Foreign Policy Essay

Drawing the Line on U.S. Reassurance to Eastern Europe

By Sara Bjerg Moller
Sunday, January 6, 2019, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: The United States is considering deploying permanent forces to Poland to signal the U.S. security commitment to that country. Such a move would be a massive strategic shift and one that raises many questions. Sara Bjerg Moller of Seton Hall assesses this move and argues that the deployment would not solve Poland's fundamental security problems but would create risks for the United States.

Daniel Byman

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After quietly studying the issue since 2014, the U.S. Department of Defense began writing a congressionally-mandated report late last year on whether to establish a U.S. Army base in Poland. In September 2018, the media caught wind of Warsaw’s proposal to host a permanent U.S. military presence on its territory after Polish President Andrzej Duda offered to contribute $2 billion towards the construction of a U.S. military base and name it after President Donald Trump. Despite its potential to fundamentally reshape Washington’s and NATO’s military strategy toward Russia, the Pentagon study has garnered relatively little attention so far. If the Defense Department recommends accepting the Polish government’s offer, it will mark the first permanent buildup of U.S. forces in Europe since the Cold War. That alone would be a significant development worthy of Americans’ attention. But the study—which is due to Congress by March 2019—could also send a signal about the future direction of U.S. national defense strategy, more broadly.

Although a decision to permanently deploy U.S. troops to Poland may seem improbable to many Trump-watchers owing to the president’s hostility toward NATO and his recent decision to withdraw troops from Syria, such a move would be in line with Trump’s views about alliances. Since emerging on the political stage four years ago, Trump has repeatedly shown himself to be much more comfortable with an alliance system organized around transactional, pay-to-play relationships, rather than common values and ideals. His remarks last month regarding the withdrawal from Syria are as apt a formulation of the Trump Doctrine as any yet proffered by administration officials: “If they want us to do the fighting, they also have to pay a price—and sometimes that’s also a monetary price—so we’re not the suckers of the world.” Lured by the promise of Polish zlotys, the White House is reportedly already on board with sending more U.S. troops to Poland. However, establishing a permanent U.S. military presence in Poland would be a strategic mistake.

 

Balancing Responsiveness with Permanence

While Poland has asked for a U.S. armored division, the Pentagon is reportedly instead considering permanently stationing an armored brigade combat team in the country. Such a move would mark a significant departure from current U.S. and NATO military strategy toward Russia.

Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and amid emerging security challenges in the Middle East and North Africa in 2014, NATO leaders at the Wales Summit adopted the Readiness Action Plan (RAP), a comprehensive package of enhanced collective defense and deterrent measures designed to ensure the transatlantic alliance could respond swiftly and firmly to changes in its security environment. One of the key features of the plan entailed adapting the NATO Force Structure, the pool of forces and headquarters placed at the Alliance’s disposal on a temporary or permanent basis. In tailoring the NATO conventional force posture to meet these new threats and challenges, Alliance planners deliberately sought to balance force responsiveness and permanence.

As part of this new strategy, NATO created the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), a rapidly deployable multinational brigade supported by air, maritime, and Special Forces designed to be the ‘spearhead’ of the NATO Response Force. To reassure worried NATO allies in Eastern Europe and further strengthen deterrence against Russia, the Alliance also decided to enhance air and maritime policing efforts and conduct more military exercises along its eastern border. At the Warsaw Summit in 2016, the Alliance followed up on these deterrent measures with Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP), four battalion-sized battlegroups forward stationed in Poland and the Baltic States. Led by the United States, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom, the eFP brigade currently has troop contributions from 20 NATO countries.

As the lead nation for the NATO eFP battlegroup in Poland, the United States has continuously maintained a Stryker squadron (some 800 troops) on Polish territory since 2017. In addition to these forces, the U.S. military also maintains an Army armored brigade combat team (some 3,300 personnel), Mission Command Element headquarters, as well as elements from an aviation brigade and sustainment task force in Poland. The latter are part of Atlantic Resolve, a U.S. military operation designed to reassure Eastern European countries which is independent of ongoing NATO deterrence efforts in Eastern Europe.

Those in favor of a permanent U.S. military presence in Poland argue that because current U.S. military contributions are based on “rotational deployments [that] are easy to end” this somehow cheapens their deterrent effect. In order to credibly demonstrate the United States is serious about defending its Eastern European allies against Russia, Washington needs to demonstrate it has “combat capability and skin in the game.” Nothing short of a permanent U.S. presence in Poland, proponents claim, will convince Warsaw (and Moscow) that the United States is truly committed to the defense of the region.

There are at least three major flaws with this line of reasoning. First, the United States, along with its NATO allies, already have combat capability and ‘skin in the game,’ as evidenced by the Atlantic Resolve and eFP activities described above. The NATO eFP battlegroups are more than just trip wires; they are the leading element of the Alliance’s deterrence-by-denial strategy. In the event of a Russian incursion attempt, NATO forces are ready to “Fight Tonight” to retaliate and inflict pain.

Second, the idea that these rotational deployments can be easily halted fundamentally mischaracterizes the scale of the commitment the Alliance has made to Eastern Europe in the last five years. This past July, Canada—which has led the eFP battlegroup in Latvia since its creation two years ago—announced it will continue to do so until at least 2023. As part of their persistent presence, the Canadians have prepositioned equipment in Europe for the first time in five decades. Other NATO members are also prepositioning equipment and making investment decisions which are correspondingly suggestive of a longer-term commitment to Eastern European countries.

