war on the rocks

Revise and Resubmit: An Unconvincing Proposal for Permanent U.S. Troops in Poland

November 1, 2018

As I discussed in my last article on the topic, earlier this year it came to light that the Polish Ministry of National Defence had submitted a proposal to the Trump administration seeking a permanently based U.S. armored division in Poland. A recent visit to Washington, by Polish President Andrzej Duda, garnered considerable media attention, as he offered to contribute $1.5–$2 billion for construction, and even to call it “Fort Trump.” Understandably, the latter part of this offer had intrinsic appeal in a White House, but the overall reception for Poland’s idea has been mixed at best.

Oscar Wilde once wrote, “there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Poland’s idea has not suffered that latter fate. While some political commentators thought it potentially a worthwhile idea, it was criticized by former U.S. Army Europe commander Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, Michael Fitzsimmons, and — more recently — myself. Michael Hunzeker and Alex Lanoszka, though equally skeptical of basing a U.S. division in Poland, have sought to make a case for why permanently basing U.S. forces in Poland might make sense in both Defense One and War on the Rocks. It has been a debate worth having, and Poland is better off for not having its proposal ignored.

The crux of my argument remains that a U.S. division on Poland’s borders will not positively contribute to deterrence, has little relevance to a prospective war with Russia — given the current character of war, and is unnecessary when considering Russian force posture (i.e. the threat is quite real but hardly imminent). Furthermore, it is more likely to generate a security dilemma that will not work to NATO’s advantage, given current force structure availability and spending, while generating a host of additional problems in alliance politics.

Hunzeker and Lanoszka concede the essence of the problem, and seek to rewrite Warsaw’s proposal, which none of us believe makes sense as submitted, in order to make a defensible argument for a permanent U.S. presence in Poland. The debate reflects that, at best, Poland should be told to revise and resubmit if it intends for the United States to seriously consider permanently basing additional forces there. I remain convinced that the United States has gone above and beyond with respect to the security needs of its eastern allies, including billions in spending, rotational units, prepositioned equipment, and large military exercises. Poland is already getting a permanent American military presence with the AEGIS Ashore missile defense system that is currently under construction on its territory. U.S. forces derive practical benefits from rotating through Europe, and such costly deployments make for better deterrence signaling than seeking cost savings in forward basing. As such, an additional permanent U.S. presence beyond existing activity is simply unnecessary largesse and will contribute little in terms of defense, deterrence, or assurance.

However, I recognize that a permanent U.S. presence is not unnecessary for Poland, and arguing on the basis of facts or theory is in many respects missing the point of what is in essence a political decision. Originally from eastern Europe myself, I understand that the Polish proposal is fundamentally rooted in concerns that western Europeans won’t fight for them, and that without permanently based American forces, Poles will feel as second-class citizens within the alliance. These are deep-seated perceptions that date far back into the inter-war period of the 20th century, and French unwillingness to follow through with the terms of their military pact when Germany and the Soviet Union invaded in 1939. One cannot blame Poland, given German attitude surveys suggest a low willingness to defend allies against Russia.

That said, I’m uncertain that America can, or should, serve as an unlicensed therapist for the trauma caused by centuries of history that plague Europe. The task seems Sisyphean in nature, and Washington has plenty of challenges beyond just NATO’s eastern flank. Policymakers should ask themselves: Can a permanent U.S. presence truly cure these ills in Poland — or the Baltics? Is there to be an American solution for every European problem? At the end of the day, Europe should be a European project more than an American one. American tanks or missiles should not be the answer to every problem in alliance cohesion, European unwillingness to spend more on defense, or the ghosts of 20th century European history.

