war on the rocks

Permanently Stationing U.S. Forces in Poland is a Bad Idea, But One Worth Debating

October 12, 2018

A recent visit to Washington by Polish President Andrzej Duda had thrust into the spotlight his nation’s bid to get a permanently based U.S. armored division in Poland. Poland’s lobbying efforts for a permanent base include an offer to contribute $1.5–$2 billion to its construction. In explaining the idea, Duda showed that he understood his main audience: “I would very much like for us to set up permanent American bases in Poland, which we would call Fort Trump. And I firmly believe that this is possible.” The U.S. military is no stranger to NATO’s eastern flank. The alliance already maintains a rotational presence in the Baltics, a Baltic Air Policing mission, an increase in U.S. spending as part of the $6.5 billion European Deterrence Initiative (EDI), and an intense regimen of exercises. Yet despite these robust measures, Poland, along with other Baltic states, have been after an increased U.S. military presence for some time now.

During his visit, the Polish president was photographed signing an agreement on the edge of President Donald Trump’s desk, without even a chair to sit in. This embarrassment led to an uproar in his own country, with Polish senators claiming that Duda “humiliated himself.” But chair or no chair, the Pentagon is seriously studying the basing proposal at the direction of Trump, who no doubt thinks the name Duda chose has a nice ring to it.

The debate started earlier this spring when it became known that Poland’s Ministry of Defense had made the proposal to Washington, seemingly without its own president’s knowledge. Lt Gen. Ben Hodges, former commander of U.S. Army Europe, came out against it in June, arguing it was unnecessary, not feasible given current availability of forces, and damaging to NATO cohesion. Political commentators like Marc Thiessen and Leonid Bershidsky thought it might be a good idea. Since the need for deterrence has, in their view, ‘moved east,’ so too should U.S. forces. Michael Fitzsimmons argued that it would lead to a security dilemma and political support for Poland’s worrisome illiberal turn. However, Michael Hunzeker and Alexander Lanoszka wrote in Defense One that pundits should not mock the idea, as “whatever its ultimate name, a base there will deter Russian aggression and reassure our allies in Poland and the Baltic region.” They see permanent U.S. bases in Poland as enhancing deterrence, potentially saving American lives in the event of a conflict, and sending a positive signal to allies.

Unfortunately, naming a U.S. base in Poland after Trump is the least problematic part of Warsaw’s proposal. A permanent U.S. base in Poland will not deter Russia any better, and it will probably do more harm to NATO than good. From the standpoint of deterrence and alliance politics, it’s a foolish and detrimental idea. The United States does need more forces in Europe with capabilities relevant to deterring Russia, but an armored division in Poland is not the right answer. In my view, there is almost no redeeming value to Poland’s idea, either for the United States or NATO, but the proposition does offer an opportunity to discuss the future of U.S. military deployments in Europe and the overall strategy behind this effort.

It Would Do Nothing to Enhance Deterrence

An armored division in Poland is an answer to a question that’s not being asked. Russian forces are not massing in Belarus, Russian divisions are not being stationed along NATO borders, and Russia is not creating a large reserve designed to occupy foreign territory. There’s no massive expansion of Russia’s military footprint in Kaliningrad or St. Petersburg, and no cause for urgency to add forces to Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, the United States already has a credible deterrence strategy in place that seems to be working just fine. As Hodges rightfully argues, “a base in Eastern Europe is unnecessary. The current exercise and deployment program and other important measures — including the placement of equipment needed for armored brigades in pre-positioned stocks — are part of a robust effort to ensure an adequate deterrent against a possible Russian attack.”

Hunzeker and Lanoszka argue that temporary forces on rotation are not as credible a deterrent as permanently based forces. There’s nothing to suggest that to be true. If Russian forces choose to invade a member of NATO, when they run into an American battalion they will not pause to check whether they are on rotation or are permanently based to make their next decision. A battle with forces on rotation will be no less bloody and, more importantly, no less escalatory, than one with those who happened to be permanently based.

The most important part of U.S. strategy is having enough boots on the ground to serve as a tripwire for American honor, credibility, and alliance commitments, while being able to credibly reinforce on short notice with forces that cannot be destroyed at the outset.  The U.S. Army has a rotational armored brigade combat team in Europe, and is part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence battlegroups in the Baltics. The funding for the European Deterrence Initiative is going up in Fiscal Year 2019. This increase pays for more equipment that will be pre-positioned in Europe. NATO exercises, like Trident Juncture, which is taking place this month with 45,000 participants, are actually peering Russian strategic exercises at this point — Zapad 2017 and Vostok 2018 had about 50,000 actual participants. At times, when a stronger deterrent is seen to be needed, such as during Russia’s Zapad 2017 exercise, the U.S. military showed it could slow brigade rotations to effectively keep two brigades in theater as a hedge.

