HEIDELBERG, Germany — Soldiers from U.S. Army Europe’s Patriot missile battalion could be deploying to Poland as soon as the spring for a six-month rotation as part of the Obama administration’s new missile defense plan in Eastern Europe.

But critics say the Patriot deployment — the first to put U.S. troops in Poland — is nothing more than a symbolic, diplomatic gesture.

U.S. Army Europe officials were in Warsaw working on the agreement shortly before Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Poland last month in the wake of the White House decision to change the Bush administration’s missile defense plan. Biden reassured Polish leaders that the new plan — although scrapping putting long-range missile interceptors in Poland — did not leave the country out of the loop. And he announced that a U.S. Patriot missile battery of about 100 soldiers would soon arrive on Polish soil.

U.S. Army Europe declined to confirm any upcoming Patriot deployment.

"There are no Patriots in Poland yet," said USAREUR spokesman Col. Bryan Hilferty. "It’s mostly pre-decisional at this point."

Still, the battery is expected to come from U.S. Army Europe’s one remaining Patriot unit, the 5th Battalion 7th Air Defense Artillery, based in Kaiserslautern.

"It is coming from Germany," said Jan Filip Stanilko, an analyst at the Warsaw-based Sobieski Institute, a political think tank. "It was settled during previous negotiations."

The previous negotiations were under the Bush administration, which had agreed as part of its ballistic missile-defense posture to place 10 ground-based, long-range missile interceptors on a base in Poland. The Patriot battery was an add-on, said John Pike, director of

The intent of the Patriot was to guard and defend the missile base from potential Russian attack, Pike said.

But the Obama plan scrapped the Polish interceptors. Instead, it calls for sea-based interceptors in the Mediterranean.

So it’s not clear to Pike and others just what the Patriot battery would now protect.

"It’s totally nonsense," Stanilko said. "One battery doesn’t change anything. It can defend one district (of a city.) From a military point of view, it’s irrelevant; it won’t defend Poland at all. It’s a symbolic gesture."

Pike seconded the opinion.

"A complete waste of everybody’s time in order to save face," he said.

But not everyone agrees.

An analysis by Stratfor, a private geopolitical intelligence group, concluded that Biden’s Poland visit "reasserted American commitment to (Polish) security and promised the delivery of other weapons such as Patriot missile batteries, an impressive piece of hardware that really does enhance regional security …," according to its Web site.

Stanilko said the country would need 10 to 15 batteries to be protected from incoming missiles.

"There are four batteries just for Tokyo," Pike said. "I think Japan has a total of 20."

What the Polish government really seeks, Stanilko said, is American boots on its ground and permanent bases, to tie U.S. defense to the country with a small military and a long history of being invaded.

"Americans can move this installation and move out. We wanted something entrenched, unmovable," he said.

Poland figures that the U.S. would be more likely to respond if Poland were attacked if Americans were on the ground.

Stanilko pointed out that Poland had defense pacts with Great Britain and France before it was invaded in 1939. But neither came to its defense as it was invaded by both Germany and the Soviets.

After 40 years of Soviet domination, Poland views Russia as its biggest threat. "It’s from historical experience," Stanilko said. "If you ask any neighbor of Russia, they say that they are aggressive and imperialist."

In July, influential political figures Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel, among others, wrote an open letter to President Barack Obama warning him that Russia "is back as a revisionist power pursuing a 19th-century agenda with 21st-century tactics and methods."

And Poland’s fears were fanned again at the beginning of the month with news of a large Russian military exercise with Belarus that Poles said simulated firing nuclear missiles and practicing an amphibious landing on Poland’s coast.

Moscow insisted that the exercise was to help "ensure the strategic stability in the East European region," according to news reports.

In addition to the Patriots, land-based Standard Missile-3s — being developed to provide theaterwide defense against medium- and long-range ballistic missiles — could be placed in Poland in 2015, according to the Obama plan.

But none of the missile defense plans really protect Poland, said Stanilko, who is critical of his own government’s reliance on the U.S. or NATO for protection rather than build up its own military.

"America has no ability to help us," he said. "There are no strategic plans for central Europe. Even if the U.S. wanted to help us during a Russian invasion, hypothetically. We have no infrastructure, no ports, no airport big enough to receive troops. There are no procedures, no plans, no war games. It’s absurd to promise defense without the ability to do that."

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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