WARSAW — President Barack Obama announced an agreement Saturday to send U.S. F-16s and C-130s to train in Poland, a move the Polish welcomed as a sign of the U.S. commitment to defend Central and Eastern Europe.
In a quick first step, F-16s from the California Air National Guard will work alongside Polish F-16s this July in a training exercise as part of the preparations for the EURO 2012 soccer tournament.
Other F-16s and C-130s will be rotated to Poland starting in 2013. Despite Polish media reports before Obama’s visit, the agreement does not deploy any F-16s for long periods and does not transfer any from Aviano, Italy.
“No US F-16s are being deployed permanently in Poland,” said a White House aide on condition of anonymity. “What we are talking about is regular rotations of U.S. military aircraft to Poland for training and exercises — four per year. U.S. aircraft will come for a few weeks to Poland and then return to their home station.”
Temporary or not, the dispatch of U.S. pilots to Poland sent a message of assurance to Polish leaders who are skittish about Obama’s work to improve relations with Poland’s old nemesis, Russia.
Obama earlier canceled Bush-era plans for deployment of a missile defense system based partly in Poland. It was ostensibly meant to guard against rogue nations such as Iran, but Russia saw it as provocative.
Abruptly canceling that system pleased Russia, but upset Polish leaders who’d risked political backlash at home to support the missile defense. Obama promised to work jointly with Russia on a new missile defense system, but Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sounded pessimistic after meeting with Obama at a summit in France this week.
Obama came to Poland from that summit, pointing out that Poland is a member of the NATO alliance, and thus an equal ally worthy of a full pledge of support from the U.S. "We defend each other,” Obama said.
In addition to sending F-16s and C-130s to Poland, Obama and Tusk discussed the new missile defense plan and said U.S. and Polish military will conduct talks working toward deployming land-based interceptors in Poland in 2018.
Seeking to improve commercial and personal ties, Obama also announced that he’ll ask Congress to change a law so that Poles can visit the United States without visas.
Obama also met Saturday with some of the veterans of the Solidarity movement who first challenged Soviet rule and helped usher in the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“It is especially a treat for me to be able to see so many of you who inspired us in America when the Solidarity movement first appeared,” Obama told them. “I remember at that time understanding that history was being made because ordinary people were standing up and doing extraordinary things with great courage and a great — against great odds.”