Here’s one of the more intriguing defense items in recent days, courtesy of a Polish newspaper and reprinted by The Aviationist:
According to the Polish “Rzeczpospolita” Daily, that quotes the U.S. General David W. Allvin, Director, Strategy, and Policy, Headquarters U.S. European Command, the Americans may permanently deploy F-22 Raptor jets to Poland.
Rzeczpospolita claims that Allvin came up with an idea of reinforcing the Polish airbases with a U.S. presence instead of establishing a permanent US military infrastructure within the territory of Poland, which may violate the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE).
The idea, already proposed by the Pentagon, needs to be approved by the US Congress now.
Would the U.S. station a small detachment of its most advanced fighter jets on Russia’s door step? At first blush, it’s easy to dismiss these claims. True, a pair of Raptors stopped briefly at Lask Airbase, near the city of Lodz, during a recent European deployment. And yes, the Pentagon is making infrastructure investments at various Polish airfields, to improve inter-operability with U.S. and NATO forces.
But $8 million won’t come close to funding the facilities upgrades needed to base F-22s at Lask–or any other Polish airfield. Multiply that figure by a factor of 20 or 30 and you’ll be closer to the actual price tag for creating a Raptor FOB in Europe.
On the other hand, that $8 million might be an initial down payment, with more funding to follow. It’s no secret the Defense Department is ramping up spending in Europe to counter growing Russian aggression under Vladimir Putin. Last month, the Obama Administration announced plans to spend an additional $3.4 billion on military forces in Europe through 2017–roughly a three-fold increase over previous budgetary proposals. Much of the additional funding will be used to maintain the equivalent of an armored brigade in eastern Europe at all times, with some of the equipment prepositioned in the Baltic States. The three small republics–Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania–are NATO members, and increasingly worried about a Russian-sponsored proxy war, similar to the on-going conflict in Ukraine.
Testifying before the House Armed Service Committee last month, General Philip Breedlove, the commander of U.S. forces in Europe, described Russia as an “existential threat” to the United States and said the era of trying to make Russia a partner is “over.” Breedlove also noted that Moscow’s military modernization has left NATO scrambling to upgrade its forces.
It’s also worth noting that General Breedlove is an Air Force officer–one of the few airmen to lead EUCOM over the past 40 years. Obviously, he understands the importance of airpower in countering the renewed Russian threat, and he would probably support the idea of having fifth-generation fighters continuously available in his theater. Putting F-22s in the Baltics is probably a non-starter; that’s a little too close to Russian territory and they would be vulnerable in a surprise attack. On the other hand, a Raptor detachment in Poland would put them close enough to the Baltics, while appearing slightly less provocative.
Still, there’s the matter of how far Mr. Obama is willing to go in challenging his Russian counterpart. If Syria is any indication, the President will likely stop with the spending increase and stationing the armored brigade equivalent in eastern Europe. During General Breedlove’s testimony last month, the HASC chairman, Congressman Mac Thornberry of Texas, dryly noted that the presence of the armored unit would hardly “leave the Russians quaking in their boots.” The same political calculus would probably prevent a permanent Raptor presence in eastern Europe.
Stationing F-22s in Europe would also place a further strain on fighter fleet that is severely size constrained. The U.S. is already paying the price for capping Raptor production at 187 airframes. Operational squadrons at Langley AFB, VA; Tyndall AFB, FL, Elmendorf AFB, AK and Hickam AFB, HI are constantly deployed to hotspots in the Middle East, Far East and elsewhere. Putting F-22s in Poland or elsewhere in Europe would mean transferring jets from one of those locations–and making fewer available for other deployments.
However, the prospect of some sort of Raptor basing arrangement in Europe cannot be ruled out. The Poles–and other eastern European allies–are watching the Russian resurgence with alarm and are actively pressing NATO for a greater presence. And, military leaders like General Breedlove and JCS Chairman Joseph Dunford understand that a political change is in the offing. A Republican win in November–while hardly assured–would create a more favorable environment for U.S. military deployments in eastern Europe, including the money to pay for base upgrades, training ranges and other required infrastructure. Poland in particular provides an excellent venue for combined arms training, without many of the airspace and noise restrictions found in places in Germany and Italy.
In the interim, keep an eye on the F-22 deployment schedule. It will be interesting to see how often they return to Europe and if future visits include longer stays at places like Lask. The $8 million investment in Polish airbases is also worth tracking, pparticularly if that initial outlay (literally budget dust in Pentagon terms) is followed by some real upgrades, tailored towards the F-22 and F-35.