President Trump threatens to shift forces from Germany to Fort Trump-lite in Poland

17 June 2019

On the 12 June, President Donald Trump announced an increase in the number of US troops in Poland, but suggested that this might be balanced by shifting forces from Germany.

White House officials had initially suggested that it would involve a modest increase of 1,000 non-combat troops being sent to Poland on a rotational basis to help with planning, surveillance and logistics. Officials stressed that their presence would not violate a 1997 security agreement that prohibits the permanent basing of NATO troops in former Warsaw Pact countries.

Currently, there are around 4,500 US troops deployed on a rotational basis in Poland. However, during a meeting with Polish President Andrzej Duda on the 12 June, President Trump said the number could be as high as 2,000 and that he was considering relocating forces from Germany (where about 34,000 US forces are stationed).

At the height of the Cold War, the United States had nearly 400,000 troops in Europe on hundreds of bases. Today, there are about 60,000 US personnel in Europe, principally in Germany and Italy, although there is no official detailed list of US/NATO military bases in Europe in the public domain (although an annual US base structure report contains a list of all US military sites around the world, including those in Europe).

It has also been reported that in addition to the increase in troops, the United States will establish a forward-deployed division headquarters and a combat training centre, to be jointly used by Polish and US forces in Drawsko Pomorskie (in northwest Poland) and eventually other locations in the country. According to the joint resolution signed by Trump and Duda, the United States will also deploy to Poland a US Air Force surveillance squadron of MQ-9 Reaper drones and US special operations forces, as well as building infrastructure to support the presence of an armoured brigade combat team, a combat aviation brigade, and a combat sustainment support battalion.

Fort Trump unlikely

The Polish Government had been pressing the United States to permanently station US troops in Poland, and in May 2018 offered to contribute at least $2 billion, and perhaps more, to establish a permanent US base (like the one in Ramstein, Germany). It even offered to name the base, ‘Fort Trump’. Some European NATO allies were worried that the establishment of any permanent US presence in Poland would prove provocative to Moscow. However, the latest plans suggest that there will be no Fort Trump nor a large permanent base. Instead, this proposed network of smaller logistical bases and heavy weapon depots will make it easier to quickly deploy troops to Poland at short notice, under the existing principle of ‘permanent rotation’. Trump added that Poland would build a new facility to accommodate more US troops in the country, but it was unclear whether this would be named Fort Trump. “No, that’s up to them. They can name it whatever they want,” Trump said.

While Fort Trump appears to be off the table, at least for now, the deployment of additional US soldiers nonetheless comes with a price tag. Poland has agreed to purchase 32 F35 combat aircraft from the United States, and also signed a contract for natural gas supplies worth $8 billion per annum. The expanded US-Polish military relationship also includes a missile defence installation in Poland, which was agreed over a decade ago. Construction of the missile defence base was meant to be completed in December 2018, but according to a recent report from the US Government Accountability Office the system is now expected to be finished in May 2020.

NATO is also investing in Poland’s military infrastructure. In March, it was announced that a $260 million storage facility for US military equipment, including armoured vehicles, ammunition and weapons to arm a full brigade, would be established in Powidz, some 200 kilometres west of Warsaw. The funding for the facility will come from the NATO Security Investment Programme (NSIP), to which all 29 alliance members contribute.

Despite the possible drawdown in Germany, which Trump has repeatedly criticised for low defence spending, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg tweeted his support for the US-Polish announcement: “This shows the strong commitment of the US to European security & the strength of the transatlantic bond”.  Some Baltic nations also expressed their support. “This is an important step and display of US commitment to European security and deterrence. Estonia wholeheartedly embraces this decision that goes to further strengthen the transatlantic bond and cooperation between NATO allies,” Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu said in a tweet. While Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius tweeted, saying the decision contributes to the “Alliance’s deterrence and defence posture and benefiting the security of all NATO allies”.

Russia warned that President Trump's pledge to send additional US troops to Poland will "destabilize" Europe. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying the US move reflected "aggressive" intentions and had a "destabilizing and escalating character". "We have repeatedly called on NATO countries to discuss ways to ease tensions along the line of contact between Russia and NATO, particularly through the OSCE, including the so-called Structured Dialogue on security issues", Ryabkov emphasized. "A new round of this dialogue is going to take place in Vienna, providing another opportunity to seriously discuss everything, but we don’t see any sign that NATO countries and the international secretariat of this group are ready to listen to us and respond adequately", he noted.

Another side-swipe at Germany

Details on the new European deployments are still being determined. “We haven’t totally made up a decision,” Trump said. However, Trump linked the troop increases in Poland to Warsaw’s efforts to increase military spending to NATO’s benchmark, which calls for dedicating 2% of gross domestic product (GDP) to military spending. Germany was singled out by Trump for falling short. “Germany is not living up to what they’re supposed to be doing with respect to NATO and Poland is”, Trump said.

In Germany, there is a lack of political consensus about increasing defence spending, which is already high by comparison with many other states: at $49.5 billion in 2018, Germany is the eighth largest military spender in the world (and the third-largest in Western Europe), although as a share of GDP it is only 1.2%—well below the NATO target of 2% of GDP. Germany’s military spending has increased by 9% since 2009 and is expected to increase to 1.5% of GDP by 2025.

Since Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and illegally annexation of Crimea in 2014, NATO has increased its activities in Eastern Europe with rotating forces and military exercises in the aim of deterring Russia. NATO has established brigade combat teams of about 2,000 troops each in Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The troops are from across the 29 member states, and each brigade is led by one of four NATO member states: Canada, Germany, the UK and United States. At last year’s NATO summit in Brussels, the alliance set a two-year goal of being able to field 30 warships, 30 aircraft squadrons, and 30 battalions of troops within 30 days – known as the ‘Four Thirties’.

Despite Trump’s misgivings about NATO, his administration has increased the US military footprint in Europe through a multiyear programme that started under the Obama administration called the European Deterrence Initiative. The Pentagon requested $5.9 billion for the initiative in fiscal year 2020.