Renewing Polish-US Leadership within NATO [OPINION]

Defence24, By Richard Weitz, 30 May 2017

The Trump administration needs to highlight how well Poland is bearing its collective defence burdens, which underpin the alliance’s Article 5 mutual security guarantee, as a complement to criticizing allies that are falling short. Public praise of exemplary partners could generate positive momentum in other countries seeking favor with the new administration and Congress in Washington – as Richard Weitz is writing for Defence24.

One issue U.S. President Donald Trump invariably raised at the May 25 NATO summit was allied contributions to U.S. security. Poland should welcome such a dialogue given its outsized contributions in this domain. Indeed, the summit, which formally focused on burden-sharing and counterterrorism cooperation, provides an opportunity for Poland and the United States to renew their partnership to strengthen the alliance in coming years.

Even before his inauguration, Trump ceased calling NATO obsolete, demanding the alliance focus on counterterrorism rather than collective defense, or threatening not to fulfill U.S. security guarantees to countries that he saw as failing to meet their transatlantic defence requirements. Under the current administration, the United States has continued plans and programs under U.S. Operation Atlantic Resolve, endorsed by the July 2016 Warsaw Summit, to strengthen the U.S. military presence in Europe, including for the first time establishing an enhanced and enduring U.S. Army presence in Poland as part of the European Reassurance Initiative.

Nonetheless, the U.S. President has made clear to various European leaders visiting the White House that he is dissatisfied with the overall imbalance in transatlantic defence spending.  Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and other U.S. national security leaders have amplified how having the United States account for some three-fourths of all NATO defence spending undermines the long-term foundations of the alliance.

Of course, Poland need not fear a transatlantic dialogue focused on capabilities and contributions, especially when burden sharing is properly interpreted in operational as well as financial terms. Not only is Poland one of the few countries that regularly meet NATO guidelines for spending two percent of national GDP in defense, but Poland routinely supports U.S. international security programs and strives to make Polish capabilities compatible with those of the U.S. military. Polish leaders insist that their country is a global security provider.

Last December, the Defence Ministry announced that Poland would spend more than $14 billion on new weaponry in the next five years. The procurement priorities include unmanned systems and helicopters, surface and sub-surface naval assets, cyber defences, and building one of the best high-tech national air-and-missile defense networks in the world. This budget boost will provide new niche capabilities to NATO and opportunities for Polish, U.S., and other defence industrial partners. Polish-U.S. contracts under negotiation provide for extensive work-share arrangements, technology transfer, and opportunities for joint sales to third parties.

The new Concept of Defence of the Republic of Poland, announced on May 23, establishes the goals of enhancing the country’s self-defense assets, deepening ties with Poland’s main security partner, the United States, and bolstering Poland’s role in NATO and EU collective defence efforts. The Concept thereby builds on Poland’s pivotal role linking the EU with NATO, specifically the Baltic-Scandinavian regions with transatlantic security partners, above all the United States. The new U.S. administration benefits from Polish insights on how to build better NATO-EU ties even as the organization, mission, and capabilities of the two organizations are in flux. Of imminent joint concern, the departure of the United Kingdom from the Union deprives Poland and the United States of their closest partner within the EU.

The Concept’s viewpoint, seen also in Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski’s speech at last year’s Wrocław Global Forum, is multi-directional, addressing potential threats from Russia, North Africa, and the Middle East. Besides meeting long-standing concerns about territorial and collective defence, Poles have courageously placed themselves in terrorist cross-hairs by their vigorous support for the U.S.-led counterterrorist operations in Afghanistan and the greater Middle East.

Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski.

For both Poland and the United States, having a robust spectrum of national and alliance capabilities to apply in a range of scenarios is critical given the rapidly evolving international threat environment.From this perspective, the Polish decision to acquire more submarines is noteworthy, since these vessels are mobile platforms that can help Poland with national and regional (Baltic Sea) deterrence as well as contributing to multinational power projection, including overcoming adversary Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2AD) barriers.

Both countries anticipate addressing common external security threats within a multinational context. For example, the acquisition of more submarines and attack helicopters, compatible with NATO and U.S. standards, will provide the capabilities to maintain Polish-U.S. leadership of the Proliferation Security Initiative. Launched at a presidential summit in Kraków at the end of May 2013, the initiative pools national activities to impede the international trafficking of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) related materials, delivery systems, and their components.

A centerpiece of Poland’s security upgrades is its commitment to the so-called Wisla program, the nation’s new and fully modernized integrated air and missile defence system. To complement the expanding U.S. Army presence in the country, and as a testament to Poland’s importance for the United States, Poland has been granted special permission to buy a key component of Wisla, the U.S.-made Integrated Air and Missile defence Battle Command System (IBCS) even before the U.S. Army deploys it. The system will function as the future command, control, and communications system for all U.S. Army air and missile defence assets, integrating the service’s radars, interceptors, and related systems to attain “any-sensor, best-shooter capability.”

In coming years, the Polish and U.S. national defence communities will be tightly tied together as they jointly develop the system’s potential. Among other advantages, the IBCS will allow each unit to protect a larger area, promote synergies among a wider range of systems, and limit wasted interceptors and other costs. In adopting the IBCS, Poland can meet its national defence requirements, such as protecting its planned expanded fleet of attack helicopters from a wider range of threats, while also contributing to Polish-U.S. regional security goals.IBCS supports additional foreign partnerships, cost-saving, and standardization by allowing any country–with appropriate hardware, software, and training—to integrate national air and missile assets with Polish and U.S. systems.

Starting next year, a U.S.-run an Aegis Ashore Ballistic Missile Defence System, which will include SM-3 Block IIA interceptors, will be operational in Poland. This long-range system will help defend Europe’s population and territory, and U.S. forces based there, from future missile threats from Iran or other Middle Eastern countries. Poland has long sought to integrate its air defences with those of NATO. Poland’s acquisition of shorter-range Patriot air-and-missile defence batteries will provide a shield for the SM-3 battery as well as for U.S. and other NATO reinforcements rushing to Poland’s defence in the face of a challenging air and missile threat environment.

Building this robust network of improved air and missile defence will make NATO members such as Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom more comfortable deploying forces in Poland and the Baltic States (the defence of both being inseparable) in peacetime as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence—addressing a concern that allied governments will not sustain these rotations sufficiently long to serve as a credible deterrent to aggression and reassurance to vulnerable partners.

The Trump administration needs to highlight how well Poland is bearing its collective defence burdens, which underpin the alliance’s Article 5 mutual security guarantee, as a complement to criticizing allies that are falling short. Public praise of exemplary partners could generate positive momentum in other countries seeking favor with the new administration and Congress in Washington.

There are likely still different perspectives between Washington and Warsaw regarding the urgency of further NATO membership enlargement, transatlantic trade and investment treaties, and other issues. Still, the NATO summit provides a great opportunity for Poland and the United States to deepen their reciprocal defence cooperation in Europe and beyond.


Richard Weitz is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute. His current research includes regional security developments relating to Europe, Eurasia, and East Asia as well as U.S. foreign and defense policies.

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