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Mind The Gaps: Making The Most of Poland’s Defense Modernization

Poland’s defense modernization program could open entirely unexplored avenues for increased burden sharing and allied interoperability inside NATO, which could help to mitigate many of the unavoidable strategic costs imposed by America’s Pacific pivot. The good news is that a modest adjustment to the current U.S. approach to frontline allies in Central Europe could make this possible. The bad news is that time is running short.

When the French government released a new White Paper outlining a revamped set of defense priorities last month, it accelerated one of the most dominant debates in the transatlantic security community. Exactly what kind of European fighting force should remain once the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) concludes its mission in Afghanistan next year? In France’s case, the answer is unnervingly familiar. While some core elements of its force structure will persist, Paris’ future defense spending will be leaner — even though the potential threats to Europe are expected to multiply.

France is not alone. Across the NATO Alliance, national governments are grappling with similar, tough choices. Yet these decisions are not occurring in a vacuum. At precisely the moment when defense austerity threatens to degrade Europe’s security profile over the long term, the United States is undertaking a historic process of rebalancing its overseas military posture away from Europe to Asia. The collision of both processes is important. For years, one persistent thesis in Washington has assumed that any decrease in America’s security presence on the continent would incentivize Europeans to finally take charge of their own defense.1 That process may still occur. But for now, there are few indications that it is happening — at least not at a pace that will compensate for the inevitable, negative side-effects of the pivot.

A Perishable Opportunity
 One of the most important outliers in this trend is the Republic of Poland. Boasting the seventh largest army in Europe, Poland has been steadily increasing its defense budget to meet NATO obligations (currently totaling 1.95 percent of Gross Domestic Product). At the same time, Warsaw has embarked on a ten-year, $43 billion initiative to modernize its armed forces. For a pivoting United States, the scale of this opportunity is difficult to understate. Not only do Polish leaders wish to play a larger role in NATO, but they hope to acquire the kind of top-tier defense capabilities that could open entirely unexplored avenues for increased burden sharing and allied interoperability — an outcome that would help to mitigate many of the pivot’s unavoidable strategic costs.

This is the good news. The bad news is that no one in Washington has advanced a game plan for embedding Poland’s military modernization within a coordinated strategy that makes increased burden sharing and interoperability not only possible but inevitable. If done correctly, such a strategy could solidify allied security linkages over the long term and serve as a template for replicating the Polish example (i.e. prudent defense spending and creative gap-filling in allied capabilities) along NATO’s eastern flank. Before these benefits can become a reality, the United States would need to resolve a two-dimensional puzzle. The first task is to close some lingering conceptual gaps in the pivot. The second is to unify the strategic interests of the United States and its frontline NATO allies through a self-sustaining mechanism of defense cooperation. Thankfully for both sides of the allied equation, the solutions are generally straightforward and can be implemented with a modest adjustment in the current U.S. approach.

Mind the Gaps
By far, Washington’s biggest challenge will be to anchor the pivot in a conceptual framework that buttresses mid- and small-sized U.S. allies along NATO’s eastern shoulder. These are the countries that have the most to lose from a diminished U.S. security presence in Europe. Rightly or wrongly, some of these allies are beginning to calculate that U.S. retrenchment from Europe will decrease America’s ability to deter — let alone defend — the continent from outside security pressures.2 Indeed, for the first time in 69 years, there is no longer a single American battle tank on German soil. And while frontier allies like Poland do not consider Moscow as an immediate, hard-security threat, they tend to share the U.S. National Intelligence Council’s assessment that a restive Russia “could increasingly pose a regional and global threat” as it grapples with the consequences of a steady, relative decline.3 As a result, the dual prospects of (1) a diminished U.S. footprint in Europe and (2) regional uncertainty over tomorrow’s threat environment have encouraged some of NATO’s most exposed allies to quietly de-emphasize America’s role as a security guarantor in their defense planning and re-emphasize traditional territorial defense capabilities.

For U.S. contingency planners, this shift in focus could have an immediate bearing on the kind of European security capabilities that will be available in a future crisis. As seen during the recent interventions in Mali and Libya, heavy mechanized units and other mainstays of traditional territorial defense offer limited value during fast-moving, out-of-area operations — especially the ones that must be primarily assembled from non-U.S. assets. If European allies embark upon large investments in non-expeditionary counterforce assets, NATO could have fewer out-of-area capabilities to call upon in an emergency. Should pockets of instability once again erupt in Europe’s periphery, the potential contributions from otherwise willing allies might be inappropriate for mission success. Over the long run, this could put a perpetual obligation on the allocation of U.S. assets — forces the Pentagon might otherwise hope to allocate entirely for Asia.