I stand by my earlier critique that an armored division in Poland, as envisioned by the Polish Ministry of National Defense, is an answer to a question that’s not being asked. Warsaw’s question is about something else, and, despite its lack of strategic or military merit, the issue should be considered on political grounds. Of course, requesting an entire division is not a tactful way to redress what are principally political concerns, but given the good will in the Trump administration toward Poland, it is no surprise Warsaw sought to capitalize on the moment. Polish leadership should lay out a more sensible request, asking for a tailored U.S. military presence that positively contributes air defense, land-based fires, logistics, or something else that adds value to the forces already based in Europe. Perhaps “Trump logistical support activity” doesn’t have the same ring to it, but it might get Poland closer to what they want.

Poland’s proposal is at its core about politics, and if  Washington is going to make force posture decisions on the basis of politics, in place of military strategy, we will struggle to find the right balance between NATO being a political alliance and an actual military alliance. The United States should also prepare for the inevitable waterfall of demands for additional military presence from other NATO members that, at the very least, will not wish to feel like second-class citizens compared to Poland. The unintended consequences of making military decisions on the basis of their potential “political benefits” will be to encourage rent-seeking behavior among allies.

With respect to arguments made by Hunzeker and Lanoszka, who took considerable pains to write a rebuttal to my earlier article, I would be remiss not to offer at least some response. In my view, their article offers some of the best-intentioned, but still commonly made, mistakes in thinking about the implications of a conflict with Russia and how best to deter such a war. They seek to mentally wargame a skirmish between Russia and NATO to derive strategic implications on the basis of an imagined fight with a Russia, and a way of warfare, which I simply do not recognize. I find their understanding of what a war with Russia might look like, the character of modern warfare itself, and the nature of deterrence perplexing. In my view, it constitutes an alternate reality that is unlikely to be bridged by ink.

A war with Russia would a theater-wide and potentially intercontinental conflict. Its initial phase would primarily be a contest between NATO airpower and Russian integrated air defense. Events on land would be Russia’s casus belli, but not necessarily the political objective of the conflict. The line of contact could be anywhere: Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Norway, or all of the above. Ultimately, we should envision a war that spans hundreds to thousands of kilometers. Hence, the “terrain” encompasses at the very least eastern, central, and northern Europe. And that’s without talking about Asia. Air, space, and information will be the most decisive domains, determining how quickly a limited conventional war results in nuclear escalation. The war may begin any number of ways, but most likely as a crisis where Russian forces cross some parcel of a NATO member’s territory, and Moscow challenges the alliance to do something about it. Options to avoid a limited conventional war rapidly foreclose after those decisions are made.

The rest of Hunzeker and Lanoszkas’ views are immaterial to their overall position. They admit that “a large U.S. military footprint in Poland is undesirable and counterproductive… 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.” They also admit that NATO fixates too much on the Suwalki Gap, and that fears of a Russian snap invasion are “overstated.” Therefore, Hunzeker and Lanoszka agree with most of my arguments for why the United States should not base a division in Poland, concurring that it “makes no sense.”

Instead of Poland’s armored division, they propose sending “modest numbers of air and missile defense units,” which would be dispersed into hardened mini-bases. It’s unclear what “hardened mini-bases” might look like in real life, whether this is a feasible way to deploy forces, and if the construct is anything more than a vehicle to answer Poland’s political needs. However, they expend several pages to debate against many of their own points, in pursuit of an intellectual exercise to rationalize the permanent base they equally oppose. Since their rebuttal expends considerable energy to argue against itself, it would be unfair to pile on to what is already a two-sided battle.

With so much in agreement, there is little point in further debating Poland’s proposal, as the main policy difference is simply between just giving Poland something, and not giving Poland something, when both sides agree that Poland doesn’t need, and should not get, what it asked for. Hopefully, the discussion has shed light on the matter instead of simply adding heat. I agree with Hunzeker and Lanoszkas’s sentiment that our positions “are not mutually exclusive” and that “many good policy options exist between these extremes.” Yet, it is hard for me to look at post-Cold War history and be confident that Washington will choose one of those many good policy options.

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: Sgt. A.M. LaVey