Following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine, the U.S. began a process of returning military forces to Europe and pressing its NATO allies to increase their defense expenditures and armed forces. More than 20 years after the end of the Cold War, many issues that were assumed to be settled needed to be readdressed. Where would additional U.S. forces be deployed? Which NATO allies could be counted on to up their defense game? How could NATO best protect its eastern flank abutting Russia?
Increasingly, the answer to many of these questions is Poland.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO essentially stopped worrying about deterring high-end threats, and many members reduced their defense budgets as a result. U.S. ground forces in Europe declined to just two relatively weak brigade combat teams. Other NATO countries ended conscription, shrunk their military establishments and allowed much of their equipment to age badly. In addition, NATO stopped practicing many of the maneuvers that would be critical to an effective defense of Europe, such as the movement of large-scale reinforcement throughout the continent.
West Germany was once the centerpiece of NATO’s anti-Soviet defense and host to hundreds of thousands of U.S. and Allied forces. Today that role is increasingly assumed by Poland, one of the most stalwart members of the alliance. It is one of only six countries to meet NATO’s goal of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense, has welcomed U.S. forces returning to Europe, and has undertaken a serious and sustained program of military modernization.
As part of the overall global buildup of U.S. military capabilities, the U.S. Army has begun rotational deployments of an armored brigade combat team, or ABCT, to Poland. Last year, the Pentagon decided to expand this effort with a forward-deployed division headquarters, pre-positioned equipment for a second ABCT, logistics units and an MQ-9 Reaper drone squadron located in that country.
Over time, the plan is to create the infrastructure to support the rotational deployment of two ABCTs, plus additional combat enablers, including both aviation forces and long-range fires.
Just last week, the U.S. Army decided to reactivate its V Corps and return part of it to an as-yet undetermined location in Europe. It would make tremendous sense to locate that corps headquarters in Poland alongside the majority of U.S. Army forces operating in Europe. It would also be an important symbolic step, as V Corps was one of two heavy formations positioned in Germany for most of the Cold War. Most importantly, deploying a corps helps ensure that the U.S. Army can conduct an effective defense against large-sale conventional aggression.
Poland is more than just a good host for U.S. forces. It has committed to spending billions of dollars to create the infrastructure to support the additional U.S. deployments.
No NATO ally has done more to improve its defensive posture and to support the return of U.S. forces to Europe than Poland. In addition to meeting its 2 percent obligation, Poland has taken seriously the need to upgrade and replace aging Cold War-era Soviet equipment with modern Western systems.
Last year, Warsaw issued a new Technical Modernization Plan for 2026 that commits to spending nearly $50 billion on fifth-generation fighter jets, UAVs, assault helicopters, short-range rockets, submarines and cybersecurity.
Poland is an important purchaser of U.S. military equipment. Warsaw plans on acquiring up to eight Patriot air defense batteries. Since the end of the Cold War, the Polish Air Force has been transitioning from Soviet-era platforms to largely U.S.-made aircraft, beginning with the acquisition of 48 F-16s.
In January, Poland signed a multibillion-dollar deal to purchase 32 F-35A fighter jets, thereby vaulting itself into the ranks of NATO’s premier air forces.
Given the presence of U.S. armored formations in Poland, Warsaw should consider acquiring the M-1 Abrams to replace its obsolescent Russian-made tanks.
Poland will be a major host for NATO’s largest modern-day military exercises. Defender 2020 will deploy a full U.S. heavy division of more than 20,000 troops in Europe, including an entire brigade combat team and their personnel. This force will then conduct complex maneuvers in Poland alongside allied formations. Defender 2020 is intended to test all the capabilities, policies and procedures related to the rapid reinforcement of NATO.
Geography dictates that Poland play a leading role in NATO’s defense plans. Warsaw recognizes its place as the centerpiece of the alliance’s defense line vis-a-vis Russia. But Poland is much more than a passive player. It wants to punch at or even above its weight among NATO members. The U.S. government should do whatever it can to help the Polish military reach its modernization objectives.