Poland Is Becoming the Keystone of NATO’s Evolving Security Architecture
The Republic of Poland is rapidly becoming the critical member of the NATO Alliance in its increasing efforts to deter Russian military threats and counter Moscow’s attempts to subvert European democracy. Poland is no free rider when it comes to European security. It is spending more money in terms of a percentage of GDP than other NATO countries. The Polish military has a serious modernization program underway that over time promises to make it a serious counterweight to the Russian Army. Poland is also the obvious place for NATO to base its defense of Europe. This is the primary reason why the U.S. has deployed heavy combat forces in that country and plans to significantly increase its presence in the next few years.
This week’s visit by U.S. Vice President Pence to Poland served both to underscore the growing security relationship between the two countries and to make clear the latter’s growing role in NATO’s defense strategy. In his remarks in Warsaw, the Vice President noted the various ways that Poland was stepping up as a major contributor to NATO’s security. For example, he pointed out that Poland is one of only seven NATO members to meet its obligation to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense. Pence complimented the Polish military’s effort to acquire modern equipment from the United States, notably the Patriot air defense system and the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System. Most important of all, the Vice President announced that Poland and the United States had reached an agreement to increase the number of American troops that would be deployed in that country from 4,500 to 5,500.
Geographically, Poland is the place from which NATO can best counter Russian military threats to Eastern Europe. It provides the Alliance with its only land access to the Baltic states through the Suwalki Gap at the border with Lithuania. Poland borders both Belarus and Ukraine, the former a de-facto Russian military client and the latter one of the principal targets of Moscow’s campaign to dominate the region. Poland and Lithuania are the two NATO members whose territory borders that of the heavily militarized Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. In the event of direct Russian aggression against Ukraine, a NATO response would have to be launched from Polish territory. Finally, Poland’s long Baltic coastline inevitably will make it a major player should a conflict break out at sea.
The Warsaw regime recognized that it is on the front line of NATO’s efforts to deter Russia. To that end, it has increased the size of its regular armed forces by some 30 percent and added a fourth division to its Army. Poland also is creating a Territorial Defense Force which will eventually consist of some 17 light infantry brigades. These units can be mobilized to deal with Russia airborne troops and Special Forces or any attempt by Moscow to use so-called “little green men” to undermine Polish sovereignty.
Poland is taking major steps to modernize its military. Earlier this year, Warsaw announced a new Technical Modernization Plan for 2026 that will spend nearly $50 billion on fifth-generation fighter jets, UAVs, assault helicopters, short-range rockets, submarines, and cybersecurity. The Polish Army has modernized its fleet of 140 Leopard tanks and is planning to acquire 100 more. It is purchasing more than 100 advanced self-propelled artillery and mortar systems.
As a member of the European Union, Poland often feels constrained to buy European systems rather than shop for the most cost-effective solution. That said, Warsaw did choose to acquire the U.S. Patriot air defense system rather than a European alternative. Poland has already acquired dozens of American-made F-16s, and the Polish Ministry of Defense has expressed its strong desire to purchase the F-35A to replace its aging fleets of Soviet-era SU-22s and MIG-29s. It is possible that the Polish Government could reconsider its “Buy European” policy and acquire more U.S. equipment such as the Abrams M1A2 main battle tank
Most important of all to the future of the Alliance, Poland has decided to welcome a significant and growing U.S. military presence on its territory. Currently, the United States has a full Armored Brigade Combat Team (ABCT) deployed to Poland on a rotational basis. Based on a recent agreement between the two countries, the Pentagon is preparing to expand this deployment with a forward-deployed division headquarters, logistics units and an MQ-9 Reaper drone squadron. The additional 1,000 U.S. troops heading for Poland will provide initial staffing for these new units. The longer range plan is to create the infrastructure to support the rotational deployment of two ABCTs plus additional combat enablers.
One of the reasons the U.S. will be able to undertake this expanded deployments to Poland is that Warsaw has committed to providing the support, both financial and infrastructure, needed for this expanded deployment. The U.S. will pay the normal operating costs for forces deployed to Poland, but the additional expenses associated with their forward deployment will be paid by Poland.
Poland has long sought to make the U.S presence in Poland permanent. There are political and practical reasons for Washington to consider such a move, particularly if the additional costs for the permanent presence of U.S forces in Poland are defrayed by that country. Such a move would underscore the U.S. commitment to the defense of all NATO. Forward deployed forces can gather valuable intelligence on Russian forces and operations, as well as gain intimate knowledge of potential battlefields.
Current Polish and U.S. efforts to enhance NATO’s conventional defenses must be only the first steps in an ongoing and collaborative effort to enhance the Alliance’s capability to deter prospective Russian aggression. Ultimately, a credible deterrent to Russian conventional aggression against a NATO country or even Ukraine is likely to require the presence in Poland of a full U.S. heavy corps along with long-range fires, a robust air and missile defense, and fifth-generation aircraft.
Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.