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American rotational soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division salute during the national anthem at a welcoming ceremony for them in Zagan, Poland, in 2017.
American rotational soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division salute during the national anthem at a welcoming ceremony for them in Zagan, Poland, in 2017. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

This story is part of a Stars and Stripes special report on what's ahead for the U.S. military as a new decade begins. See all the stories here.

STUTTGART, Germany — The U.S. and Poland are still trying to figure out how to beef up the American military mission in the country after more than a year of negotiations, but 2020 could be the year when the long-discussed initiative gets put into action.

The plan, to add 1,000 rotational troops to the 4,500 in Poland, falls far short of Polish President Andrzej Duda’s ambitious bid for a “Fort Trump” to serve as a home for a full armored division of ground troops.

“I think Fort Trump became a symbol of Polish overreach,” said Paul Taylor, a senior fellow with the Friends of Europe think tank in Brussels.

Duda’s offer, made during a White House appearance in September 2018, went bust one year later when he and President Donald Trump trumpeted a scaled-down plan that involves no new mega bases or permanent forces. Instead, the two leaders touted an agreement that amplifies and gives formal declaration to military missions underway.

The Pentagon said it is premature to say when the additional troops will be in place or which units they will come from since negotiations aren’t finished.

Meanwhile, some security analysts had hopes that Poland’s hard push for more would result in a substantial agreement involving the permanent placement of forces in the country, which serves as a strategic link between NATO’s eastern edges and Western Europe.

“The deal was underwhelming given the diplomatic and political effort that went to it, the amount of time involved,” said John R. Deni, a U.S. Army War College professor and expert on military mission in Europe.

The U.S. has up to 4,500 non-permanent troops in Poland, where forces have been rotating for several years. The mission: deterring Russian aggression along NATO’s eastern flank. U.S. soldiers and airmen are at numerous sites, including a small Army headquarters in Poznan, a logistics hub in Powidz and drone, missile defense and special operations missions in other parts of the country.

If the new agreement does come to fruition, it will add important capabilities that shouldn’t be dismissed, Deni said.

For the Army, a key part of the deal is a plan to transform an Army command headquarters in Poznan — known as a mission-command element — into a full-fledged division headquarters that would improve the military’s ability to manage forces up and down the eastern flank. The Army in October rebranded the headquarters as 1st Infantry Division (Forward), but to date no additional troops have been added since negotiations with Poland remain ongoing.

Currently, the small Army contingent in Poznan is in desperate need of reinforcement as is overseas Atlantic Resolve, the Pentagon’s campaign to deter Russian aggression and reassure allies in eastern Europe, Deni said.

“Those guys are absolutely stretched. They are just not as robust as they need to be to handle the stuff that is going on,” he said. “The op tempo, the hours those guys are putting in — it is relentless.”

For the troops in Poland, living conditions are austere, resembling deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan rather than central Europe.

“In terms of living and working, it feels a lot like an immature deployment,” Army 1st Sgt. Sean Jones of the 1st Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, told Stars and Stripes in July while on a rotation in Powidz. “Of course, we are prepared to go to an austere environment and fight the enemy and train or whatever else. But this is a rotation, not a deployment.”

The question now is how fast Washington and Warsaw can come to terms on a plan to improve facilities.

Other aspects of the troop boost include building up existing logistics and special operations missions, and setting up a drone squadron at an air base in Lask. The Air Force has a drone mission in Poland at a separate location, so the deal could involve a repositioning of existing military assets.

The troop increase for Poland shouldn’t be taken for granted; it could face financial obstacles. In recent years, the Polish economy has been stronger than many others in Europe — one of the few to escape recession during the 2008 financial crisis — and has experienced steady GDP expansion since then.

"Poland has pledged money and that is predicated on an economy that continues to grow the way it has, which is really unlikely," Deni said. "The question is, can the Poles sustain the fiscal commitment that they are taking on?"

But for Trump, the decision to increase in Poland, however modestly, is more related to his personal fondness for Duda than overarching security concerns.

"I think it’s just because we have a president of Poland who I like, who I respect. And he asked whether or not we’d be willing to do that," Trump said in September when asked why he agreed to the deal.

Because Poland enjoys a somewhat favored status with Trump among allies in Europe, it raises the prospect of the White House entertaining ideas of rearranging where troops are based in Europe if pressed again by Warsaw.

"Trump would love to make it a zero-sum game where you take assets out of Germany and put them in Poland" to show the Germans, Taylor said. "The trouble is it’s difficult to do."

In Germany, the U.S. has spent billions over decades to build infrastructure that involves schools, hospitals, training ranges and runways that give the military reach not just into Europe but also the Middle East and Africa.

"No one wants to build all of that in Poland," Taylor said. "The $2 billion the Poles put up wouldn’t even pay for the feasibility study. It would be hugely expensive, and it would take forever."

Still, Trump frequently complains about Germany and his top diplomats in Europe have joined in, pointing out that Warsaw meets NATO defense spending guidelines while Berlin falls short.

U.S. Ambassador to Poland Georgette Mosbacher in August cited lackluster German defense spending as a reason to shift forces to Poland.

"Poland meets its 2% of GDP spending obligation towards NATO," Mosbacher wrote on Twitter. "Germany does not. We would welcome American troops in Germany to come to Poland."

U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell made similar comments at the time.

"It is actually offensive to assume that the US taxpayer must continue to pay to have 50,000-plus Americans in Germany, but the Germans get to spend their surplus on domestic programs," Grenell told Germany’s DPA news agency in August.

By contrast, Poland aligns with Trump’s priorities as it ups defense spending and procures expensive U.S. weaponry with deals in place to buy High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, Patriot missiles and F-35s. Buying more American military kit and hosting more forces forges strong bilateral ties to the U.S., which Poland sees as ultimate bulwark against outside threats, Taylor said.

"Fundamentally, they believe it is worth far more than any guarantee NATO can provide," Taylor said.

vandiver.john@stripes.com Twitter: @john_vandiver

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.
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