Therefore, if the Pacific pivot is going to succeed, the U.S. Administration will need to mitigate some of these unexpected costs. [See: Rand Corporation, ”U.S. Overseas Military Posture Relative Costs and Strategic Benefits,” Apr 29, 2013.] For the United States, this means ensuring that all European allies remain confident in America’s commitment to their security as well as in the conventional and nuclear deterrent capabilities underpinning NATO’s Article 5. One way to address this need is by elevating forms of overt and “backdoor” U.S. strategic reassurance to geographically exposed states in Central Europe. And one of the best, immediately available options for accomplishing this is the field of Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD).

The Remarkable Assurance of BMD
When North Korea recently threatened America’s Pacific allies with a ballistic missile launch, Japanese Self-Defense Forces deployed U.S.-made Patriot Air and Missile Defense (AMD) batteries around the capital and the United States dispatched additional Aegis-at-sea anti-ballistic missile assets to the region. In the 21st Century, this is what effective U.S. strategic reassurance against a ballistic missile threat looks like. It is a mainstay of America’s allied toolkit in Asia. Where possible, it should be fully mirrored in Europe.

Much like America’s allies in the Pacific, NATO member states also face a threat environment that is dominated by the proliferation of ballistic missile technology. These weapons are relatively inexpensive, widely available, capable of delivering WMDs, and ideal for countries that wish to threaten or blackmail their neighbors. The threat is so pervasive that NATO has now included BMD as a core component of its collective defense responsibilities; and committed itself to protecting all allied territory in Europe from ballistic missile attacks by the end of this decade. It is an ambitious agenda, but one that Central European countries like Poland and Romania have eagerly offered to contribute to by hosting the land-based components of America’s European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA).

Perhaps more significantly, Poland has also allocated nearly 23 percent ($10 billion) of its entire defense modernization budget to fielding a national AMD capability. As Head of the Polish National Security Bureau Stanisław Koziej explained in March, “Due to its geostrategic location as a border state of the Alliance, Poland has a particularly strong interest in the completion of the NATO missile defense system…We want these projects, by virtue of being complementary, to exert significant influence on the development of missile defense capabilities in Europe.”4

Viewed from across the Atlantic, this is precisely the kind of forward-looking, strategic thinking that Washington should seek to replicate across NATO — and at scale. It is for this reason that Poland’s AMD initiative is an ideal candidate for the “proof of concept” that could open new avenues of allied burden sharing and interoperability in post-ISAF NATO.

A Model of  Interoperability
Due to the highly-technical and data intensive architecture of modern missile defense networks, it matters who your partners are; and the kind of AMD system that Poland chooses to acquire is important. In addition to the U.S. option, however, two other countries (France and Israel) are also in the running to assist Poland in developing a national AMD capability. If Poland opts to join other users of U.S. AMD hardware in Europe, its armed forces would integrate into the largest deployed anti-missile capability inside NATO (currently including Greece, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain). By helping to field U.S. equipment in Poland, Washington could employ a form of “backdoor” reassurance in the region by ensuring that Polish armed forces join the cadre of U.S. AMD allies. Best of all, these countries could potentially deploy their collective resources and expertise in the event of an emergency. This was precisely what occurred when U.S. Patriot missile batteries were dispatched to Turkey earlier this year. Over the long term, it is a model of Alliance interoperability and expeditionary cooperation that could be duplicated in parts of Southeastern Europe as a force multiplier of the U.S. EPAA defenses against a potential ballistic missile launch from Iran.

Finally, developments on the AMD front could ultimately help to address the unresolved question of NATO interoperability once the ISAF mission concludes in 2014. Afghanistan proved that that allied armies who can share data, terminology, training and — at times — even equipment fight better in a crisis. Yet without a self-sustaining rationale for operational interoperability, these advantages could be lost or degraded beyond 2014. This is where AMD offers a strong advantage to NATO. Deep allied interoperability was an essential element of success in realizing NATO’s existing BMD capability in 2012. And as an agreed-upon pillar of collective defense, BMD will have staying power beyond the ISAF mission.

Given the benefits to transatlantic security, U.S. officials have a strong interest in aggressively engaging Poland on the impressive array of technical and political assistance that the United States can bring to bear as part of the U.S.-led community of AMD users. By achieving a heightened level of interoperability with Poland, Washington would simultaneously open new and under-explored options for regional air defense user groups with the Baltic and Visegrád states, as well as related concepts such as the joint procurement of an integrated air defense radar system between Poland and the Czech Republic.

