Renewing Polish-US Leadership within NATO

By Richard Weitz

Last week, President Trump hosted Polish President Andrzej Duda, the first foreign leader at the White House in months.

Though no major announcement or surprises occurred, the Polish-U.S. strategic partnership is likely to become increasingly important for both presidents if they are re-elected given both presidents’ strained relations with other European countries.

The first round of Poland’s presidential election begins today, while after Brexit, Poland could be the strongest supporter of the United States among the remaining EU members.

According to the White House, the two presidents discussed cooperation regarding defense, COVID-19, shared values, economic ties, and telecommunications (5G), among other topics.

Given the Trump administration’s priority on energy security, it was unsurprising that the visit profiled the Polish-U.S. cooperation in this domain.

Poland has increased its imports of U.S. liquefied natural gas ten-fold since 2018.

The two countries are also building pipelines and other infrastructure to provide non-Russian conduits for oil and gas as well as fortify national grids against cyber threats.

Under the June 2019 a Nuclear Cooperation Memorandum of Understanding, Poland will use U.S. companies to help build nuclear power plants.

Notwithstanding Polish-U.S. differences regarding civil liberties or the timetable for further NATO membership enlargement, in their subsequent Rose Garden press conference, President Trump focused on contrasting Poland with Germany—finding the latter lacking due to its “delinquent” low defense spending and large purchases of Russian energy despite the United States contributing so much to Germany’s defense from the Russian military—”they’re spending billions of dollars to buy Russian energy, and then we’re supposed to defend them from Russia… that doesn’t work too well.”

Whatever Trump’s misgivings about NATO, the current administration has strengthened the U.S. military presence in Europe through the European Deterrence Initiative and Operation Atlantic Resolve as well as securing greater contributions from other allies regarding defense, arms control, and China.

Besides sustaining a continuous rotational presence in Poland and the rest of East Central Europe, the administration has worked with NATO partners to prepositional military equipment near Russia, enhance the transportation infrastructure needed to move U.S. reinforcements there, and expand training and exercise opportunities. The United States has also boosted the self-defense capacity of NATO’s newer members like Poland.

The Trump administration has rightfully highlighted how well Poland is bearing its collective defense burdens, which underpins the alliance’s Article 5 mutual security guarantee, even as it criticizes allies that are falling short.

In contrast to many NATO members, Poland has been spending billions of dollars in recent years on new weaponry—with a large share devoted to purchasing U.S. arms.

For example, Poland has become the tenth NATO member to purchase the F-35A Lightning II fighter jet, which is becoming the backbone of NATO’s 21st-century air power.

Under this $4.6 billion deal, signed in January by the Minister of Defense, Poland will acquire 32 F-35s as well as a complementary logistics and training package.

Through this arrangement, Poland will bolster its transatlantic interoperability for global missions.

The F-35s will also provide important command and control capabilities for Poland’s integrated air-and-missile defense network, which is incorporating Patriot PAC-3 systems being acquired under another multi-billion-dollar contract.

U.S. highlighting of Poland’s contributions to transatlantic security is clearly warranted. Public praise of exemplary partners like Poland generate positive momentum in other countries seeking favor with the Trump administration and other members of the U.S. national security community.

These expenditures have provided additional capabilities to NATO and opportunities for U.S. and other defense industrial partners.

The country’s new Security Strategy, adopted in May, establishes this goal of enhancing the country’s self-defense capabilities, as well as deepening ties with Poland’s main security partner, the United States, and bolstering Poland’s role in NATO and EU multinational defense efforts.

In the Rose Garden press briefing, President Duda explained why he saw having U.S. forces in Poland as critical for enhancing the defenses of both NATO and his own country: “the presence of NATO troops and, first and foremost, of U.S. troops in Poland demonstrates that Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty is treated seriously.  And it shows that if anyone wanted to attack Poland, it won’t be a soft landing for that entity; that it won’t pay off for such an aggressor, because the strongest army of the world is present and they would help Polish soldiers to defend our borders if such a case arises.”

It is true that Duda’s visit did not answer the question of how many U.S. troops will deploy in Poland in coming years. Presently, Poland hosts up to 4,500 troops on rotation.

These soldiers are assigned to a U.S. Army division-level Mission Command Element (MCE); an Army Aviation Task Force; an Army Armored Brigade Combat Team (ABCT) and their support units; a U.S. Air Force Detachment at Lask; a U.S. Navy Detachment in Redzikowo; a 800-man Army Logistics Task Force; and the Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense site under construction.

According to the June 2019 Joint Declaration on Defense Cooperation Regarding United States Force Posture in the Republic of Poland, the United States aims to send another thousand troops on rotation to Poland.

These augmentations could transform the MCE into an Army Division Headquarters (Forward) through additional C3I assets and personnel, create a bilateral Combat Training Center, establish an U.S. Army Area Support Group, deploy a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper reconnaissance drone squadron, and create an Aerial Port of Debarkation (APOD) to provide the infrastructure to deploy additional U.S. forces rapidly as needed.

At their White House meeting, both presidents also mentioned the possibility of sending additional U.S. forces to Poland. Trump said these would “probably” come from Germany.

Yet, such additional deployments, along with the announced withdrawal of U.S. forces from Germany, will take months if not years to execute, even if Trump is reelected, given the complexity of relocating equipment, families, and troops amidst a global pandemic.

Polish and U.S. negotiators already disagree over where the planned 1,000-troop augmentation should deploy, how to share the costs of hosting more troops and building the new support infrastructure, and other questions.

The Pentagon will also need to decide whether to relocate Africom, other regional headquarters, or the DOD medical facilities in Germany.

Still, notwithstanding other allies’ carping about Poland and the United States unilaterally defining their defense relationship without adequate input from other partners, NATO benefits from the additional U.S. capabilities in Poland and the intensified Polish-U.S. dialogue on how to modernize the alliance’s organization, mission, and capabilities.

Though President Trump said it was a “very definite yes” that he would visit Poland again if reelected, the next steps for furthering the Polish-U.S. defense partnership should be to finalize the negotiations regarding a bilateral Defense Cooperation Agreement, including an enhanced Status of Forces agreement, as prerequisites for increasing the U.S. forces rotating into Poland.