Look to Poland to Anchor Our European Defense
The Army at times must provide deliberate and robust assistance to foreign nations in developing their military capabilities to enable U.S. defense objectives. Poland, an ally with the capacity and intent to develop a first-rate military and a nation that shares the U.S. vision for peace and stability in Europe, merits consideration for the Army’s deliberate assistance. With the right support from the Army, Poland, like Japan in the Indo-Pacific, could anchor U.S. defense strategy in Europe.
NATO relies on the U.S. to serve as a bulwark against the Russian military, yet in almost any operational scenario, the U.S. will require that the Polish Armed Forces (PAF) augment U.S. military capability in Europe. On the alliance’s eastern flank, Poland is NATO’s largest allied country with a population of just under 40 million.
Mind the Gap
Historically a land route straddling Eastern and Western Europe, Poland shares borders with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and Belarus, a Russian ally. Poland’s common border with Lithuania is roughly 62 miles long, though as the crow flies between Kaliningrad and Belarus, it is but 40 miles. This stretch of terrain, known as the Suwalki Gap, is where the alliance finds itself most vulnerable to a potential Russian military strike. Russian forces of the Western Military District could quickly thrust against inferior Baltic armies and sever Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia from the rest of Europe in a disaster for the alliance. With the U.S. military being the only force capable of standing against Russia, yet too small on the continent to do so quickly, it falls to Poland to buy time for the alliance to muster combat power.
The PAF is comparatively stronger than all but a few other allied militaries. It has about 115,000 personnel in uniform and is slowly growing the force toward 150,000 personnel. Of this, roughly 67,500 active-duty personnel serve in the so-called Land Forces, with a probable future increase to 80,000. Poland’s 2016 creation of the Territorial Defense Forces, with an anticipated strength of 50,000 personnel by the end of 2021, will add to Poland’s ground combat capability as a complementary resistance force to the Land Forces.
Poland also has well-trained special operations forces, which can underwrite Land Forces capability during a protracted ground fight. Territorial Defense Forces and special operations capability aside, the PAF’s main strength and value to the alliance resides in the Land Forces’ divisions.
Adding a Division
It is notable that with three standing divisions, Poland already has two more active divisions than the U.K., the country that Americans most often view as our strongest ally. By 2026, Poland will add a full-strength fourth division, the headquarters for which it has formed and subordinated an armor brigade. Though Poland’s divisions are mostly equipped with outdated T-72, BRDM, and BMP variants, its armor is nothing to sniff at. In active service, Poland retains 200 T-72M1s and 232 PT-91s. Ironically, with the addition of 247 Leopard tanks, Poland has more German armor than Germany does. Poland also has ample short-range air defense and artillery, although it, too, is Warsaw Pact-era and not fully digitized.
Yet Poland has accelerated equipment modernization and is upgrading its tanks, fielding such quality systems as Rosomak infantry carriers, Krab self-propelled artillery pieces and Rak self-propelled mortars, and procuring high-end foreign capabilities such as the U.S. Patriot missile defense system and M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, and the Israeli Spike anti-tank missile. These improvements to Poland’s warfighting capabilities are facilitated by strong defense spending—over 2% and growing to 2.5%—and will strengthen the Land Forces’ combat power over time.
Help Offset Expenses
Poland’s serious approach to its own defense reinforces ongoing U.S. efforts to set the theater in Europe for rapid projection of American military power. Ongoing efforts to build infrastructure and stockpile equipment in Europe are exceedingly costly to the United States. Though we need this infrastructure to enable our operational designs, the U.S. can help offset expenses by developing military capability in ambitious allies like Poland and Romania. These nations have both the intent and modest capacity to force-multiply U.S. defense objectives. As the U.S. Army will be at the forefront of any conventional fight with Russia in northeastern Europe, it has the most to gain by Poland’s military empowerment.
What might the U.S. Army do to assist Poland’s Land Forces?
First, the Army can identify operational requirements for the Land Forces. It can do so through deliberate hypothetical studies in collaboration with Polish and allied planners, and by identifying key requirements of the Land Forces in American and NATO operational plans. Poland’s Land Forces might be required to delay Russian forces at the Vistula River, conduct flank attacks across Russian lines of communication at the Suwalki Gap, or even attack to eliminate Russian anti-access/aerial denial systems in Kaliningrad to enable NATO air and maritime operations. Whatever the essential tasks, the U.S. Army must clearly identify those critical actions expected of Polish Land Forces during a conventional conflict with Russia.
