One of the first foreign policy actions taken by the Biden administration was to reaffirm this nation's belief in the NATO Alliance as the cornerstone of U.S. global security relationships. Since Moscow invaded Ukraine and its illegal annexation of Crimea, the Russian threat to Europe has only gotten worse. The Biden administration needs to put action behind its words. Selling Poland U.S. M1 Abrams main battle tanks would be a step in the right direction.
The president called the collective defense commitment under Article V of the NATO Treaty “a sacred trust.” The new Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, went even further, describing his first conversation with NATO Secretary General Jen Stoltenberg this way: "I also stressed our ironclad commitment to the security guarantee under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. I don't use that word 'ironclad' lightly. Our shared responsibility as allies – our duty – is to protect our populations and our territory. And to meet that duty, we require what the secretary general refers to as credible deterrence and defense."
The U.S. and the rest of NATO recognize that credible deterrence and defense against the growing Russian threat requires first and foremost creating a robust conventional capability. This effort was begun by the Trump administration, which moved to send heavy forces, including heel-to-toe rotational deployments of an armored brigade combat team (ABCT) in Poland and the redeployment of V Corps headquarters to Europe, along with critical enablers. Former President Trump also pressed our allies to spend more on defense.
Poland is the linchpin of NATO's defense in the east. Deployed in Poland, NATO forces will be able to respond not only to direct attacks on that country and those farther west but to Russian aggression against the Baltic States and those bordering the Black Sea. This is why Washington and Warsaw agreed in 2019 to accept the deployment of critical elements of a U.S. armored division in Polish territory, including a rotational ABCT and the prepositioned equipment for a second ABCT.
The Polish government is on the front line when it comes to defending the alliance against potential Russian aggression. Poland is one of ten NATO members who have met the agreed to goal of spending at least two percent of its GDP on defense. Equally important, Warsaw has oriented its defense expenditures to increase its military's capacity and capabilities.
Because it is a frontline state, Poland knows it must modernize its military if it is going to be able to deter Russia, mount a credible defense of the homeland in the event of conflict, and conduct integrated operations with other NATO forces. To achieve this goal, Warsaw is pursuing both quantitative and qualitative improvements to its military. The size of the Polish army is being increased from 100,000 to 200,000, and a new Territorial Defense Force is being stood up. The army has already received some 250 used Leopard 2A4/A5 main battle tanks as well as new 155mm self-propelled howitzers, 120mm self-propelled mortars, U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), and up to eight batteries of the Patriot air and missile defense system.
Poland needs to start modernizing the remainder of its tank fleet before Russia is able to achieve an overwhelming advantage in conventional forces. Poland’s army is still operating some 500 obsolete Russian-designed tanks that are more than thirty years old. But Warsaw’s options are limited. There are no more Leopard tanks available for purchase. Poland’s request to participate in the Franco-German European Main Battle Tank project appears to have been rebuffed. As a result, Poland has had to go far afield. Recently, it was reported that Warsaw was in discussions with South Korea to acquire a variant of that country’s K2 Black Panther main battle tank.
It doesn’t make sense for the Polish government to go halfway around the world to find a new main battle tank. This is particularly the case when that tank is dissimilar from any other in NATO inventories. This raises problems for interoperability and sustainment, which the Polish army can ill afford.
A smart move by the Biden administration would be to offer to sell M1 Abrams tanks to Poland. This action would have several benefits. First, it would substantially improve Poland’s capabilities for high-end heavy combat. This would enhance NATO’s ability to deter Russia. Second, it would send a signal to Moscow that Washington intends to back up its words with deeds. Third, it would support interoperability between Polish and U.S. forces and improve sustainment. This is one reason why Poland has acquired systems in use by other NATO countries, including the Patriot air defense system, HIMARS rocket artillery, and most recently, the F-35. Finally, refurbishing Polish M1s in that country, the U.S. would help the Polish defense industry become a better potential partner for future collaborative initiatives.
The M1 is the best main battle tank in the world. Since it was first fielded in 1980, the Abrams tank has undergone near-continuous upgrades and improvements. On average, there has been a new improvement package every seven years. Today, there is almost nothing in the most advanced Abrams’ variants that was part of the original vehicle. The current upgrade, the M1A2 SEPv3, or M1A2C, will enhance the vehicle’s lethality, survivability, responsiveness, power generation, sustainability, and maintainability. Additional planned upgrades will ensure that the Abrams maintains its position as the number one main battle tank for decades to come.
Selling M1s to Poland would be good for that country, good for the U.S. defense industrial base, and good for NATO. It will also send the right message to Moscow when our collective ability to deter Russia appears a bit shaky.
Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Gouré 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.