U.S. Army's presence in Poland most significant since World War II
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany – For the first time since the end of World War II, U.S. Army soldiers are making regular rotations into Poland, this time to train its forces to use Patriot missiles.
Forty miles from the Russian border, a small group of U.S. Army Europe soldiers is instructing the Polish military about the missiles, which are designed to counter tactical ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and advanced aircraft.
The Kaiserslautern-based 5th Battalion, 7th Air Defense Artillery troops mark the most significant presence of U.S. forces in Poland since the end of World War II, said Lt. Col. Daniel Herrigstad, a U.S. Army Europe spokesman.
“We have between 80 and 150 troops going there on a regular basis,” he said. “We’ve never had that number and for that long of a period.”
Based at a Polish army base in Morag, a small town in the country’s northeast, the U.S. soldiers will conduct 30 days of training with the Polish military four times a year, for the next two years, Herrigstad said. The first soldiers arrived in late May, along with six Patriot launching platforms and other battery equipment.
It’s a mission that stems from a 2008 defense agreement between the United States and Poland. The intent of the training, U.S. military officials say, is to help Poland, a staunch U.S. ally and North Atlantic Treaty Organization member, improve its air defense capabilities.
The move at first appeared to anger Russia, especially with the drills taking place 40 miles from Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea that’s home to naval and air bases. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in January, when the location was announced, that he couldn’t comprehend the need “to create the impression as if Poland is bracing itself against Russia,” according to the Associated Press.
Robert Donaldson, a specialist on Russian foreign policy and trustees’ professor of political science at the University of Tulsa, said he thinks Russia’s grumbling is mostly rhetoric.
The Patriot deployment is more symbolic than strategic, he said, a consolation prize after a larger missile defense agreement hammered out under the Bush administration was later scrapped by President Barack Obama. That plan called for the installation of a controversial anti-missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic and was vehemently opposed by Russia.
“Patriot missiles are strictly defensive systems,” Donaldson said. “It would not be something Russia could claim could threaten them. The Poles are looking for approval and rewards for their very close devotion to American forces and U.S. defense policy. I don’t see any particular use (for the Patriots) unless it’s some sort of anti-Iranian defense.”
Currently, 90 soldiers are training about 30 Polish air force officers “on basic tasks taught to all Patriot soldiers,” such as how to set up and maintain the equipment, said Army Capt. Andrew Lowe, Bravo Battery commander. “Each rotation will have a different focus.”
Eventually, live missiles will be incorporated, Herrigstad said, at a site to be determined, since Morag doesn’t have adequate storage facilities for the warheads. The missiles will be used for handling, storage and maintenance training, and won’t be operational, Herrigstad said.