war on the rocks

The Case for a Permanent U.S. Military Presence in Poland

Shortly after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, NATO members located along the alliance’s so-called eastern flank beseeched their western partners for a larger military presence. In particular, Poland and the Baltic states worried that NATO lacked the wherewithal to defend them against another rapid land grab by Russian forces. Poland’s foreign minister at the time — Radek Sikorski — asked for 10,000 NATO troops on Polish soil. Although that particular request went unfulfilled, Poland now hosts a U.S.-led 1,000-soldier multinational battlegroup near the so-called Suwałki gap and a 3,000-soldier U.S. Army combat brigade close to the German border.

Such is the context for Poland’s current lobbying efforts to have a permanent U.S. Army presence. News of this initiative emerged this past spring, but it appears to have gathered momentum when Polish President Andrzej Duda met with Donald Trump in September. He sweetened the deal by offering both naming rights and a $2 billion contribution towards the base’s construction.

Poland’s request has stirred debate. We stand on one side of the issue. In a recent article for Defense One, we offer four reasons a permanent U.S. presence in Poland makes sense. First, it enhances deterrence by credibly demonstrating that the United States has combat capability and skin in the game. Second, it helps U.S. and NATO forces overcome the Russian anti-access challenge. Third, it does a better job of signaling long-term commitment than a rotational presence, which is far easier to “turn off.” And fourth, it demonstrates that Washington is serious about helping allies that help themselves. We also suggest that the United States should tailor any permanent presence to address Poland’s unique situation. A massive, Cold War-era base is inappropriate. To manage important escalation risks and to blunt the anti-access threat, the United States should send modest numbers of air and missile defense units to Poland rather than the armored units that have previously been proposed. Such units are more clearly defensive and therefore less provocative while also being more useful against long-range weapons than a division headquarters or another brigade combat team. To improve prospects for survivability, we suggest dispersing any permanent presence across a number of hardened “mini-bases.”

On the other side of the debate, critics raise several reasonable concerns. Michael Fitzsimmons warns that a permanent U.S. military presence rewards the Polish government for its illiberal policies at home. Willis Krumholz worries that a U.S. base in Poland will be costly and escalatory. In an essay for War on the Rocks, Michael Kofman suggests that a permanent U.S. presence is militarily unnecessary and strategically dangerous.

Kofman tackles our arguments most directly. His critique boils down to three points. First, he suggests that we inflate the threat that Russia poses to Poland and the wider Baltic region. From his perspective, a permanent U.S. presence is unnecessary because Russia has no interest in invading. Second, he argues that we overlook changes in Russia’s warfighting doctrine. In essence, even if Putin orders an invasion, Russian forces both “hold a lot of advantages in land warfare near its border,” and plan to fight using “long-range standoff munitions, information-driven operations, and the application of decisive aerospace power.” Third, Kofman contends that a permanent presence will create a security dilemma that “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.”

Agreeing to Agree: Threat Inflation and a Cold War Posture Make No Sense

A danger exists in framing this debate as an all or nothing choice. Kofman’s position and the one we advocate are not mutually exclusive. The United States does not have to choose between stoking Russian fears by surrounding Kaliningrad with tens of thousands of U.S. troops and acquiescing to Russian aggression by retreating to Fortress America. Many good policy options exist between these extremes.

For this reason, we must emphasize that we agree with Kofman on many issues. We share the view that a large U.S. military footprint in Poland is undesirable and counterproductive. Kofman acknowledges that we “agree that a division in Poland makes no sense.” A Cold-War-sized garrison is inappropriate since no large invasion force sits directly across the border, as was the case in East Germany during the Cold War or in North Korea today. We also agree, albeit for different reasons, that worries about the so-called Suwałki Gap — NATO’s singular land bridge connecting Poland and the Baltic countries — are overstated. Any Russian attempt to close the gap would be so profoundly escalatory that it would likely galvanize NATO and provide it with a legal and ethical justification to strike Russian assets in Kaliningrad or even Belarus. And like Kofman, we think fears of a so-called “snap” invasion are overstated since, contrary to a widely circulated RAND report, Russia cannot conquer NATO allies within 72 hours.

