The recent revelations made by Polish journalist from one of the leading local news portals Onet show that the Polish government would be willing to pay up to 2 billion USD for permanent U.S. bases in Poland. Since then there is an ongoing discussion whether such a move would benefit Poland as a nation, the NATO as an alliance and looking from a broader perspective the U.S. interests in the region.
Retired lieutenant general Ben Hodges, who was the commander of United States Army Europe in 2014-17, has expressed his concerns whether this move would be beneficial for the local security architecture pointing out that such a decision should only be made when all of the NATO countries would agree for it.
Looking at the state of NATO and the EU, of which Poland is a member, it is hard to believe that all of the countries would agree for such a move. This would also violate the agreement that no new NATO bases will be placed in countries which joined the North Atlantic Treaty after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But this deal was struck a long time ago, and many things have changed since then.
The Crimea peninsula annexation made by Russia has already increased the presence of U.S. forces in the region with a strong footprint in Poland made with rotational forces coming in and out of the country on a regular basis. The rotation is conducted permanently, so the amount of troops in Poland is reasonably stable which in fact resembles a permanent presence. Although the numbers don’t change much, the unit names do which nicely fits into the agreement with Russia. As tension in the East is still high, with a frozen conflict in Ukraine which can rapidly transform into a hot confrontation, Poland seeks more stability for its independence and has a strong reason to do it.
This year marks 100 years of regaining Polish sovereignty after 123 years of Poland being wiped out from the political map of Europe with Russia as one of the countries responsible for those actions. That is why adding another layer of defense to the overall architecture is much desired from Warsaw’s perspective. It is also apparent that moving a massive component of U.S. soldiers would be beneficial from the economical point of view adding more jobs and pushing forward the Polish economy, but the question is will it be helpful for Poland, NATO, and the United States in the long term?
Such a move will most certainly push Russia to strengthen further its Kaliningrad enclave located just north of Poland saturating it with even more A2/AD systems which basically cover all of Poland and can even reach Berlin. This, in turn, will put more pressure on the so-called Suwalki gap, a small patch of land which connects Poland with three other NATO countries Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. It allows for an easy road connection between the allies. In the end, it might complicate the situation for NATO even further as even now it is unclear how to successfully defend those countries, especially that there are robust Russian communities in the Baltic states which open a possibility for the same actions as in eastern Ukraine.
Furthermore, we don’t know what Belarus will do when a U.S. base would be established in Poland. It might allow a Russian base on its territory. This, in turn, would significantly shorten the distance to the Polish border which crossed in the northeastern part of the country opens a free road to Warsaw, the capital city of Poland.
Looking from Russia’s perspective, all of the successful attacks made on that country went through the so-called Smolensk gate, a small patch of land located between Dzwina and Dniepr rivers leading to Moscow. This is precisely the same path that leads straight to Warsaw. Putting more troops in Poland, especially armored ones might be seen as a direct threat.
Moving an armored division isn’t an easy task. It takes a considerable amount of planning, and sometimes we forget that when the U.S. Army relocates it has to secure its logistics on a top-notch level. It means that not only tanks and armored carriers are transferred, but the whole infrastructure has to be ready not to mention the supply chain. We have to take into account the accommodation for the troops and their families, service facilities, even such trivial things as roads that will allow a steady flow of vehicles to local training grounds. People don’t like to live in tents for prolonged periods… Stuff like this could be arranged in Poland easily, but this would take time. After the collapse of the Soviet Block, the Polish army was massively reduced, but the facilities are still there. They only need some refinements after many years of non-use.
Even if all of this would be done quickly, there is a second problem. In today’s world, you can’t move an armored division without a proper air cover. Without it, it would turn into ashes within a short period. We have to take into account that Russia has a significant bridgehead in the form of Kaliningrad enclave. As mentioned earlier they have already created an A2/AD bubble there and will probably strengthen it further. And on top of all the problems, it also covers almost all of Poland. This means that a counter bubble would have to be made and a plan to neutralize the Russian one. This means bringing a lot of ground to air missiles as Poland is not ready for providing air cover with its resources. Long ago they should have been sent to local museums. The recently struck Patriot deal will give only one layer of an integrated defense. The rest is still in the works and the U.S. would have to bring its own assets.
This in turn would probably also mean that some aircraft would have to station in Poland. Why? Because currently Poland can send into air around 36 modern aircraft. The MiG-29’s are only good for training and Su-22’s are only worth showing on airshows around the country. This leaves Poland with 48 F-16C/D Block 52+. They still can deliver a punch (although Poland should already start to prepare a MLU program) but with a standard availability rate of 75% we only have 36 aircraft at hand. Furthermore, if Poland will continue to support its allies as it does today, this number will be even smaller. Some machines could be flying in Kuwait, lets say 6 of them. This leaves us with only 30 aircraft. Not much to secure a country as big as New Mexico with additional troops from the United States. And what about helicopters? Poland also lacks them. So a batch of AH-64 machines would also need to arrive (and probably a few other types). This in turn would force the United States to secure at least 3 bases. One would house the armored equipment, the second one would cover the aircraft (Powidz Air Base would be suitable as it already is a logistics hub and has a very long runway) and the third one would be used for the helicopters. (A base in Inowrocław already has rotational presence and alternatively Powidz could be used). The US would also have to bring it’s own “eyes” as in this sphere Poland also lacks badly. This would probably mean drones and surveillance aircraft which would have to continually monitor the airspace in the region with a higher degree than it is done now.
If we take into account all of the above, this would be a massive operation and a real game changer for the whole region and rest assured that Russia won’t be happy with such a move. An unexpected attack on Poland which is more plausible right now would not be feasible anymore. At this point, there is no chance that Poland could conduct a prolonged defense against such an adversary as Russia. Poland is part of NATO which brings the capabilities of all of the nations together but looking at it realistically reinforcements consisting of heavy equipment would not be able to come quickly. Looking at the recent revelations of German Air Force readiness an immediate help for the air starts also looks more questionable. This, in turn, pushes Warsaw towards a permanent US base in Poland and it sounds pretty logical.
All in all the situation looks very complicated and moves like putting a permanent base could lead to a much worse outcome than pursuing further growth in currently available options. It is evident that they have its limitations, but at this point, they do not seem to put more tension into the region.
After Britain leaving the EU and an evident cooling of the relationships between Germany, France, and the U.S. Poland has become a more critical puzzle in the European architecture orchestrated by the United States. This, in turn, might indicate that a permanent base could be closer than ever before but looking at the problem form a broader perspective the possible benefits might not be sufficient to push the U.S. to such a drastic move.