The NATO 2030 Agenda Needs to Include Strengthening U.S.-Polish Defense Relationship

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Earlier this week, NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, launched a new initiative, NATO 2030, to strengthen the Alliance and prepare it for new challenges over the next several decades. According to the Secretary General, “The effort aims at preserving the democracies' way of life and adapting to new realities. To do this, we must stay strong militarily, be more united politically, and take a broader approach globally."

So, even as NATO looks to broaden its perspective—addressing new threats such as cyberattacks, becoming more politically active, and dealing with China's growing power, it must maintain its investments in its armed forces and military capabilities. As Stoltenberg observed, "they have kept us safe for over 70 years and continue to do so today."

NATO 2030 could not come at a more important moment for the Alliance. The Alliance’s geographic, demographic, economic and technological circumstances have all changed significantly over the past three decades. The range and complexity of the threats confronting NATO make deterrence of aggression more challenging. Finally, there are concerns that some members no longer hold to the Alliance’s founding worldview and values.

With the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Alliance's expansion to 30 members, NATO’s military and political centers of gravity have shifted eastward from the inner German border to the borders of Poland, Romania, and the Baltic States. This is due in large part to the growing threat to the Alliance from Russia. The regime in Moscow essentially seeks to resurrect the Soviet Union, at least in terms of influence and control, if not under a single imperial flag. In the last decade, the seizure of Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine demonstrated Moscow’s willingness to use military force to achieve its objectives.

Russia has instituted a multi-decade program to improve both its conventional and nuclear forces. Moscow is positioning many of its best formations and most advanced weapons along the border with NATO. It has likewise placed precision-guided ballistic and cruise missiles and advanced, long-range air defenses in the enclave of Kaliningrad. From there, these weapons can strike land, sea and air targets across most of Central Europe, preventing reinforcements and supplies from moving eastward to deter or repel a Russian attack.

At the same time that the threat to NATO has increased, it appears that some member countries' commitment to the Alliance’s principles is fraying. Only nine of 30 NATO members are fulfilling their commitment to spend at least two percent of GDP on defense. Only two of these, the United States and the United Kingdom, were members of the Cold War-era Alliance.

Even more alarming, there are reasons to question the commitment of some NATO countries to the cornerstone of collective defense, the nuclear deterrent. At least one major German political party has called for removing U.S. nuclear weapons from German soil. The German government has decided to replace its only nuclear-capable aircraft, the aging Tornado, with non-nuclear capable ones. This would severely undermine the credibility of NATO’s nuclear deterrent, which partly rests on Allies’ maintaining a credible capability to deliver nuclear weapons. This is such a serious problem that the then-U.S. ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, penned a commentary that questioned Germany’s commitment to NATO’s nuclear deterrent.

The Trump administration has been at odds with Germany for other reasons as well. Despite being Europe’s largest economy, Germany has failed to meet its two percent commitment. Ignoring U.S. objections, Germany has pushed for the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would ensure German dependence on Russian natural gas for decades to come.

Reflecting the view that Germany was not pulling its weight in NATO, the White House announced a few days ago that the U.S. would be removing some 9,500 troops from Germany. It is not clear which units are to be removed and where they would go.

One option is to send some or all of these forces to Poland. Reflecting the eastward shift in the locus of NATO's security concerns, Poland has now become a major contributor to NATO's security. To that end, Warsaw is committed to modernizing its military, so it can be a first-tier player in the Alliance's deterrent strategy. Poland is spending more than two percent of its GDP on defense. That money has gone to acquire modern equipment that includes fighters, such as U.S. F-16s. In the future, Poland will acquire F-35s, Patriot missile defense batteries, and new artillery.

Over the past several years, the U.S. has been significantly expanding its military presence in Poland. It is rotating armored brigade combat teams (ABCTs) from CONUS into the country, thereby providing a continuous presence of heavy armor forces. The equipment for a second ABCT is now prepositioned in Poland. Last year, the two nations signed an agreement to expand the U.S. presence in Poland with a forward-deployed division headquarters, logistics units, and an MQ-9 Reaper drone squadron. One thousand U.S. troops will be based in Poland to provide initial staffing for these units. Poland has offered to provide financial support for U.S. forces deployed there, although the actual level of support is still being negotiated.

As it moves to recall forces from Germany and expand its presence in Poland, Washington should propose to Warsaw a study examining the potential to replace the remaining aging T-72 tanks in the Polish inventory with modern M-1 Abrams. Due to the presence of U.S. armored forces in Poland, the infrastructure exists to support Polish Abrams. Not only would the Polish Army get the best tank in the world, but assembling Abrams kits made at the factory in Lima, Ohio, and modifying these tanks, would be a major step up for the Polish defense industrial base. Interoperability between U.S. and Polish land forces would be enhanced. Overall, NATO’s deterrent posture would be improved.

NATO 2030 is an effort to reimagine, as well as strengthen the Alliance. A usual part of this exercise is to provide new options for increasing the military power of new members. A joint U.S.-Poland study of options for Warsaw to acquire M-1 Abrams tanks should be part of the U.S. contribution to NATO 2030.

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.

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