Agreeing to Disagree: Marginal Costs and Benefits

Kofman is not calling for the United States to withdraw completely from Poland. He appears to believe that the existing rotational forces are necessary and sufficient. Kofman instead questions the marginal costs and benefits of shifting from a relatively small rotational presence to a larger, permanent one. Specifically, he thinks that the costs of a permanent base in Poland vastly exceed its benefits. Here is where our disagreement begins.

Kofman’s cost-benefit analysis is based on a mix of unfounded hope and undue hopelessness. It is hopeful because he sees Russia as harboring relatively benign intentions toward Poland and the Baltic region: Russia will not attack, because it has no interest in doing so. Yet he also sees the situation as hopeless. He admits that if he is wrong about Russian intentions and it does invade, then it will take advantage of its proximity, sizable ground force, airpower, and long-range missiles to sweep through any conceivable U.S. garrison. These assumptions lead him to conclude that a permanent U.S. base is all cost and no benefit. It is, at best, unnecessary. It will, at worst, provoke Russia into doing the thing we fear the most. And because Russia holds all of the military cards, it will quickly overwhelm U.S. and NATO forces in any case. And so why accept the inevitable risks associated with building a base in Poland? After all, a new U.S. base will sow discord within the alliance and possibly allow Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to drag the United States into a war against its will.

Fortunately, the situation is neither as dire nor as paradoxical as Kofman’s analysis suggests. His assessment overstates costs by taking a decidedly one-sided view of Russian intentions. It understates the benefits by conflating deterrence with defense, thereby fixating on tactics while downplaying politics.

Cost Inflation

We agree that the United States and NATO should be sensitive about exacerbating a security dilemma. Deterrence measures must not provoke the very types of aggression they are designed to deter. Unfortunately, Kofman overplays the spiral escalation dynamics at play.

Whether NATO and Russia are even in a security dilemma is debatable. Security dilemmas emerge from assessments of geography, military policies and weapons acquisitions. However, the frictions that exist between NATO and Russia are based on deeper political factors. Which political factors are important admittedly depends in part on personal opinion. Some will explain Russian grievances by pointing to promises allegedly made about NATO expansion. Others will suggest that Russia has historically aspired to dominate its neighbors, whether through territorial acquisition or indirect political influence.

Even the two of us disagree in our private judgments of Russian intentions. One of us believes that Russia is revisionist. The other is convinced it is defensive. Accordingly, in our forthcoming Strategic Studies Institute monograph, we acknowledge that fundamental uncertainty exists as to the true nature of Russian intentions. They could be defensive or offensive, and its record of behavior may be explicable on both counts. For example, Russia could have purely defensive motives and still be aggressive abroad if it judges that — rightly or wrongly — its options are all bad and its security situation is deteriorating. Just because an actor is defensive does not mean that it will act like a responsible stakeholder. Conversely, revisionist actors have powerful incentives to misrepresent themselves as defenders of the status quo.

Since intentions are ultimately unknowable, perception is reality. Russia’s neighbors are justifiably frightened by its behavior. Kofman dismisses their concerns, suggesting that because “there is no massive expansion of Russia’s military footprint in Kaliningrad or St. Petersburg,” there is “no cause for urgency to add forces to Eastern Europe.”

Kofman is mistaken. States rightfully base their threat assessments on more than just how many troops are massed on their border. Poland and the three Baltic countries are justified in being wary about Russia’s long-term ambitions. Russia illegally annexed Crimea from Ukraine. It is waging a war in eastern Ukraine through proxies and has increased Baltic airspace violations, stepped up disinformation campaigns, misrepresented its military exercises, and even engaged in nuclear signaling. Kaliningrad, which borders Poland, has seen extensive militarization in recent years, though arguably to update old and outdated weaponry. Russian officials purportedly told Secretary of Defense James Mattis that “if there was a war in the Baltics, Russia would not hesitate to use tactical nuclear weapons against NATO.” Russia has issued even less ambiguous nuclear threats against the Nordic countries.