Beyond plenty of NATO troops exercising regularly in Poland, keeping the bulk of U.S. firepower off of Russian borders allows Washington — in the event of military crisis — to more effectively signal, increasing immediate deterrence in response to a potential threat. It also buys valuable time for both sides to avoid miscalculating based on force posture, misreading each other’s intentions, and thereby losing the opportunity to defuse a crisis peacefully. In any scenario, U.S. forces, together with NATO allies, will be on the ground during a threatened period of conflict in sufficient numbers to create a fundamental dilemma for Russian leadership.

Hunzeker and Lanozka suggest that Russian anti-access/area-denial capabilities (A2/AD) could pose a problem for reinforcing the region. However, these Russian capabilities are widely misrepresented. This is why Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson was right when he suggested we ban the term. A2/AD leads to a great deal of conflation, reducing Russian military analysis of Russia into the study of angry looking red circles on a map. While scary at first blush, they offer no insight on what a real conflict in the region might entail. This is where the field of Russian military analysis can make a positive contribution. Frankly, our collective understanding of the Russian military’s capabilities, force structure, doctrine, and strategy still has a long way to improve. Unfortunately, prevailing narratives and sound bites from senior leaders would have one believe that the entire Russian military consists solely of S-400s, Iskanders, and Severodvinsk-class submarines.

Russia has made a generational upgrade in capability to defend against aerospace and maritime attack, able to attrit many current generation Western platforms from the 1990s and 2000s. This is the logic of technological evolution. The S-300 replaced the S-200, and the S-400 is now replacing the S-300. Russian military modernization poses challenges to Western advantages, which are indeed eroding. But these are not what the Russian military likes to call weapons based on ‘new physical principles,’ and they do not represent an invulnerable force field. Kaliningrad has long hosted the 152nd missile brigade armed with SS-21 Scarab (Tochka-U) tactical-operational missiles, which are now obsolete; That unit is being rearmed with SS-26 Iskander missiles as their replacement. However, these weapons are not magical in terms of their combat effectiveness, nor do they substantially impede ground force movement from Germany into Poland. Being in Poland, as opposed to Germany, doesn’t really buy you anything — besides being the potential target of a surprise attack — and so this is all a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

U.S. thinking on peer adversaries is scenario-based and very tactical. It is the product of wargames more than strategic thought. The Pentagon in particular likes to substitute the former for the latter, which is why the U.S. military excels at the operational art of winning individual fights, but less so wars. Russia may have conventional overmatch in the Baltic region, at least in the event of a brief conflict, but this is not the case in what the Russian military terms the ‘theater of military operations’ in Europe.  The current deterrence deficit stems from the balance of U.S. forces stationed back home, versus those on the continent. Whether you have static tripwires, or as Ben Hodges suggests elsewhere, “mobile tripwires,” the greater problem is that these tripwires are not linked to much in theater.

In order to blunt, and immediately impose costs to Russian aggression, forces should be in theater to shape adversary calculus. Part of the solution is the current program of rotational presence, and pre-positioned equipment to quickly plus up that presence as needed. NATO’s main problem with getting to the Baltics is self-inflicted; inexperience with regional infrastructure, intra-alliance transit agreements, and logistical shortcomings that will take years to work out. Russian A2/AD in Kaliningrad, or the threat posed by a few Iskander-M missiles, does not cause these challenges. There is no Russian impediment to U.S. forces moving onto the European continent. Ironically, the problem is getting across uncontested allied territory.

More Western Forces Closer to Russia’s Border Accomplish Little

If you want a good conventional deterrent by denial, then one of the most important factors is the adversary’s perception that aggression would result in a costly war of attrition, and that their aims could not be easily achieved. There are always those who believe that when it comes to deterrence, more is more, and simply stacking units somewhere near an adversary’s borders equals more deterrence. That’s not how it works. The forces have to be relevant to the adversary’s capabilities, demonstrate the ability to hold at risk what the adversary values, and be resilient against a surprise attack. Placing a division in Poland accomplishes little. On the contrary, it signals misunderstanding of Russian military doctrine and military thought.