Third, focusing only on combat units ignores the many other ways the Alliance has sought to improve deterrence and collective defense capabilities along its Eastern flank since 2014. While several of NATO’s adaptation measures were directed at improving responsiveness and flexibility, Alliance military authorities deliberately introduced an element of permanence in the new force structure as well. Among the measures taken by the Alliance since 2014 are the establishment of eight NATO Force Integration Units (NFIUs) designed to facilitate the rapid deployment of NATO Response Forces in the East and Southeast. Tasked with assisting with the Reception, Staging, Onward-Movement and Integration (RSOMI) of forces, the NFIUs serve as the link between a host nation and the NATO Force Structure in peacetime as well as in a prospective crisis.

Along with establishing the NFIUs, NATO increased the graduated readiness level of the Multinational Corps Northeast (MNC-NE) Headquarters, the Poland-based operational headquarters responsible for the eFP brigade and, in the event of its deployment, possibly the VJTF. The Alliance has also created two new division-level headquarters to help coordinate and supervise training and preparation activities for the eFP battlegroups. The first of these new division headquarters—Multinational Division Northeast (MND-NE)—is located in Elblag, Poland, and was certified as a high-readiness headquarters in December 2018. The second divisional headquarters will be located in Adazi, Latvia, and is expected to achieve full operational capability in 2019. The creation of these new headquarters is further evidence of the Alliance’s commitment to Eastern Europe.

 

Déjà Vu?

The notion that Warsaw’s security concerns can be satisfied if only the United States deploys more combat troops betrays seven decades of Alliance experience by suggesting Polish fears of abandonment can be overcome. The truth is that even an entire U.S. armored division probably would not be enough to convince Eastern Europe that the United States is committed to its defense, for the same reason that 250,000 American troops during the Cold War were not enough to convince Western Europe. Poland’s then-defense minister, Antoni Macierrewicz, publicly admitted as much just last year when he acknowledged that his government would only “feel calm” once there were two U.S. divisions in Poland.

Like Western Germany in the Cold War, Poland is trying to solve a problem that cannot be solved: geography. No amount of U.S. troops will change the fact that Poland borders Russian territory. As one European official recently put it, joining NATO doesn’t mean you get to leave your neighborhood. 
Before agreeing to establish a permanent U.S. military presence in Poland, U.S. defense officials should ask themselves what they think they need to deter in Eastern Europe that can’t already be deterred with the existing U.S. and NATO capabilities already there. If their answer involves the so-called ‘grey zone’ or non-linear operations and disinformation campaigns that Moscow has been conducting of late, it’s hard to see how more U.S. troops in Poland are the right solution. Deterring those challenges will require more than military measures.

Since 2014, the transatlantic alliance has made significant strides in adapting its force structure to credibly communicate to Moscow that any Russian military incursion into Poland or the Baltics will be met with a forceful response. Although the Alliance is presently divided over the severity of the threat Moscow poses, Poland is not the only NATO member that has asked for more U.S. troops. Sooner or later (and probably sooner), the U.S. military will be unable to meet all of these troop requests. Instead of unilateral American troop contributions, the Pentagon would be better off continuing to work with NATO Allies to craft a deterrence strategy that is not only credible but also cohesive.

 
The “Grand” Strategy Thing

Along with claiming that “permanent forces provide a much greater deterrence value than rotational troops,” advocates argue it is less demanding on the force structure. However, others contend that rotational deployments reduce the turbulence associated with having to uproot personnel and families every three years by curtailing the number of permanent changes of station (PCS). In truth, both deployment types have strengths and weaknesses, which is why the U.S. Army currently maintains both kinds of forces in Europe and should continue to do so.

A final argument cited by those in favor of permanently forward-basing U.S. troops in Eastern Europe is cost. Supporters point to a prominent 2017 Army War College study which concluded that forward-stationing troops in Europe and Korea is more affordable than rotational deployments. More than just dollars and cents are at stake, however. Whether the U.S. military should permanently station troops in Poland (or elsewhere in Eastern Europe) or continue to rely on “heel to toe” rotational deployments is a strategic question of the highest importance which could end up having significant implications for U.S. national defense beyond the next decade.

The U.S. national-security establishment is presently at a crossroads for how to commit resources to counter threats from Russia versus China, the two long-term strategic competitors identified as the principal priorities in the latest National Defense Strategy. While Russia is seen by some as posing an immediate-to-near term military threat to the United States and its allies, China’s great-power ascendance is viewed as more dangerous in the long term, requiring Pentagon planners to balance capability considerations with temporal trends when making force posture and budgetary decisions.

The current geopolitical moment thus poses a virtually unparalleled strategic problem for the United States, a country which for most of its history has had the luxury of having to face at most one near-peer adversary at a time. Whether Russia is indeed a near-peer competitor to the United States in military terms is debatable. Yet because building a U.S. military facility abroad represents a multi-year/multi-billion dollar commitment, and the U.S. Army presently has no armored brigade combat teams (let alone a division) to spare, a Pentagon recommendation to permanently station troops in Eastern Europe would be another indication that senior U.S. military leaders now view Russia as a military threat on par with China, rather than the declining regional power it is.

Of course, the fact that Russia is a declining power does not mean it does not pose a threat to U.S. national interests. But Moscow knows it can’t match U.S. military power symmetrically, and for this reason it is likely to continue to rely on asymmetrical responses, including efforts aimed at destabilizing Western governments. To deter and defend against those challenges, the West will need to rely on non-military measures as well as military ones. Permanently stationing U.S. combat units in Poland is not only the wrong remedy, it risks misdiagnosing the real disease.