NATO and the United States should not wait for a crisis to erupt before expanding its military presence along NATO’s northeastern flank. It takes time to build military infrastructure and to negotiate the legal basis for a permanent garrison, especially for the sort of hardened and dispersed posture we suggest. Nor is it sufficient for the United States to increase the number of troops it has in Germany and to expect to send them into Poland or elsewhere in a crisis. Such a posture has at least three drawbacks. First, rapidly deployable forces will lack hardened, dispersed positions that might otherwise improve their ability to survive if the crisis escalates into a conflict. Second, rapidly deployable units will be far less familiar with the terrain they are defending, and the Polish units they are fighting alongside, than permanent personnel. Third, if U.S. policymakers are genuinely worried about inadvertent escalation, then a crisis is the worst possible time to deploy additional forces. The more proactive Washington is about establishing a permanent presence in Poland, the more steps it can take to mitigate the threat of unwanted escalation.

Of course, any new U.S. military footprint in Poland will irritate Moscow. For this reason, we oppose establishing a large military presence on Russia’s borders or matching Russia’s Western Military District capability for capability in the Baltic region. However, if a permanent U.S. presence of the sort we describe is unnecessary, because Russian forces could sweep it aside, then it cannot also be dangerous. Russia cannot rationally assess that its “advantages in land warfare” suddenly disappear if rotating troops become permanent. Similarly, Russia also cannot credibly claim that the military presence we propose is a threat to its security. After all, a U.S. permanent presence that is too small to defend effectively is definitely too small to launch an attack. Nevertheless, the United States should do what it can to avoid playing into Russian rhetoric. Washington can manage the marginal costs of expanding its presence. It can send modest numbers of air and tactical missile defense units to Poland. And it can disperse these units so as to make them both more survivable and clearly less useful as staging points for an attack. These steps should help reduce Russian concerns that the United States harbors offensive intentions.

Benefit Reduction

Kofman’s analysis also minimizes the potential benefits associated with a permanent U.S. base in Poland. First, he overstates the degree to which airpower and long-range weapons will allow Russia to neutralize and to circumvent NATO ground forces in a potential conflict. He contends that Russia could use information, cyber, long-range strike, and air operations to thwart any reasonably sized permanent ground presence.

However, by implication, the United States should thus use the same capabilities to deter Russia. In Kofman’s telling, it is as if a future war in the Baltic region will become wholly untethered from the ground over which it is fought. Scholars, pundits, and analysts have been making such arguments for generations. The ability to use airpower and long-range strikes to overwhelm ground-based defenses has been overstated thus far, and ground forces are likely to remain a critical part of any defensive posture for the foreseeable future.

After all, only ground troops can occupy and control territory. The most sophisticated weaponry in the world will not help Russia seize territory without using ground forces. Since people in Poland and the Baltic region still live on land, Russia must use ground troops to invade, to occupy, and to pacify. Russia cannot sit back and use artillery, missiles and airpower to “blast” NATO ground forces into oblivion before dispatching its army. Ground troops have the ultimate defense against such techniques: they can disperse and entrench. If they have sufficient numbers, they can force Russia to expose and to exhaust its finite arsenal of long-range missiles and attack aircraft. Moreover, ground forces can be equipped and trained to hit targets in the air, at sea, and in cyberspace. We admit that the U.S. Army and Marine Corps need to be more aggressive about embracing missile, air, and costal defense missions. Nevertheless they are moving in the right direction with the U.S. Army’s Futures Command and their work on multi-domain operations.

