Poland’s defense minister is calling for a larger US and NATO military presence in his country to deter the type of Russian aggression occurring in eastern Ukraine.
Tomasz Siemoniak is scheduled to meet with US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday to discuss ways the US military could partner more with Poland at a time when Russia flexes its military muscles on the Crimean Peninsula and near Ukraine.
“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,” Siemoniak told Defense News in an exclusive interview on Wednesday.
During his visit to Washington, Siemoniak said he will focus on the “long-term consequences” of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and the build-up of Russian troops on Ukraine’s eastern border.
Siemoniak said he did not want to focus on the number of troops that could be stationed in Poland and that any troop presence should be organized with the entire NATO alliance in mind.
“Poland is very much interested in increasing the allied American presence in Poland,” Siemoniak said.
“What’s important to us is to cover diverse areas with this presence,” he said. “But Army presence or [an] Army base would be a very visible testimony to the American boots on the Polish ground.”
The minister said he would use his discussions in Washington to “bring us closer to the solution.”
Siemoniak is traveling with a sizable Polish defense delegation. including Chief of Defence Lt. Gen. Mieczyslaw Gocul, for this week’s meetings.
Hagel visited Poland in late January and US Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Poland in March. Siemoniak called those visits a “good foundation for us to develop on.”
Earlier Wednesday, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO secretary general, said the alliance would step-up its air, sea and ground patrols across Eastern Europe in response to Russia’s troop build-up on the Ukrainian border.
“[A]ir policing aircraft will fly more sorties over the Baltic region. Allied ships will deploy to the Baltic Sea, the eastern Mediterranean and elsewhere, as required,” Rasmussen said. “Military staff from allied nations will deploy to enhance our preparedness, training and exercises. Our defense plans will be reviewed and reinforced.”
The number of American troops in Europe has been steadily declining since the end of the Cold War. In the 1980s, more than 350,000 US troops were based on the continent. That number has fallen to under 67,000 today.
“From the military perspective, it does matter how many of American troops are in Europe,” Siemoniak said.
In early 2012, the Pentagon announced that after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would focus more on the Asia-Pacific region. Since that announcement, European allies have been concerned about the move. Pentagon officials have made an effort to stress the US would not abandon its historical allies across Europe and have called for a deepening of military cooperation throughout the region.
Siemoniak said “the physical presence in Eastern Europe now is very much justified” and there are “significant grounds for putting [an] American presence in the eastern regions of Poland.”
Since late 2012, Poland has hosted 10 US Air Force airmen as part of an F-16 and C-130 aviation detachment. The US airmen have helped with training and other tasks associated with operating military aircraft. Poland has 48 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters and five C-130 cargo planes.
The aviation detachment allowed the US to quickly deploy a dozen F-16s to Poland in March following Russia’s invasion of Crimea.
“It allows for a really rapid reception of American support because the American troops in the aviation detachment have a permanent presence [at Lask Air Base],” Siemoniak said. “So there is not [a] problem to receive any additional support immediately.”
The aviation detachment could also help organize exercises with Eastern European nations, Siemoniak noted.
Siemoniak said the aviation detachment is “a very good example that you could work on the basis of rotation, on the basis of flexibility, but at the same time you can be very visible.”
Warsaw and Washington are talking about the “deepening of the F-16 program,” Siemoniak said, noting Poland is acquiring the long-range and stealthy Lockheed Martin Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile for its F-16s.
Despite wanting a larger US and NATO presence in Poland, Warsaw has no plans to decrease its own military activities, the minister said.
“We want to do our part, [a] significant part,” he said. “But if we do it together with the United States it would generate great synergy for security in the whole region.”
Siemoniak also stressed the need to continue the planned US missile defense shield, which has been strongly opposed by Russia. NATO officials say the system is designed to counter medium-range missile that could be launched by Iran and that the system is not technologically capable of shooting down more sophisticated Russia intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The plan includes the installation of the Aegis-Ashore radar and missile interceptors in Poland by 2018.
US official have told the Polish government the missile defense shield — known as the phased adaptive approach — will continue on schedule, Siemoniak said.
“[S]ince Russia opposes it so strongly, it would be really a very bad signal if we decided to postpone it or weaken it,” he said.