Concentrating military power forward seems better for deterrence by denial, but it often deters less because such forces are easily targeted for destruction at the outset of the conflict. It’s not hard to plan around permanently based forces and garrisons. Hunzeker and Lanoszka recognize this problem with Poland’s proposal, which is why they argue not for building a single U.S. base, but for spreading military presence to complicate Russian targeting. They argue that the United States should “build a dozen Trump-themed outposts. Big bases are too easy to hit and isolate with long-range weapons. Putting American troops in one place negates the advantages of having them in Poland in the first place.” However, there’s an even better idea than trying to make Poland’s proposal work: don’t place forces within range of annihilation at all. Having forces in Poland means putting them within range of Russian ground-based missile brigades — and airpower — as far back as the St. Petersburg region. If they are permanently based it would solve Russia’s main problem in modern warfare: finding and fixing targets to finish them at operational depths.

Proposing to engage Russian forces in contact warfare, a metal-on-metal ground fight, is not a good strategy. Russia holds a lot of advantages in land warfare near its borders. This plan does not hold at risk what Russia values, and misses important changes in how Moscow sees the character of modern warfare. The Russian military believes peer conflicts are ‘non-contact’ in nature, defined by long-range standoff munitions, information-driven operations, and the application of decisive aerospace power. In the Russian conception, the principal Western way of war is aerospace blitzkrieg and, in truth, most of the U.S. strike power has long been displaced into the Air Force and the Navy. As such, Russian forces see the initial period of war as decisive.

In some ways, the Russian military leadership understands how the United States changed the character of modern war much better than Washington. From the Russian perspective, ‘non-contact warfare’ allows American forces to engage in decapitation with conventional forces, and enable a conventional-only war against a peer adversary. Moscow has watched the U.S. military take apart ground forces in Yugoslavia, Iraq (twice), and Libya in this manner. When looking at the operational-strategic depths of U.S. conventional strikes, and the global lift capacity of the U.S. military, it is quite clear to any member of the Russian General Staff that the 60 kilometer Suwalki Gap is just a tactical microcosm of a theater-wide conflict where a substantial amount of Russian forces will be engaged far beyond the line of contact. In other words, the Suwalki Gap is a MacGuffin, an important vulnerability that de facto serves as a plot vehicle for a fight that will be hundreds of kilometers across and penetrate far beyond the actual battle line into Russia proper. This is why Russian forces run large strategic command-staff exercises, practicing for war in an entire theater of military operations, as opposed to training to seize the Suwalki Gap with a few battalion tactical groups.

Russian senior leadership thinks a conventional conflict will first be a battle between airpower and air defense, and that the contest for information superiority will be shaped by electronic and cyber warfare, while precision strike munitions will reach into operational and strategic depths to devastate critical supporting infrastructure. In essence, the entire adversary is viewed as a system of key nodes, which include command and control, the economy, and critical infrastructure targets well behind the battlefield. This vision was once termed as Maj. Gen. Slipchenko’s ’sixth generation warfare,’ and has settled into ‘new type warfare,’ or what is commonly discussed in the U.S. as ‘new generation warfare.’  Russian ground forces are important because they deploy air defense and electronic warfare to shape the air domain better than the Russian air force. They’re also much more capable at tactical and tactical-operational depths. However, just as nuclear weapons have long called into question the possibility of prolonged industrial-scale warfare, the U.S. way of war in the last 30 years has killed off Soviet concepts of the 1980s like the operational-maneuver group.

Proposals for permanent bases in Poland reflect broader conversations in NATO on deterrence, which are struggling to link forces and capabilities available to the Russia problem set in a meaningful way. Most policy suggestions come down to sticking brigades or divisions somewhere in the hope that they have a deterring effect. Hunzeker and Lanoszka agree that a division in Poland makes no sense, and suggest that instead of a divisional headquarters, these forces are best spread as tripwire outposts in the path of a Russian attack. These are well-intentioned ideas, but what Russian objective are they meant to deter — another partition of Poland?

The U.S. military would be best off establishing forces that are resilient in theater, but that are out of range of Russian forces, thus making their posture a credible deterrent. The idea — thinking strategically — is to position for the initial period of war, not a specific battle over the Suwalki Gap. In any case, this entire doomsday scenario is unlikely, given that Russia seems to not have much interest in the Baltic and would also have to borrow a few hundred thousand troops from a third country for the occupation (i.e. there’s no operational reserve in Russia to occupy and hold large tracts of terrain). Beyond the absence of reserves, one could also point to major deficits in Russian air lift, as another fact that does not comport well with the theory that Moscow is hungrily eyeing the prospect of a surprise attack and/or occupation of the Baltics.