Second, Kofman’s analysis conflates deterrence with defense. He assumes that a permanent U.S. force in Poland will not enhance deterrence-by-denial because it will be too small to defend against an invasion. The implication is that effective deterrence-by-denial depends on watertight defense. To be sure, this mistake is easy to make but the distinction between defense and deterrence is important. As Thomas Schelling writes, “if the object, and the only hope, is to resist successfully, so that the enemy cannot succeed even if he tries, we can call it pure defense. If the object is to induce him not to proceed, by making his encroachment painful or costly, we can call it a ‘coercive’ or ‘deterrent’ defense.” The difference between deterrence and defense is why we think the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations is wrong to ban the term anti-access/area denial (A2/AD). That Russia and China cannot use their long-range weapons to create an impenetrable bubble does not matter. Their goal is to deter, not to defend. Russia and China are right to think that the prospect of losing an aircraft carrier or a troop transport ship might be sufficient to make the United State hesitate in a crisis.

The same logic applies to a permanent U.S. ground presence in Poland, which we think should take the form of Schelling’s ‘deterrent defense.’ If it is properly dispersed, adequately hardened, and equipped with air and missile defense weapons, then the deterrence improves in two ways: First, the aforementioned A2/AD threat will be minimized. The ability to shoot down long-range missiles and attack aircraft means that if Russia wants to invade it must first amass even larger inventories of such weapons, something NATO can detect and track as an indicator of Russian intentions. In an invasion, Russian planners will need to “waste” long-range strikes and ground attack sorties in attempt to neutralize hardened, dispersed U.S. ground units so as to keep their A2/AD capabilities as potent as possible. This diversion will mean fewer attacks on NATO reinforcements flowing into theater. U.S. air and missile defense units can also help “hold the door open” for follow on forces by shooting long-range missiles and attack aircraft down.

Additionally, air and missile defense units can inflict casualties on the assault troops that Russia must inevitably send into action. As long as they are dispersed in hardened and entrenched defensive positions, U.S. troops will invariably survive the initial wave of air and missile strikes to do so. After all, A2/AD “critics” are right when they say that even advanced long-range precision weapons cannot destroy everything that moves. Admittedly, U.S. Army air and missile defense troops will not be as effective against Russian shock troops as traditional infantry and armor units. But again, their role is not to defend by stopping an attack in its tracks. It is to deter by imposing pain, creating casualties, diverting resources, and slowing operations. Russia’s historical willingness to absorb losses notwithstanding, recent evidence suggests that Russia is becoming increasingly casualty averse.

Finally, Kofman’s fixation with tactical challenges causes him to overlook political opportunities. Ironically, he argues that “U.S. thinking on peer adversaries is scenario-based and very tactical. It is the product of wargames more than strategic thought.” He correctly adds that “if Russian forces chose 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. A battle with forces on rotation will be no less bloody … and no less escalatory.”

Yet this point considers only half of the equation. A permanent presence offers a more credible deterrent against Russia than a rotational force for the reasons we identify above.  Moreover, looking beyond Russia, a U.S. base in Poland also exists to reassure Poland. Polish leaders are not naïve: they know Americans will react just as harshly to the loss of permanently deployed troops as they will to the loss of rotational troops. They just do not know whether those rotational troops will still be in Poland if an invasion were to occur. Poland knows the United States is focused on the region right now, but it also knows that priorities change. Stopping a rotational deployment is easier than closing down a base. Thanks to its geographical proximity, Russia could simply wait for the United States to end its rotational deployment program — perhaps due to more urgent requirements in Asia —before stepping up its aggression towards Poland and other NATO allies.

The Politics of Alliance Management

Some worry that a permanent base in Poland will damage NATO cohesion. Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges publicly argued as much, although he later clarified his position by stating that he did not oppose a permanent base per se since “the burden should be on the US to do this, to bring along the allies, not do a bilateral decision.” We agree with this normative statement: In an ideal world, all NATO members should be involved in stationing a permanent presence in Poland. Doing so would spread risk, demonstrate alliance resolve, and reduce pressure on the United States and NATO to convey their commitments should a future crisis break out.