Second, once the Army determines the Land Forces’ operational requirements, it follows that the Army must identify capabilities for targeted improvement. We can do this through a deliberate assessment of Land Forces modernization, organization and tactical training. Such an assessment would inform Polish prioritization decisions for modernization of ground-based systems, while also encouraging DoD to question dubious purchases by the Polish government, such as the F-35A Lightning II fighter jet, which is not necessary to operational plans. The Army must ensure that U.S. Foreign Military Sales complement our strategic vision.
Also, the Army could assess Poland’s division-, brigade- and battalion-level structures with the aim of ensuring that desirable capabilities exist at each echelon. If Poland falls short, Army leaders will know which capabilities the Land Forces bring when American and Polish formations combine. The Army might routinely include Poland’s divisions, brigades and battalions into its exercises not only in Europe but in the continental United States. Doing so would hone the quality of the Land Forces, making its units more interoperable with their Army counterparts.
Mentor and Partner
Third, the Army could partner with and mentor a Polish division with the clear objective of making it interoperable within a U.S. Army corps or a joint forces land component command. European allies have too few divisions, and none are more critically placed as a counterweight to Russia than Poland’s. The U.S. military needs Poland’s divisions to hold the line against Russian military forces and absorb the initial impact of an invasion of Europe. Even more, the alliance needs Polish divisions capable of counterattacking to set Russian forces off balance, or otherwise alleviating pressure on the Baltic States.
Thus, the U.S. Army should seek to develop a model Polish division equitable to an American division in its command philosophies, staff procedures, tactics and systems. The selected division should be considered for participation in Army warfighter exercises and for support by the Mission Command Training Program. Furthermore, the Army might invigorate the education of the division’s officers by embedding them in U.S. division headquarters and increasing Poland’s allocations at the School of Advanced Military Studies and the U.S. Army War College. While it is unlikely the Army can commit an active division to this endeavor, a National Guard division such as the 28th Infantry Division, whose home state of Pennsylvania has a partnership with allied Lithuania, would be well-suited for the role. The eventual end state of a division partnership is that Poland’s divisions are fully interoperable within a U.S. corps.
CTC in the Works
Fourth, the U.S. Army can improve Poland’s brigade- and battalion-level competencies through expanded support for Poland’s intended combat training center. Polish civilian and military leadership have visited the Army’s combat training centers in Hohenfels, Germany, and at Fort Polk, Louisiana, where they observed training and have come to believe in the Army’s training model. They now aim to develop a combat training center for Poland at the Drawsko Pomorskie Training Area, a location already in frequent use by the U.S. Army. This past June, President Donald Trump agreed that the U.S. would assist Poland in this endeavor. An ongoing partnership between the U.S. 7th Army Training Command in Germany and the Polish Training Inspectorate aims to ensure Poland’s combat training center will be fully compatible with its American equivalents.
This compatibility must ensure interface between Polish and American instrumentation and simulations, enable comparable training philosophies, allow exportable capability between locations and establish standardized training practices.
The Army should consider additional institutional support for Poland’s combat training center.
Seize the Opportunity
The U.S. military’s footprint on the European Continent is light, and though our ability to project power is significant, we nevertheless must rely upon allied militaries to hold key terrain. Poland’s leadership keenly feels Russia’s misbehavior and threats, and its defense leadership is forward-thinking and forward-leaning. It appreciates the U.S. Army’s global demands as it appreciates the inability of its European allies to muster sufficient ground capability to counter Russia.
In consequence, the Army might aggressively seize upon the opportunity to make Poland’s Land Forces fully interoperable with Army units at echelon. Advised correctly, Poland’s Land Forces has the potential to become a premier ground force on the European Continent, which would complement the Army’s mission well.
NATO cannot afford to lose the Baltic States to Russia. It needs a ground force capable of deterring, delaying or even defeating attacking Russian forces. Pending a return of at least one Army division to Europe, or a strong and unexpected reversal in West European ground combat capability decline, the U.S. Army should consider a deliberate effort to develop the Polish Land Forces.