Unlike the Cold War, when the Soviet Union had a discernible strategic objective, and its general staff had known military objectives, there is a general inability of these proposals to explain how they intend to deter Russian plans. Soviet forces were massed across from NATO, such that their path of attack was well established. Reasonable arguments could be made on structuring forces to deter by denial where possible, punishment where not, and presenting the risk of unacceptable nuclear escalation. Today there are no such forces massed against Poland (at least not yet, wait until they get a U.S. divisional headquarters), and there is no discernible strategic goal for a Russian invasion of either Poland or the Baltics, which is arguably why it has not happened.

In order to deter Russia, one must know what the objective is, i.e. what they want and the likely form or vector of attack. Former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates once  remarked “when it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right.” This is why proposals for permanent garrisons here or there tend to fall flat on their face.

Despite early alarmist suggestions that NATO cannot deter Russian aggression without seven brigades or more in the Baltic region, it has, and continues to do so, with prudent measures that balance the need for deterrence with the risk of provocation. Russia’s Zapad 2017 exercise came and went, yet the Russian military juggernaut appears to have little interest in invading. Alarmist arguments for more deterrence share the same problem with doomsday cults: It’s hard to take either of them seriously when the prophesied day refuses to come. A flexible posture aimed at blunting and imposing costs is a sounder path than sticking U.S. forces like fence posts around any country that Russia might attack.

A Security Dilemma for the Price of Just One Division

The easiest way to parse arguments for a strategy of deterrence, versus one for defense, is that the former balances the risk of launching a security dilemma whereas the latter doesn’t care about getting engaged in a force bidding contest. Hunzeker and Lanoszka are rightfully concerned about the provocative nature of Poland’s proposal, writing “A division headquarters is also provocative. Russia can — and will — argue that the U.S. can use it to lead and direct an attack on Russia. Air and missile defenses, however, are far less useful for offensive missions.” It would indeed be a great idea for the U.S. Army to have short and medium range air defense, along with better missile defenses that prove effective against Russian capabilities. However, today the U.S. Air Force is probably the best form of air defense available to NATO, and the U.S. Navy has the better missile defenses. Therefore, neither the deterrence nor defense component of this approach makes much practical sense from a land force perspective. That’s not a criticism of the Army; They’ve simply not been given the right tools to make a better contribution against peer adversaries.

In describing Poland’s proposal as provocative, Hunzeker and Lanoszka identify one of the central problems with the entire premise, which I couldn’t agree with more. Russian forces expect the United States to blunt their offensives with air power, and the Russian general staff will indeed assume that the only possible role for an armored division in Poland is to either assault Kaliningrad or invade Belarus. Why? Because you still need ground forces to assault and capture terrain. As long as large U.S. ground formations don’t show up on Russia’s borders, the security dilemma can be contained. Otherwise, in Moscow they too will argue that American intent cannot be predicted and that forward-deployed capabilities pose new requirements that must be addressed. It’s only a matter of time before there is a Russian wargame that will show them losing Kaliningrad within 36 hours to a surprise NATO attack. That’s an easy sell in Russia, given the deep seated paranoia and threat perceptions endemic of that strategic culture. No matter how unrealistic it may seem, Russia’s General Staff has never recovered from the impact of Germany’s 1941 Operation Barbarossa, and is keen to prevent another surprise attack by a technologically superior adversary.

The logical Russian response would be to increase the size of the garrison in Kaliningrad, beef up a reinforcing force staged in Russia proper, and press Belarus to host Russian bases. Thus, we begin a time-honored tradition in international security: an expensive and unnecessary security dilemma resulting from two sides that try to attain security for themselves. These can end tragically, since countries will often take great risks, leading to standoffs like the Cuban Missile Crisis, to avoid living in a state of perpetual insecurity. Some might say that’s not a problem if NATO is postured to win. Well, if successful warfighting strategies were reliable deterrents, then many great power wars wouldn’t have happened, but history teaches us otherwise.

