most significant modification turned out to be the expansion of the training base and organizing trainings outside NCO schools. “This was an excellent move. Just compare: the school in Poznań is able to prepare about 600 future corporals a year, and now we have gained the capability to train the same number monthly, using the potential of units and training centers. We can say with confidence that the glass ceiling has been pulled up. Professional privates are being promoted, thus freeing places for privates after voluntary basic military service, and units are gradually filling the posts that have been vacant so far,” says Całka.
According to the MoND’s data, in 2021 soldiers submitted 3,691 applications for approval to take the non-commissioned officer exam. In 2022, the number rose to 6,771, and in the first two months of this year, there were already 1,716 submitted applications. The number of professional privates who became corporals after completing the course also increased. “In 2021, there were 3,059 of them, while in 2022 their number more than doubled, reaching 7,380 soldiers. In January and February of this year, almost 2,000 soldiers have already been promoted,” report the representatives of the MoND.
Privilege and Responsibility
Undoubtedly, cadets of military academies have also benefited from the new legislation. The act eliminated the concept of candidate service and introduced a provision according to which first-year cadets are soldiers of voluntary basic military service, and from the second year of studies they gain the status of professional soldiers. For many military students these changes were revolutionary. “To be considered a professional soldier while still studying is not only a great privilege. The previous candidate service significantly limited the scope of our tasks, and now we are offered new opportunities, allowing us to develop, gain skills and valuable experience already during our studies. We are becoming more decisive, competent and responsible,” explains Master Corporal Cadet Piotr Fijołek, a fourth-year student of command, mechanized specialty, at the Military Academy of Land Forces (AWL). To confirm his words, the cadet recalls last year's command practice, during which he was responsible for a part of voluntary service soldiers training. “I was no longer lead by the hand, but actually entrusted with training subordinates. As a commander, I was able to encounter the problems faced by superiors of a level higher than that of an assistant platoon leader or squad leader. This is valuable practice, which will certainly pay off once I become an officer,” says Fijołek.
LtCol Damian Przerwa, commander of AWL's 1st Training Battalion, also emphasizes that the new status provides much broader opportunities as to using the potential of officer cadets. “It applies to working with both equipment and people. Their tasks today are more difficult and demanding. Cadets are designated as instructors, understudies of platoon commanders or even platoon commanders themselves. They take part, for example, in the basic training of newly enrolled military students, as well as Academic Legion volunteers or participants of officer courses. All this allows them to better prepare for their role as future officers,” says Przerwa.
Previously, officer cadets were deployed only to perform activities related to, for example, pandemic prevention, or supporting military units in this regard. “Currently, in emergency situations, cadets are in readiness to carry out tasks assigned to the armed forces in the region or on the territory of the Republic of Poland. It is worth remembering that they are one of the most deployable groups of soldiers due to the fact they are in barracks,” emphasizes the officer of the AWL.
Statutory solutions, including increased defense spending, have also made it possible to take care of the financial aspects of service. Comparing the year 2022 to 2015, there was a large increase in the minimum salary of soldiers of the Polish Armed Forces. In 2022, the lowest rate of basic remuneration for a professional soldier was 4,560 zlotys, which meant an increase of 2,060 zlotys, or 82.4%, compared to 2015, according to data from the Polish Ministry of National Defense. In March 2023, soldiers' salaries were raised once again, and now the lowest salary is 4,960 zlotys.
The past year has also seen a number of other financial solutions encouraging soldiers to serve longer. The act introduced a motivational allowance, paid in two amounts – 1,500 zlotys per month for those with at least 25 years of service, and 2,500 zlotys for those with over 28.5 years of service. On top of that, new allowances have been introduced, including those for service in combat units, as well as a motivational allowance, which replaced the previous entitlement for privates and non-commissioned officers with qualification (specialist) classes. There have also been rises in allowances paid to soldiers of the operational and reconnaissance and investigation divisions of the Military Police or to soldiers of the Armament Agency performing, among other things, activities in public procurement proceedings. Soldiers occupying certain positions at the Expert Cybersecurity Training Center have also been included in the catalog of those entitled to receive a service allowance.
The benefit for long-term military service turned out to be a revolutionary solution. It is paid to professional soldiers after 15 years in the army in the amount of 5% of the basic monthly salary and increased annually by 1% (but no more than 15% after 25 years of service). Col Krzysztof Jewgiejuk, Chairman of the Convention of Deans of the Professional Officers Corps, admits that financial incentives on such a scale have never been seen in the military before. “The current geopolitical situation, including Russia's war with Ukraine and, earlier, the crisis on the border with Belarus, means that the soldiers are facing increasingly difficult challenges. Therefore, the steps taken by the MoND are reasonably justified: more is required of soldiers, but they get more in return for their service. Soldiers are glad that in the face of such challenges the MoND appreciates their service,” says Jewgiejuk.
Due to the implementation of the Homeland Defense Act, there has also been a significant increase in defense spending, not just because of allocating 3% of GDP to the armed forces, but also the creation of a new source of financing modernization purchases, namely the Armed Forces Support Fund at Bank Gospodarstwa Krajowego (fed by, among other things, proceeds from treasury securities, BGK bonds and payments from the state budget). All this made 2022 a breakthrough year in terms of signing strategic contracts for new military equipment and supply of modern armaments for the Polish Armed Forces. Among the most important, there are contracts for the AW149 and the AW101 helicopters, Chunmoo launchers, HIMARS missile systems, the F-35 and the FA/50 aircraft or observation satellites. The soldiers of the Polish Armed Forces have already received, among others, Abrams and K2 tanks, Patriot systems, K9 cannon howitzers, Bayraktar drones, Kormoran II-type mine destroyers, Krab cannon howitzers, Rak mortars, Piorun, Pilica and the so-called Little Narew sets.
For many soldiers, providing the military with modern equipment is a motivating factor for development and certainly makes the service more attractive. “Modern, advanced military equipment requires specialist knowledge and skills. Soldiers receive training in its handling, maintenance and repair, which contributes to the development of their technical skills and the acquisition of specialized knowledge, thus creating greater opportunities for development. They also certainly feel the satisfaction of being able to work on tanks that are considered top of the line among this type of equipment and belonging to the elite who are the first to operate this type of armament,” says Lt Jacek Piotrowski, press officer of the 1st Warsaw Armored Brigade. He adds that for the Brigade's soldiers, new acquaintances in a multinational environment or continuous improvement of the English language are also very important. “All this can be very valuable on the job market, so having such experience will certainly pay off in the future,” says Piotrowski.
Over the past several months, the staffs, military institutions, and departments of the Ministry of National Defense have in total prepared most of the over 160 regulations to the act. Although the work on specific regulations is still ongoing, today, after more than a year from introducing the act, it is already apparent how necessary it was and to what great extent it has achieved its goals. The increased interest in the military has been fueled by clear and transparent recruitment rules, economic factors, job stability and a clear career path – but not only.
The implementation of the act coincided with the situation in Ukraine, and this has made young people today more willing to serve their homeland and contribute to building Poland's defense capabilities. Numbers also confirm that. According to the Ministry of National Defense, 13,742 professional soldiers were admitted to military units in 2022, while 8,988 soldiers were dismissed. “This is a record level of admissions since the liquidation of compulsory military service,” admit the Ministry’s officials. In January 2023 alone, another 3,969 people were admitted to professional and voluntary service. Currently, the Polish Armed Forces number about 164,000 soldiers. Ultimately, there are to be 300,000 of them.
autor zdjęć: Aleksander Perz/18 DZ, Adrian Staszewski/ 15 BZ, Michał Niwicz