Polish Missile Defense Plan Puts Poland First

In an August 6, 2012 interview in the Polish weekly Wprost, President Bronislaw Komorowski stated that Poland is prepared to create its own  anti-aircraft and missile defense system as part of a NATO shield. While some saw the statement as a rejection of U.S. President Barack Obama’s proposed missile defense system, others viewed it as a sign of  Poland’s weakening military alliance with the United States. Both arguments are misleading.

The missile and air defense system proposed by the Polish president is qualitatively different than the American Missile Defence System (MD), scheduled for deployment by 2018. The proposed Polish system would target short and medium range missiles from the near abroad, while the American MD shield would be capable of shooting down long range ballistic missiles originating from rouge states such as Iran. The Polish MD system is to be part of the NATO MD shield and would be an expansion of Poland’s contribution to the Alliance, rather than creating a competing system, as some suggest.

The history of the American MD shield in Poland is long, complicated, and full of emotions. After years of difficult negotiations between Poland and the U.S., and amid adamant objections from Russia, Poland accepted the Bush administration’s MD program on August 20, 2008. Earlier that year, the Polish government vigorously debated whether to accept the proposal of an outgoing Bush administration, which promised to complete the MD base in Poland by 2011, or whether to wait for the next U.S. president to be elected the following November. Even before the U.S. presidential elections, the Polish side made robust efforts to understand the Democratic position on the MD system, should Obama become President. The final factor that convinced the Polish government to go ahead with the Bush MD program was the August 2008 Russia-Georgia war, which proved that state-on-state violence in Europe is still possible. The timing of this decision demonstrated the rationale for American MD for Poland.

The value of the American shield for Poland is not only its capacity to shoot down ballistic missiles, but also the presence of American “boots on the ground” that would serve as a powerful deterrent for any potential aggressor. The Polish government’s decision in the fall of 2008 was a gamble. By accepting the American project, Poland immediately paid the political price of strong Russian opposition without yet having an American base installed and the US Presidential elections further contributed to this uncertainty.

After Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 election, his administration initiated a review of several Bush administration decisions, including the MD program. Consequently, on September 17, 2009, President Obama called Polish Prime Minister Tusk to inform him that plans to implement the MD system would be modified. The administration proposed a new, reformulated project that would entail smaller, mobile SM-3 interceptors to be stationed in Poland by 2018.

This sudden shift in the U.S. policy was badly received  in Poland. First, the change in the program came as an announcement without prior consultations. Second, the Obama MD system plans for the Polish based installation to be completed by 2018, much later than the Bush plan, which adds uncertainty to the entire project. And third, the call from Obama came on the anniversary of Russia’s attack on Poland at the start of WWII, adding unfortunate and negative symbolism to the announcement. The abrupt shift in American policy has raised doubts of the US commitment to Poland.

President Komorowski’s commented that the “mistake was that by accepting the American offer of a shield we failed to take into account the political risk associated with a change of president. We paid a high political price.” – referred directly to the gamble Poland took in 2008 near the change in the U.S. administration. Unfortunately, his statement has been largely misinterpreted. Depicting Poland as ‘betrayed and abandoned’, as The Telegraph did, and characterizing the deployment of American MD in Poland as a mistake paints an inaccurate picture. The following day the Head of the Polish National Security Bureau Stanislaw Koziej reasserted that President Komorowski sees the American MD project as a “necessary and important part of a NATO wide missile defense system.” He also stated that prioritizing anti-aircraft and missile defense is part of a new strategic direction agreed by the Minister of Defense and the top military commander. Last year, they reflected an understanding among the Polish military staff that to be effective in contemporary conflicts, the army needs a well functioning short and mid-range MD shield. After all, Russia already threatened to deploy its Iskanders missiles in the Kalinigrad district later this year.

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 missile defenses independent of any proposed American MD system. The two systems are complimentary, not competing. The announcement reflects an increasing confidence and affluence of a country that is increasingly able to rely on its own strength for its security. Furthermore, prioritizing anti-missile defense reveals the Polish government’s growing focus on the primacy of territorial defense over expeditionary capabilities. The Polish MD system is to be financed from the savings of winding down the war in Afghanistan, and from the growth of military budget over the coming years related to Poland’s economic growth (Polish law mandates that 1.95% of GDP is spent on defense). According to initial estimates, it would be a pricy program, costing 8 to 15 billion zl ($3-5 billion) over the next 10 years. Such costs would lower Poland’s appetite and ability to take part in expensive expeditionary missions. But with its increased focus on its own territory, don’t expect Poland to eagerly step up, as it did in Iraq and Afghanistan, if another hot spot boils over somewhere else in the world.

Michal Baranowski is a Senior Program Officer with the German Marshall Fund’s Foreign Policy & Civil Society program and Jacob Foreman is an intern at the  German Marshall Fund‘s Warsaw Office.