The main problem with security dilemmas, besides the tendency to generate self-fulfilled prophecies, is that NATO is poorly positioned to win one on Russia’s borders. Russia can reposition divisions and brigades easier and cheaper than NATO can, because the Russian military lives in Russia. Again, this is not the Cold War, and the battle line is not in Germany. Most of NATO consists of countries who have no divisions available, as well as those who have divisions but can’t afford to deploy them abroad. It’s not difficult to imagine a few moves into this game that the only thing NATO achieves is more Russian forces on its borders and a general reduction in security for all concerned. The Russian ground forces are certainly not 12 feet tall, but unlike NATO they have a number of large ground force formations in a state of readiness, with reasonably high levels of manning. To boot, there will be few indications and warnings of a possible future attack, since Russian forces will now be in position for a surprise assault, and will not need to redeploy to the region via rail.

Starting a security dilemma is best thought of as getting on a perpetual treadmill with no plan on how to get off. As an analyst focused on the Russian military, I am all for security dilemmas — force bidding contests create a mess that guarantees decades of job security for my profession.

This is the Worst Way to Manage Alliance Politics and NATO Cohesion

Gen. Hodges warned in June that Poland’s proposal risks alliance cohesion, and that “many of our allies would see the establishment of a U.S. military base in Poland — or anywhere else in Central or Eastern Europe — as unnecessarily provocative.” Poland’s request sends a terrible signal to Moscow that it is not confident in NATO Article 5 commitments and seeks a separate arrangement with Washington. A bilateral proposal for U.S. bases undermines Polish security by degrading the credibility of NATO battlegroups as a deterrent, and NATO activities writ large. Duda’s pitch is not simply divisive: It misses the entire point of being in NATO, and the purpose of the alliance as a collective security arrangement in Europe.

Beyond NATO cohesion, this proposal creates serious problems in managing alliance politics, such as free riding and reckless driving. From a cost/benefit perspective, the best thing Poland can do is invest the $2 billion in itself, which would yield much greater deterrence than a U.S. presence. Recall that central deterrence is inherently credible, whereas extended deterrence is not and must be made credible. Despite occasional pronouncements by the president, it is not in the U.S. national interest to have allies pay us to provide them security. On the contrary, the American dream is that Europeans will pay to defend themselves. American bases in Poland will accomplish the opposite: It will suck the air out of Polish growth in defense spending.  Why spend more money to defend yourself once you have a U.S. armored division?

Granting Poland a permanent base would also open the door ever wider to unceasing demands for U.S. presence and support. Independent of their actual needs, small countries have a structural incentive to extract security benefits from their provider. These demands will never end, because the United States is a large deterrence wishing well. Send a battalion and you will be asked for a brigade. Promise a brigade and you will be asked for a division. As soon as Poland gets a U.S. base, each Baltic states will publicly demand a brigade. Of course, these requests will be justified by the need to deter ‘Russian hybrid warfare.‘ In reality, a rotational U.S. presence is a much better deterrent, because it gains American forces valuable experience in deploying to Europe and is costly in nature. Looking for cost savings makes extended deterrence less credible. It is precisely costly signals that convince the other side of your commitment to allies, the more expensive the better. If you’re trying to assure Europeans on the cheap, well, that tells Russians a lot about how much you would be willing to pay in an actual conflict to defend them.

There is also a strong case to be made that providing too much in security can lead to entrapment for the United States, and greater risk-taking on the part of allies. Assuredly, everyone has the best of intentions, but ever since the Peloponnesian War (and probably before then), small countries have shown a remarkable talent for getting great powers into destructive wars. Indeed, most conflicts between powers are over their allies. It behooves the United States to assure allies, but also to keep some leverage for itself, and rotational troop presence does exactly a great job of balancing those needs.

Finally, it’s important to remember that Poland is already slated to get a permanent base with U.S. troops on its soil: the AEGIS Ashore missile defense system and attendant radar facility. Indeed, the only reason why Poland does not have a permanent base already is because of delays experienced by the hired contractor, pushing back initial operational capability from 2018 to 2020. If Poland is looking to contribute $2 billion dollars to its own and Europe’s defense, it can contribute to the bases already being built on its territory. Furthermore, if U.S. battalions, pre-positioned stockpiles for brigades, billions of dollars in spending as part of the European Deterrence Initiative, regular military exercises, and a missile defense and radar facility are not enough to demonstrate that America has ‘skin in the game’ when it comes to Polish security — then arguably nothing will.


Michael Kofman is a Senior Research Scientist at CNA Corporation and a Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. Previously he served as program manager at National Defense University. The views expressed here are his own.

Image: U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Gustavo Castillo

CORRECTION: The article originally stated that a AEGIS Ashore missile defense system and attendant radar facility being built in Poland was delayed due to a contractor hired by the Polish state, when in fact the contractor was hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.