One of the leading U.S. experts on security issues in Central Europe, Dr. Andrew Michta, recently called on the Obama Administration to seriously “rethink” its approach to Poland — its biggest ally in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) — in its second term. One of Dr. Michta’s main arguments is the fact, that Poland is “one of the few countries in Europe that remain serious military players” and should be valued as such by the United States. But does Poland really still matter in an era of U.S. rebalancing to Asia and the Pacific?
Compared to other CEE countries, Poland increasingly stands out as the only one that possesses any considerable defense potential. This cannot be attributed to its size alone. Centuries of titanic and often ill-fated struggle on the crossroads between the largest European and Eurasian powers have created a rich military tradition and strategic culture in Poland. This experience and an awareness of the need to preserve military force as one of the state’s key instruments and its ultimate guarantee for independence have also translated into a political willingness to support robust defense spending. A cross-party compromise from 2001 enforced a fixed formula stipulating that the basic defense budget should constitute at least 1.95 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Even though actual spending reaches a level of 1.8-1.9 percent of GDP annually, it is still well above the EU average of 1.5-1.6 percent. While the real figures are not impressive (approximately $10 billion in 2013: roughly between the Taiwanese and the Dutch defense budgets, and the equivalent of two thirds of the Israeli one) they are likely to grow steadily — as much as 50 percent by 2022. According to government plans, during the next decade Poland is going to spend around 130 billion PLN (approximately $40 billion) solely on defense procurement.
Current prospects for defense modernization, detailed in the December 2012 biennial edition of the rolling 10-year plan, focus on territorial defense rather than on out-of-area capabilities. Of the big ticket programs, only the helicopter and C4I procurement can be seen as serving all types of missions. The top priority (accounting for around 20 percent of the appropriations) is the plan for a complex upgrade of Poland’s air and missile defense capabilities. Another undertaking dealing with classic heavy capability (one that is sometimes seen as competing for priority in budgeting with missile defense) is the “armor program,” which envisions the upgrade and purchase of new tanks and modular tracked platforms rendering the Polish army the heaviest in Europe west of the Bug River. The artillery is going to receive mobile automatic mortars, heavy long-range precise howitzers and powerful rocket artillery systems of the MLRS standard. Poland is also looking into options for conventional deterrence through a long-range precision strike. The plans to equip its F-16s with stealth AGM-158 JASSM cruise missiles have already been announced, and there is also an interest in purchasing ballistic tactical missiles for MRLS launchers. A discussion is underway on whether the most significant naval procurement program — conventional submarines with revolutionary air-independent propulsion — should also be equipped with tactical missiles.
These plans constitute a significant turn relative to the first decade after Poland’s accession to NATO in March 1999, which was largely marked by the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Poland responded to those expeditionary contingencies to the extent it could, rotating altogether approximately 30,000 troops. The rationale behind the Polish involvement was not rooted in a concern about a terrorist threat to the Polish soil, but was rather defined as an investment in transatlantic relations. These missions have certainly served to positively transform some of the post-Warsaw Pact legacy of the Polish military and have geared it for becoming a more efficient ally of the U.S. Armed Forces in their counter-insurgency efforts. At the same time, however, the missions drained Poland’s modernization budget.
Meanwhile, old threats have reemerged. Russia, with a defense budget growing manifold as a result of the boom in the fossil fuel market, has become increasingly assertive in its so called “near abroad.” The 2008 war in Georgia, the openly confrontational joint Belarusian and Russian military exercises just across the Polish border in 2009, along with the realization that the effective range of the Russian tactical missiles covers at present most of Polish territory, have undermined the assumption that the end of the Cold War also brought about the “end of history.”
The U.S. plan to rebalance toward the Western Pacific and perceptions of decreasing U.S. strategic interest in the CEE region have only heightened Poland’s insecurity. There is a fear that the new security concept of NATO, with its reassertion of collective defense and the new contingency plans, will remain only on paper. The security vacuum created by the perception of a U.S. withdrawal from Europe may be filled with new realignments resulting from the growing leadership role of Germany and the uncontested power assertions by Russia. For the United States, one way to retain its role and influence in Europe is to help assuage security concerns in Northern, and Central and Eastern Europe. The symbolic “visible assurances,” such as the presence of the U.S. Air-Detachment in Poland and the permanent NATO Baltic Air Policing mission, may not suffice for that purpose. The augmentation of indigenous capabilities in the region remains the only other option.
The success of Poland’s defense modernization and the country’s ability to serve as a potential security provider in the region is key to such a concept. Ultimately, this lies at the core of Poland’s role in European defense and within NATO at the time of the U.S. “rebalancing” toward Asia. The United States should therefore recognize the strategic value of the Polish modernization effort, and should support and encourage the attempt to improve high-intensity capabilities. The first area where Poland could benefit from U.S. assistance is in the improvement of its defense planning and resources management culture, which is currently suffering from deficiencies typical for CEE countries. Secondly, the Polish military would benefit from the transfer of war-fighting know-how from the world’s most proficient armed forces through genuine joint trainings. Last but not least, Washington is in a position to share several critical defense technologies with Poland. American decision-makers will, however, need to take into account the growing Polish appetite for industrial participation in foreign arms procurement, as well as for a more mature control over the acquired technologies (in particular over source codes, service, maintenance and prospective modernization). American companies should think creatively about how to maximize the prospects for U.S.-Polish defense industrial cooperation. So far, the U.S. industrial aerospace and defense presence in Poland has been a success story. The Polish government, in turn, should recognize that the defense economy of a small or medium state does not create the conditions for a comprehensive defense industrial base.
Going forward, it will be important to avoid creating expectations and demands that are not economically sustainable. While Poland needs to take into account its increasingly stronger European ties, it should also not forget that the purchase of U.S. technologies and equipment would strengthen the incentives for even deeper transatlantic defense cooperation in Washington. After all, the first permanent, even if only symbolic, presence of U.S. forces on Polish soil would not have been possible without American equipment — and political will.