Poland, which has acquired F-16 fighter jets, wants a stronger NATO presence in Europe (Polish Ministry of Defense)
WASHINGTON — The NATO alliance should focus on its historic mission of deterring Russian aggression in Europe as members wrap up their mission in Afghanistan, Poland’s defense minister said.
NATO members need to properly fund their militaries at “the level of defense spending that would guarantee that capabilities would grow and not deteriorate,” Tomasz Siemoniak said during a visit here last week. His comments came as Poland tensely watches the situation escalate in neighboring Ukraine following Russia’s invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea in late February.
“The question [is] about what kind of NATO we are going to have after [Afghanistan]?” Siemoniak said during an April 16 interview with Defense News.
“Paradoxically — because of the crisis [in Ukraine] — we know what NATO we need after [International Security and Assistance Force operations are] completed,” he said. “This is the alliance that performs its traditional role, focusing on the collective defense of its allies.”
NATO’s post-Afghanistan future has been at the forefront during discussions among defense leaders and at major gatherings, including the Munich Security Conference. In Munich, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called on NATO allies to make strategic investments so the alliance is better prepared for a range of global threats.
A post-Afghanistan alliance is expected to be a major agenda item during the September NATO summit in Wales.
Poland has been steadily upgrading its military equipment in recent years, which has allowed it to play a larger role in the alliance.
“As Poland continues to invest in defense and military modernization, the United States will increasingly look to Poland as a leader in the region and in NATO,” Hagel said following a meeting with Siemoniak.
In recent weeks, Siemoniak has met with defense ministers from across Central and Eastern Europe. He held meetings at the Pentagon last week with Hagel, who traveled to Poland for meetings in late January. Russia’s massive buildup of troops on its border with Ukraine has been among the top agenda items at these recent meetings.
The acquisition of 48 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets has allowed Poland to play a key deterrence role in recent weeks. After Russia’s invasion of the Crimean peninsula, the US sent a dozen F-16s to Poland in early March. Ten US Air Force airmen are based at Lask Air Base, home to Poland’s F-16 fleet.
“Minister Siemoniak and I agreed that it would be useful to open up the aviation detachment so that other nations in the region can participate,” Hagel said. “One example would be Romania, which is the latest NATO member to acquire F-16s. This regionalized approach will help strengthen both Poland and its neighbors.”
Siemoniak called for a larger US and NATO military presence in Poland. “In the longer-term perspective, what we would like to see very much in Poland is the development of NATO and American infrastructure, and an increasing military presence of both the US and NATO in our country.”
As many countries across Europe slash defense budgets, Poland’s military spending has increased 25 percent, Siemoniak said. As the alliance focused on operations in Afghanistan and Africa, there has been a sense across Europe that “traditional threats” no longer existed, Siemoniak said
“But it turned out to be a false statement and history reminded Europe about itself,” he said.
Over the past 10 years, Poland has invested heavily in its Air Force, buying the F-16 fighters, five Lockheed C-130 cargo planes and 16 Airbus CASA C-295 transports.
Poland is in the middle of a competition to acquire 70 new multirole helicopters. Sikorsky, AgustaWestland and Airbus are competing for the contract, which the Ministry of Defense is expected to award late this year or in early 2015, Siemoniak said.
“It is an incredibly complicated tender,” he said. “Competitors are really very strong. Our expectation is that the production process of the helicopters would be largely based in Poland.”
Poland also wants to purchase combat attack helicopters in the late 2017 or early 2018, time frame, he said.
The Air Force had explored the purchase of aerial refueling aircraft; however, the MoD has decided to back a multinational European Defence Agency program to field tankers.
“We simply came to a conclusion that this capability is too expensive for us, and we don’t have a need to have our own capability at that time,” Siemoniak said.
As for its Army, Poland acquired 119 Leopard 2A5 tanks from Germany last year. Warsaw wants to operate two brigades of these tanks, Siemoniak said. ■