WARSAW, DEC. 4 -- The Polish government is considering buying sophisticated fighter planes, anti-aircraft systems and other arms to replace less capable equipment obtained over the past few decades from the Soviet Union, Polish Defense Minister Piotr Kolodziejczyk said today after consultations here with visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney.
The possible arms purchase, which must overcome hurdles in both Poland and the United States, would likely be the first by a former Soviet ally in Eastern Europe. Other Warsaw Pact countries such as Hungary have expressed interest in obtaining Western arms, but not as bluntly as Polish officials today.
Vice Adm. Kolodziejczyk told reporters that the purchase of a dozen or so military aircraft such as the F-16 would be a potentially important step in enhancing Poland's military ties to the West, a goal Polish officials said became attractive here after the formation of a democratic government last year and the adoption of a new military strategy aimed at repelling aggression from any source.
He and other Polish officials said that besides the F-16s they're interested in obtaining Stinger and Patriot anti-aircraft systems and cannons for new warships. They said they were unsure how much these weapons would cost.
However, senior U.S. officials traveling with Cheney expressed some doubt that Poland's shaky national economy could support a major new arms purchase soon, and said it would also have to win approval in Congress and exemption from existing Western restrictions on the export of sophisticated U.S. arms to Eastern Europe.
Kolodziejczyk said he obtained a U.S. pledge of assistance today not only for future arms purchases but also for training Polish military officers and for access to Western military technology previously denied on the grounds that Poland was a potential adversary.
The U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they interpreted these remarks as a sign that Poland is eager to protect its sovereignty with smaller but better equipped military forces. They said that while the United States is highly sympathetic to the Polish military's desire for closer ties to the West, its access to advanced U.S. technology may have to wait for further political reforms and a more thorough weeding out of officers who formerly had close ties to Soviet military intelligence.
Kolodziejczyk said a major factor in any Polish purchase of U.S. arms is the decision by the cash-strapped Soviet government to require payment for new weapons in hard currency instead of trade credits. He said one result is that the market price of the top-line Soviet fighter approved for export, the MiG-29, may be comparable to that of the F-16, which has already been sold to key U.S. allies.
"If this is true," he said, "I believe we should buy the F-16."
He also said the availability of some Soviet arms has been curtailed by that country's economic turmoil. When asked if the purchase of U.S. arms might cause concern in Moscow, which is not scheduled to complete withdrawing its remaining 47,000 troops from Polish territory until next year, Kolodziejczyk said "there are no chances for any Soviet restrictions to be applied."
The Polish defense minister, who was appointed two months ago, said that over the past three years the Polish army had declined in size by 25 percent to 305,000 troops and would probably be cut by at least another 20 percent by 1995. He said the remaining Polish troops would be distributed evenly along all borders instead of concentrated in the western regions.
He also explained that a power vacuum created by the Warsaw Pact's disintegration might lead to "unwanted disturbances." While declining to say exactly how such conflicts could arise, he cited the need for additional steps by the recently unified German state "to remove the wall of mistrust that exists between our two peoples," and said there is "much concern over what is happening in the Soviet Union as well."
Kolodziejczyk said "it is the view of the Polish military that the United States plays a stabilizing role by being present in Western Europe."