What Now?
If the potential gains from Poland’s defense modernization effort are many, the window for achieving the United States’ top-level policy objectives is closing fast. In order to make the most of the time that remains, the Administration could take a number of steps to ensure that U.S.-Polish strategic moorings are locked down. For U.S. policymakers, a few useful starting points would be:

Make Tomorrow’s Reassurance Today’s Reality. When it comes to visible reassurance like EPAA, the United States has made commitments to European allies; and it is in Washington’s interests to keep them. Recognizing that the cancellation of EPAA Phase Four (2013) and BMD Third Site (2009) have put U.S. credibility on the line, the Administration should seek to put some iron behind its “ironclad” pledges to complete the European legs of its missile defense system. One course of action could be to accelerate the early spadework on supporting EPAA facilities in Romania and Poland. This would reap immediate dividends with allies by signaling the seriousness and sustainability of EPAA beyond the President’s final term in office.

Build More Capable Allies. The 2012 U.S. Strategic Guidance called for the United States to enhance the capacity of European allies; and that is exactly what it should do. By leveraging existing platforms like the U.S.-Poland High Level Defense Group and other appropriate venues, American and Polish officials can think creatively about fielding new forms of “backdoor” reassurance through increased hardware interoperability with U.S. forces. AMD is the most prominent candidate for this “proof of concept” approach. Still others could include rotary- and fixed-wing aircraft, C4ISR, cyber defense, UAVs and munitions.

Exercise Often and with a Purpose. NATO’s upcoming Steadfast Jazz 2013 will be the most important Article 5 exercise in two decades, but America will only contribute a small fraction of the total force. The risk of this approach is that it could inadvertently signal that American retrenchment from Europe might become more of a retreat over the long-run. In order to prevent this perception from influencing the strategic level decision making of allies, the Pentagon should maximize its remaining force structure on the continent. This could include a robust focus on joint training that emphasizes interoperability, contingency preparations and multi-national counter-force capabilities. Such steps would bolster allied confidence in NATO’s conventional deterrence while mitigating the allure of a “go it alone” approach in territorial defense.

Develop a Comprehensive Game Plan. Lastly, the United States should articulate a comprehensive game plan for integrating European allies into a 21st Century global strategy. The architects of the pivot indicated a need for this effort, yet the Strategic Guidance punts on many of the details. In the meantime, the Administration should seek to fully harness American commercial and soft power diplomacy to cultivate deeper industrial relationships with allies, particularly in the realm of defense. As the United States allocates a smaller share of its hard security resources to Europe, an organizing strategic vision based on values and commercial interests will be essential to the prosperity of Atlantic links.

While the stakes are high in Poland’s defense modernization, time for action is running short. In the coming months, Polish leaders will face a number of deadlines in their own procurement cycle. They are likely to make long-term decisions with or without a transatlantic game plan in place. This does not mean, however, that Washington has missed its opportunity. Not by a long shot. But without some imaginative thinking and rapid action from policymakers, much of the low-hanging fruit in Poland’s defense modernization might soon be rotting on the ground. By ensuring that the strategic reassurance of EPAA becomes a fiat accompli; that Central Europe enjoys multiple forms of additional “backdoor” reassurance through the fielding of U.S. hardware among frontier allies; that allies leverage this interoperability to prepare for crisis scenarios; and that overall defense cooperation with the United States occurs in the context of a strategy for anchoring the alliance amid the pivot, the current process of global rebalancing will likely exceed anyone’s expectations of success. And that is a goal that all allies can get behind.

By Peter B. Doran

1 Doug Bandow, “NATO as Nero: Alliance Postures While Europe Burns,” Forbes, May 20, 2012.
2 A. Wess Mitchell, Peter B. Doran and John R. Lambert, “The Anchorless Pivot: Where Central Europe Should Fit in America’s ‘Pacific Century,’” Navigating Uncertainty, Center for European Policy Analysis, July 2012.
3 National Intelligence Council, Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, December 2012.
4 Center for European Policy Analysis, “Insider View – Head of the Polish National Security Bureau Stanissław Koziej on Poland’s Defense Modernization,” Central Europe Digest, March 1, 2013

Peter B. Doran is Director of Research at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).

This article first appeared in the CEPA, May 21, 2013 – Issue Brief No. 130. Reprinted with permission from CEPA (Center for European Policy Analysis. Center for European Policy Analysis, 1225 19th Street NW, Suite 450, Washington, D.C. 20036.