Polish Desire For Own Antimissile System Linked to Uncertainty Over U.S. Alliance

Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, shown in June, this month said his country needs a theater-level missile defense capability of its own that would be separate from the next-generation U.S. missile interceptors planned for deployment in Poland (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz).
Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, shown in June, this month said his country needs a theater-level missile defense capability of its own that would be separate from the next-generation U.S. missile interceptors planned for deployment in Poland (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz).

WASHINGTON -- Poland’s recently expressed interest in acquiring an independent capability to counter theater-level missile attacks has much to do with insecurities over whether the United States, with all of its competing priorities, can reliably be counted on to defend Polish interests, according to issue experts and former diplomats.

Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski earlier this month said the desired antimissile system should be separate from the next-generation U.S. missile interceptors his country is slated to receive around 2018 under the Obama administration’s “phased adaptive approach” for European missile defense.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe said  his sense from speaking to contacts in the country is “there is a feeling that Poland needs to go more its own way and look after itself and be more European-related as opposed to seeing the United States as an ally who is there through thick and thin.”

Toward the end of the George W. Bush administration, Warsaw dismissed threats from Russia and agreed to allow the fielding by 2011 of 10 long-range interceptors on Polish territory.

President Obama, however, early on in his administration threw out that deal and replaced the Bush plan with a program to through 2020 field increasingly sophisticated sea- and land-based Standard Missile 3 interceptors around Europe. The Obama initiative forms the core of a broader NATO endeavor to augment and coordinate individual member nations’ antimissile capabilities as a hedge against ballistic missile strikes from the Middle East.

While the 24 SM-3 interceptors planned for deployment in Poland are envisioned as having the ability to defeat intermediate-range ballistic missiles and even ICBMs, Warsaw wants its own protection against limited-range missiles that could be launched from “near abroad” -- meaning Russia.

The fashion in which the Obama plan was announced -- without any prior consultation with Warsaw -- was seen as a slight by some Polish officials and caused speculation that Washington was kowtowing to Moscow, which strongly opposed the Bush-era missile defense scheme. Some officials questioned whether a reassessment was in order of Poland’s foreign posture, which has traditionally lined up with the United States.

“I just think there is a lot of Polish concern as to how reliable and how consistent the United States is going to be in the next several years,” Ashe, Washington’s top envoy to Warsaw from 2004 to 2009, said in a telephone interview from Knoxville, Tenn. “They want to have a system in place in which they are charge.”

Polish leaders first publicly expressed interest in a Warsaw-owned-and-controlled missile defense capability earlier this month. A factor influencing Polish thinking is the desire to have missile interceptors in the country before the U.S. weapons arrive six years from now, according to an analysis by Michal Baranowski and Jacob Foreman of the German Marshall Fund.

The Kremlin has not relaxed its opposition to U.S. missile plans for Europe, which it sees as a threat to Russia’s nuclear deterrent. Moscow has even threatened to send short-range Iskander ballistic missiles to the Kaliningrad -- a territory that borders Poland -- before the year is over.

“Komorowski’s call for the creation of Polish missile defense is not about Polish-American relations, but about the future of Poland’s security. Poland needs stronger anti-aircraft and anti-short and medium-[range] missile defenses independent of any proposed American MD system,” the GMF analysis states. “The two systems are complimentary, not competing.”

Poland’s existing air defenses consist of Soviet-era anti-aircraft systems that are now several decades old and will have to be retired by 2020, according to an assessment by military analyst Artur Bilski published last week by the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita. “They are not worth much, because they cannot counter currently popular ballistic and cruise missiles,” he wrote.

Since spring 2010, the United States on a rotational basis has fielded a Patriot Advanced Capability training battery and an accompanying contingent of U.S. soldiers at military bases in Poland. The final Patriot rotation is slated to occur at Ustka this November, according to information provided by Pentagon spokeswoman Wendy Snyder.

Andrew Michta, who directs the German Marshall Fund’s Warsaw office, said he “definitely” sees a need for Poland to acquire a theater-level missile defense system that would provide protection to a geographically limited area. Whether that infrastructure is independent or enfolded into NATO’s evolving command-and-control architecture for missile defense is “something they need to work out within the NATO alliance,” he said by phone from Poland.

Komorowski has said he wants Poland’s antimissile system to be incorporated into the NATO missile shield.

Bilski said he believes Warsaw’s desire for its own missile interceptors might have crystallized after President Obama in late March made an unguarded comment to then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have more “flexibility” in responding to Kremlin demands for a compromise on European missile defense after the November U.S. presidential election.

Obama was picked up by a live microphone saying, “it's important for him [then-incoming President Vladimir Putin] to give me space. …This is my last election. After my election I [will] have more flexibility.”

Bilski claimed the U.S. president essentially told Medvedev “that the Americans could opt out even of the new version of the missile defense shield proposed to the Poles and Europeans and trade it for cooperation with Russia.”

The White House publicly insists it will move forward with its phased adaptive approach, regardless of Russian opposition; the administration continues to hold bilateral talks with Moscow aimed at reaching an accord on the matter.

"We are committed to the deployment of a U.S. missile defense site in Poland as part of our plan for ballistic missile defense of U.S. deployed forces and allies in Europe,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Damien Pickart said in a Tuesday statement to GSN. “We support Poland's interests in making further contributions to this mission should they choose to do so and we appreciate their support and cooperation with plans for the current SM-3 site.”

August 21, 2012
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WASHINGTON -- Poland’s recently expressed interest in acquiring an independent capability to counter theater-level missile attacks has much to do with insecurities over whether the United States, with all of its competing priorities, can reliably be counted on to defend Polish interests, issue experts and former diplomats said.

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