Ever since NATO’s initial post-Cold War enlargement, the absence of U.S. military assets in Central Europe has been seen as indicative of the new NATO members’ second-tier status. The perception has endured, even though the Barack Obama administration pushed through NATO contingency plans for the defense of Central Europe and the Baltics. The administration’s “reset” with Russia, the new strategic guidance of 2012, the so-called “pivot” to Asia, and U.S. public relations missteps in Poland only deepened the sense of disconnect.
Yet, the bad karma notwithstanding, critical work was being done to tackle the core concern about the absence of U.S. boots on the ground. In December 2010, Obama and President Bronislaw Komorowski agreed to pursue closer military-to-military cooperation between the United States and Poland by creating a platform for joint work by the two air forces. Two years later, the first U.S. Air Force detachment at the Lask Air Base in Poland became operational. Today, on the threshold of Obama’s second term, the aviation detachment at Lask offers an opportunity to change the security narrative in Central Europe — an opportunity that should not be missed.
Though still small in scope, the U.S. detachment at Lask could prove vital to Central Europe’s security architecture. Lask is not yet a full-blown U.S. base, but the symbolism of the U.S. Air Force’s presence in Poland is unmistakable. Recognizing that the security environment following the Afghanistan war will change the focus of NATO, Washington is making a small yet strategic investment in Poland just as U.S. forces are being drawn down elsewhere in Europe. The United States is on track to establish a presence at two Polish air bases with approximately 250 uniformed personnel and civilian contractors, flying F-16s and C-130s. The arrangement allows for expansion as needs arise. Beginning in 2013, the enhanced U.S. presence will accelerate the training process and increase interoperability between the two air forces.
The establishment of a U.S. presence follows the modernization path undertaken by the Polish Air Force, which decided in 2003 to purchase the U.S. F-16 as its multi-purpose fighter aircraft of choice. At a time when key European allies are drastically cutting their defense budgets, Poland remains one of the few committed to continuing its military modernization, building up additional capabilities to make it a potential regional security provider. Today, the Polish Air Force operates F-16s from Krzesiny and Lask Air Bases, demonstrating the growing proficiency and expertise of its pilots. Polish F-16 fliers passed the 2011 NATO Tactical Evaluation and in 2012 participated in the demanding Red Flag exercise.
However, the greatest potential impact of the new venture is strategic, with Poland gradually becoming a regional hub for NATO, hosting other allied air force detachments for multinational exercises. There are potential synergies between the changing security environment in the Central European-Baltic-Nordic region and Poland’s growing weight as a regional security provider. Although it is too soon to raise the issue, Poland is positioning itself to develop significant defensive — and more importantly deterrent — capabilities that will matter both in the regional context and for NATO as a whole.
Critical to the long-term success of this effort, especially at the strategic level, will be the bilateral framework for the joint training to be conducted at Lask. Here the Polish government has a unique opportunity to create a supportive environment for the U.S. Air Force and other NATO air forces. In turn, the United States should demonstrate the seriousness of its commitment by rapidly expanding the scope of bilateral cooperation and treating the U.S. Air Force Lask mission as the first step to other similar projects in Poland and its neighborhood. This approach would stipulate that host country security concerns are recognized and closely linked with overarching U.S. and NATO objectives.
The larger political impact of Poland’s strong commitment to military cooperation with the United States combined with Washington’s reciprocal commitment to rapidly expand its initial investment there cannot be overstated. At a time when Central European public opinion has grown skeptical of Washington’s priorities, this new development could be read across the region as a clear signal of the United States’ strategic intent.
Andrew A. Michta is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow and Director of the German Marshall Fund’s Warsaw office.