Poland Looks to Lead the Way in Central European Defense

By Paul McLeary


Poland is looking to a massive, US-led military exercise next year to bolster its status as a leader of NATO’s Eastern European and Baltic states, an ambition the country has long pursued, and now is ready to assume.

“We need time to get used to being a leader,” after decades spent in Moscow’s orbit and then as a fledgling member of NATO, Chief of the Polish armed forces, Gen. Rajmund Andrzejczak, told me at the recent Halifax Security Forum. But the strong Polish economy and a healthy relationship with the Trump administration has convinced leaders in Warsaw that the country is now ready to take a more active role in regional politics and security. “It’s as much about showing determination as well as inspiring other countries,” Andrzejczak added, as it is buying new weaponry and equipment. “For some of the countries in the region, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, they recognize we are the regional leader, so it’s kind of a responsibility,” to think bigger on security issues.

The ambitious Defender 2020 exercise, running roughly from February until June, will see 20,000 US troops make their way from stateside bases to a swath of Europe stretching from the Baltic to Georgia, marking the biggest, most complex, and expensive US Army effort on the continent in 25 years.

“Poland will be one of the epicentres” of a series of smaller, linked exercises rolled into Defender, Army Europe deputy chief of staff Brig. Gen. Sean Bernabe told reporters earlier this week. The country will host live fire training ranges, a huge division-sized river crossing at Drawsko Pomorskie training site, and play host to its own Exercise Anaconda, which will incorporate several NATO allies and as many as 10,000 personnel.

Hosting thousands of allied troops and supporting them comes on top of Poland’s entrance into NATO’s 2 percent club, a group of eight countries who spend two percent or more of their GDP on defense. The government expects that to rise to 2.5 percent by 2030 as it moves out on a major modernization push. Over the past year, the Polish military’s spending has been boosted by almost $12 billion worth of big-ticket purchases from American weapons manufacturers, including a Septemberagreement to buy 32 F-35As for $6.5 billion, a $4.7 billion deal for the Patriot air defense system and a $414 million deal for the rocket artillery HIMARS system.

The eventual delivery of the stealthy aircraft will integrate the country’s air wing with fellow NATO countries who are buying hundreds of F-35s in the coming years. Lockheed execs have said they expect to have 500 F-35s in Europe by 2030, part of a massive flow of the fifth-generation fighter to the continent. Poland will receive aircraft with Block 4 software, allowing each plane to carry six missiles internally, an upgrade from the original four.

The spending spree is only one part of what is keeping the country in the good graces of the often-mercurial Trump White House, which awarded Polish President Andrzej Duda a coveted Oval Office meeting in June where the two signed an agreement to boost the presence of US  forces spread across six small bases, adding to the 4,500 US troops already based there.

Asked about the relationship between the two countries, Andrzejczak said he doesn’t see the budding bilateral agreements as something that should worry NATO or other regional allies who see two leaders making common cause over core issues like opposition to immigration, a distrust of the European Union, and questioning the need for large, multinational agreements and treaties.

“It’s in the Polish national interest to build institutions, and I don’t see our bilateral relations with the Americans as an option or an alternate approach to NATO,” the general said, stressing Poland’s firm commitment to NATO as a non-negotiable and central element of the country’s security and foreign policy agenda.

“We don’t care about the label or brands, NATO, American — we’re talking about capability, effectiveness, readiness and so on,” he added. Poland’s closer relationship with Washington is “a signal for other countries in the Western direction, but my discussions with all of the eastern flank countries are absolutely great and we have the same visibility of the threat. There’s more a feeling of responsibility of being a regional leader.”

One major concern in the region is the security of the crowded and confined Baltic Sea, much of which is covered by medium-rage precision weapons packed into the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which is wedged between Poland and Lithuania. Moscow has placed Iskander missiles and S-400 air defense batteries in and around the city, putting the waterway and much of Poland within range.

While Poland is also looking to make investments to buttress its own interests in the Baltic, it has struggled to upgrade its aging Kobben and Kilo-class submarine fleet with new boats. They’re currently looking for “gap-filler capabilities” before charting a new course of action, Andrzejczak said.

Many of Poland’s modernization plans remain somewhat vague as the country continues to adapt to its larger role in Europe, but Andrzejczak said the military is deep into the transition, and is making investments and changes where it can. More important is to “be ready to change direction, change speed, change priorities if the environment requires,…adaptation is more important then an end state.”

Nodding to Moscow’s information warfare efforts to influence or subvert foreign elections and the hybrid tactics it has used in places like Ukraine which make the identification difficult, Andrzejczak admitted that in the end,  “Russia is still the same Russia, but smarter and more effective than expected.”

This article was published by Breaking Defense on December 13, 2019.

The featured photo shows Polish President Andrzej Duda speaking to Polish and America troops at NATO Day, March 2019.