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May 18, 2024

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The Saga of US-Poland
Missile Defense Cooperation

Missile defense cooperation stands among the most prominent dimensions of the strategic relationship between the United States and Poland.  Both Washington and Warsaw have been strong advocates of missile defense within NATO.  Poland has enthusiastically accepted US requests to base missile interceptors on its territory, and recently made the acquisition of air and missile defense capability its top military procurement priority. Yet, what should be a unifying pillar of US-Poland security cooperation has too often been an irritant.

On March 15th, the Department of Defense announced that, while the US remains steadfast in its plans to deploy missile defense interceptors in Poland in 2018 it has  canceled plans to complement that deployment in 2020 with interceptors that could knock down inter-continental range missiles.

This continues a pattern which unfortunately contributes to an image of American inconsistency, if not arrogance.  In 2002, the Bush Administration sent a delegation to Warsaw (that I led) that rolled out its plans for stationing of ground based missile defense interceptors in Poland.  Warsaw enthusiastically embraced that proposal but had to endure six years of harsh criticism from Western European capitals and threats of nuclear annihilation from Moscow before an agreement was signed that would have based US interceptors in Poland in 2013.

A year later, on September 17th, 2009—the infamous anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland in World War II—the Obama Administration with minimal consultation with Warsaw announced a new US plan for transatlantic missile defense, the so-called European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA).  It delayed the deployment of interceptors to Poland by five years, leaving the Poles out to dry.  Moreover, Warsaw was aghast to learn that Washington’s commitment to rotate a PATRIOT air and missile defense battalion into Poland featured not live PATRIOT interceptors but dummy interceptors in launch tubes marked prominently to indicate their inertness. This was interpreted as public deference to Russian sensitivity at the expense of their NATO ally.

Now four years later, Washington has once again changed plans.  Even assuming there were substantive advance consultations with Warsaw, this change cannot but raise questions about the durability of US commitments, including those that have direct implications for the sovereignty and security of its Allies.

For Poland, accepting US missile defense deployments has never been driven by fear of Iran; it is rooted in the desire for an American military presence that reinforces the credibility of NATO’s Article V security guarantee. Washington’s repeated delays of deploying missile defense systems to Poland are easily interpreted as an American assumption that Warsaw can be taken for granted and worse as a declining US commitment to Poland’s security.  The latter has been reinforced by the Obama administration’s reduction of US forces in Europe and its so-called “pivot” to Asia.

The announced changes to EPAA do little to change the magnitude of the planned US missile defense presence in Poland and thus has little impact on the geopolitical significance of that deployment.  However, that assertion rests on the assumption that the Obama Administration is truly determined to go forward with the missile defense deployments to Poland now planned for 2018.   Warsaw understandably lacks full confidence in that commitment.

Moreover, Poland is acutely aware that in a time of US fiscal austerity support on Capitol Hill for multi-billion dollar missile defense investments that defend only Europe and do not provide for defense of the continental US may not be all that enduring.

There are steps the US Government can take to mitigate the potentially negative effects its recent decision could have for US-Poland relations.

• Accelerate the construction and stand-up of the planned missile defense interceptor site in Poland.  Pouring concrete and deploying personnel early as well as conducting with Poland preparatory military exercises related to the base’s operations would reinforce sense of inevitability now lacking in this dimension of US-Poland relationship.

• Change the name of EPAA.  The world “adaptable” should be dropped. It communicates unnecessary flexibility, if not hesitancy and uncertainty, about these plans.  The new name should connote inevitability and permanence. A better alternative would be the Tran-Atlantic Missile Defense System (TAM-D).

• US transatlantic missile defense plans should be more clearly linked to the increasingly pervasive and persistent dangers posed by the proliferation of ballistic missile technologies and WMD, rather than be justified primarily by the threats posed by Iran.  Today, Poles and others ponder what will happen to these plans if Tehran clearly meets Western demands regarding its weapons programs.  Indeed, it remains President Obama’s stated policy to rethink these plans in the event of that outcome. Washington needs to eliminate that ambiguity.

• Demonstrate more interest and support to Poland’s own air and missile defense plans.  Currently, the Obama Administration has not embraced this Polish program with full enthusiasm. This is surprising as air and missile defense is an important NATO capability requirement, one whose relevance has been underscored by the Alliance’s recent deployments of PATRIOT batteries to Turkey to guard against Syrian attacks.

A stronger US endorsement of Polish missile defense plans would demonstrate that Washington takes Poland’s security perceptions seriously and that security relations with Central Europe is not a trade-off in the effort to build a partnership with Russia.  More importantly, it would reaffirm that Washington envisions US-Poland missile defense cooperation as more than just the leveraging of Polish territory. It would signal determination to have air and missile defense become a shared capability and one that is a robust and unifying pillar of bilateral collaboration among two long-standing strategic allies.

By Ian Brzezinski

– Ian Brzezinski is a senior fellow in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security and is on the Council’s Strategic Advisors Group (SAG).

– The Atlantic Council hosted an all-day conference on missile defense on March 12.


This article was reprinted with permission from the Atlantic Council’s New Atlanticist blog at, ©2013.