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Tank drills turn Poland into Army’s new 'center of gravity'

American and Polish soldiers in front of their vehicles at the live fire exercise in Zagan, Poland, on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.

MARTIN EGNASH/STARS AND STRIPES

By MARTIN EGNASH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 30, 2017

ZAGAN, Poland — U.S. tanks alongside Polish armored vehicles blasted a flurry of rounds in a show of firepower Monday before a group of political and military leaders assembled to mark the arrival of a U.S. forces in a region seeking a larger American military presence.

U.S. Army Europe’s Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who has led the Army’s expansion into Poland, said troops from the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, were on a mission to deter any potential aggression from Russia.

“Poland will become the center of gravity for U.S. (Army) operations in Europe,” Hodges told reporters. “We believe an attack from the east is unlikely, but it’s having troops on the ground here that makes it even more unlikely.”

U.S. soldiers took part in a combined live-fire demonstration with Poland’s 11th Armored Cavalry Division at Karliki range near Zagan, a small town in western Poland.

Polish President Andrzej Duda welcomed the soldiers Monday at a base occupied by Soviet forces during the Cold War.

“I believe this is a historic moment,” Duda said. “Thirty years ago, we were forced to accept the Soviet army here. We felt in bondage. We welcome our allies here today with open arms.”

The U.S.-based infantrymen arrived in January for a mission that will send units along NATO’s eastern flank on training missions with allies from the Baltic states to Bulgaria and Romania. The deployment of the Fort Carson, Colo.-based unit marks the beginning of a year-round presence of a tank brigade in Europe.

The plan calls for the 3,500-soldier-strong unit to conduct a nine-month deployment and then to be immediately replaced by another U.S. brigade. This is intended to ensure a constant presence of a third unit in Europe, where the Army now has only two permanently forward-stationed brigades.

Lt. Gen. Timothy Ray, deputy commander of U.S. European Command, said the military is operating under the assumption that the American commitment will not be short-lived.

“Security in the United States begins with security in Europe,” he said. “We intend to be here for quite some time.”

Still, there is a general sense of uncertainty across capitals in Europe about the U.S. commitment to NATO and the likely U.S. military posture under President Donald Trump, who has had tough words for the U.S.-led alliance. Trump has been critical of allies that he says underinvest in defense, describing NATO as “obsolete.”

His expressed priority of mending relations with Russia has caused a consternation in Poland and elsewhere.

At Monday’s demonstration, political leaders refrained from commenting on Trump’s stated positions.

“Today I know that Poland will not be threatened,” Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz said. “God bless American President Trump.”

Monday’s live-fire display involved tanks and other armored vehicles traveling 50 miles per hour across the expansive Polish range, hitting distant targets in a series of earth-shaking blasts.

“Strong team. Proud to be a part of it,” said brigade commander Col. Christopher Norrie, touting his unit’s firepower. “We are the most capable team on the planet.”

For junior troops, the mission into eastern Europe adds up to a big, and unlikely, adventure after the Army’s heavy focus on Iraq and Afghanistan for the past 15 years.

“We’re all excited to be here. We’ve been getting along with the Polish military. Trying to make as many friends with our allies as possible,” said Spc. John Hess, an infantryman.

Stars and Stripes reporter John Vandiver contributed to this report.

egnash.martin@stripes.com

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American and Polish soldiers in front of their vehicles at the live fire exercise in Zagan, Poland, on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.
MARTIN EGNASH/STARS AND STRIPES

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