Yet the fact remains that NATO is already divided over the threat posed by Russia or the desirability of U.S. military support. Some allies are worried that any permanent military presence will deal a death blow to the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, which promised no “additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces” on the territories of the Alliance’s newer members. Other allies — particularly those distant from Russia’s borders — doubt that Moscow truly harbors revisionist intentions. Poland and its Baltic neighbors face an unfortunate choice: Pay lip-service to the Founding Act and appease allies at the detriment of their security, or work around the agreement by pursuing complementary arrangements with partners like the United States at the risk of alienating some allies. Warsaw cannot be faulted for choosing one bad choice over another. Besides, all the permanent U.S. and U.K. forces that have been forward deployed in Germany are there because of bilateral arrangements of the sort that President Duda is seeking. As John Deni writes, if Poland wishes to host German, U.S., U.K., French, or other allied forces on its territory, it must take up the issue with those states directly.”

And indeed, Kofman’s policy preference could well exacerbate the divisions he wishes to avoid. He accepts that “the United States does need more forces in Europe with capabilities relevant to deterring Russia,” but he thinks those forces should not be in Poland or the Baltic region. In other words, he wants to give even more security to the allies that are already geographically buffered from Russia; have a permanent U.S. presence; or, like Germany, enjoy both. Rightly or wrongly, Kofman’s proposal will feed perceptions in Poland and the Baltic states that NATO is using them as a buffer.

Another worry is that of entrapment — that is, the worry that a stronger security commitment to an ally would make it behave more aggressive than it would otherwise. We agree that the United States should not provide Poland — or any of its security partners for that matter — with a blank check. Entrapment is a valid, though tractable, concern. U.S. leaders have learned from history and knows how to structure its security guarantees so as to reduce the risk of being dragged into a war it does not want. Additionally, U.S. policymakers should be careful not to overstate the degree to which a permanent presence increases the risk of entrapment. Poland is already a NATO ally. The United States has a rotational presence in the region. A permanent base does not appreciably increase the risk of entrapment above and beyond those risks that the United States has already agreed to accept.

Some critics are concerned that a military presence would embolden Poland’s current government, which some accuse of illiberal tendencies. U.S. policymakers cannot ignore this possibility. Still, one must ask whether the United States will be more able to exert more influence over Polish democracy by becoming less involved in its affairs. If anything, a permanent presence increases U.S. leverage over Poland. Moreover, a permanent base means that the U.S. Army will have personnel who spend far more time immersed in Polish language and culture than will be the case with a rotational presence. More U.S. military and government personnel will understand and follow Polish politics, giving the United States early warning about important shifts in local conditions and a deeper understanding of the complexity that is Polish domestic politics. Indeed, by living and working there, permanently stationed U.S. personnel can operate more effectively than those living there for just months at a time.

Our vision for a permanent U.S. military presence in Poland threads the needle between assurance and deterrence. It also keeps in mind the risks emanating from both Poland and Russia. In charting American military strategy, we have to clearly understand and carefully balance Russia’s threat perceptions with those of the United States’ frontline allies, treating each with the seriousness they deserve. A U.S. permanent presence in Poland is neither costless nor risk-free, but the benefits can certainly outweigh the costs and risks if it is designed right.


Michael A. Hunzeker (@MichaelHunzeker) is an assistant professor at George Mason Universitys Schar School of Policy and Government and is the associate director of the schools Center for Security Policy Studies. He is served as an active duty Marine Corps officer from 2000 to 2006.

Alexander Lanoszka (@ALanoszka, website) is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and fellow of the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo. He is also an Honorary Fellow at City, University of London.

Image: U.S. Army Spc. Aaron Good