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The Covert Polish Repair Shop Patching Up Ukrainian Arms

WARSAW—In a sprawling factory complex surrounded by derelict buildings, hundreds of technicians are working around the clock on one of the biggest challenges of Ukraine’s war: repairing artillery and heavy armor and returning it to the front line.

Mechanics buzz around the football-field-sized workshop housing three AHS Krab guns, the air thick with the smell of metal dust and automotive grease. Two of the Krabs, which look like tanks but are self-propelled 155mm howitzer guns, are missing parts of their caterpillar tracks and are riddled with bullet holes and contorted metal.

Another Krab stands sparkling clean, ready to be ferried back into Ukraine along a route that has seen the biggest transfer of arms in Europe since World War II. Each weapon can take up to two months to repair by technicians who must pass layers of security checks before they are allowed onto the floor of the factory at a location The Wall Street Journal agreed not to disclose.

In addition to the repair work in Poland, the mechanics are in constant contact with technicians in Ukraine—many of whom were civilians before the war—teaching them over encrypted apps how to repair everything from tanks to missiles.

“That one actually arrived here in the worst condition we have seen,” says engineer Mirosław Surowaniec, pointing to the revitalized Krab, one of 10 guns repaired in recent months. “The entire gun barrel was missing, the body badly damaged.”

At the factory complex, guns used by AHS Krabs lay next to combat vehicles. Foreman Sławomir Kapusta stood by a Krab and electricians worked on one of the howitzers.

The maintenance and repair of munitions is a major challenge in a war that is burning through arms at the fastest pace since Nazi Germany clashed with Soviet Russia on the same territory almost 80 years ago.

The scale of the previously unreported Polish armaments operation highlights the complexity of a maintenance challenge that is about to grow far larger. On Wednesday, the Biden administration announced plans to send 31 M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, joining European allies who will send as many as 100 German-made Leopard 2 tanks.

Polish officials say they expect the Abramses will be repaired in Poland in the western city of Poznan, making the former Soviet satellite state the leading edge of a maintenance operation that stretches to the Czech Republic, Romania and Bulgaria. Poland will also likely play a critical role in repairing and maintaining the Leopards, due to its arms industry’s deep experience with the tank. 

“It is safe to assume that Poland is a leader when it comes to servicing the equipment being used by the Ukrainians in the battlefield,” said Tomasz Smura, an expert on military technologies from Casimir Pulaski Foundation, an independent think tank in Warsaw.

Ukrainian President

Volodomyr Zelenskyy

thanked Poland on Friday for agreeing to transfer 74 tanks, which include 30 PT-91s and 14 Leopard 2s.

Technicians at the factory work in three shifts around the clock.

The challenge of maintaining Ukrainian munitions, including the tanks, comes as both Ukraine and Russia are planning offensives. Until now, Ukraine has largely used tanks such as the Soviet-era T-72, including those transferred by former Soviet satellite states including Poland. 

A year of intense combat has exacted a heavy toll on tanks and artillery pieces whose cannon barrels have been warped by frequent fire. To remain operative, the materiel not only needs repair but also parts, plus Soviet-caliber ammunition that the West doesn’t produce in significant quantity. 

In Russia, where the economy has been mobilized to support the war effort, Prime Minister

Mikhail Mishustin

announced in a September decree that he would create two new arms-repair hubs in the Moscow and Rostov regions, according to state media. 

In Poland, the Krab Howitzers—first produced in 2017—are being serviced at a facility owned by the Polish Armaments Group, a state armaments company. 

The workshop is monitored by armed officers from the Internal Security Agency, tasked to scout for potential sabotage operations that have hit weapons factories in other countries, including Bulgaria.

Every one of the roughly 400 assembly and production employees—and any visitor to the premises—must be a Polish citizen. The screening process for new employees, regardless of rank, can take several months.

The welding hall at the factory complex.

On the factory floor, technicians work in three shifts around the clock and are in regular contact with Ukrainians on the battlefield. They share information about best techniques for repairs over encrypted messages and a HelpDesk app that helps them to troubleshoot problems. 

Polish mechanics said they once used the chat application to teach a Ukrainian postman-turned-soldier to repair a missile. 

Mechanics sometimes find soldiers’ belongings inside the Krabs: a toothbrush, unfinished snacks or family photos. Dariusz Gawinek, a mechanic, said that repairing the hardware has made him more committed to helping the war effort.

“The Krabs arrive here with leaves, mud, sand, twigs stuck to the body and caterpillars. It is Ukrainian soil,” he said. “It hit me really hard the first time I went inside of one.”

Polish officials said the workshop could soon expand to repair and maintain equipment manufactured abroad, but declined to detail any specific plans.  

Sławomir Kapusta, the workshop’s foreman, said he was moved last August when a vehicle arrived that had almost been destroyed. “One always wonders what happened to the crew under such circumstances,” he said. 

Write to Joe Parkinson at joe.parkinson@wsj.com

The intense political negotiations over sending U.S.-made Abrams and German-made Leopards to Ukraine briefly threatened the unity of the NATO alliance. WSJ’s Shelby Holliday looks at what went down and the challenges ahead for the U.S. and its allies. Illustration: David Fang

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