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'Fort Trump': Poland buys US jets to bolster bilateral ties

January 31, 2020

A deal to buy 32 fighter jets for $4.6 billion is one of the biggest in Polish history. Warsaw hopes it will boost relations with Washington, cement US protection, and has floated the idea of "Fort Trump" to curry favor.

US fighter jet F-35A Lightning II
Image: Daniel Hughes/U.S. Air Force/Handout via Reuters

Friday, January 31, 2020 "will be written in the annals of the history of the Polish army," said Polish Minister of National Defense Mariusz Blaszczak. On this day, he and Polish President Andrzej Duda will sign a "historic" multi-billion-dollar deal for the purchase of 32 F-35A Lightning fighter jets. The Polish Air Force has never before had such modern military equipment and leaders praised the jets, produced by the world's largest arms manufacturing company, Lockheed Martin, as the "top of the top" of military hardware.

First planes to arrive in 2024

"Potential attackers should know that if they invade Poland they will get a resolute response. And these planes can deliver that response," said Blaszczak, a member of the ruling right-wing populist Law and Justice (PiS) party, in an interview with Polish state media. He also said he was proud of what he called a "good" final price, noting that Poland was originally asked to pay $6.5 billion for the planes, but would now only have to pay $4.6 billion (€4.2 billion). Blaszczak compared the deal to one in which Belgium purchased 34 US jets for $4.25 billion.

The first planes are scheduled for delivery in 2024. At that point, Polish pilots and ground personnel will head to the US for training. The planes will then be fully integrated into the Polish army two years later. Poland also intends to purchase unmanned reconnaissance systems to augment its investment in the fighter jets.

Much-needed modernization

The acquisition of warplanes is part of the PiS government's large-scale plan to modernize Poland's military. Some 100,000 soldiers currently serve in the country's army, which is the largest on NATO's eastern flank. Right now, those soldiers train in old planes and tanks left over from the days of the Soviet Union, with only one-third of Poland's Soviet MiG-29 fighter jets being war-ready.

Three of Poland's MiGs have crashed within the past two years, and experts have cited lack of replacement parts and insufficient maintenance as a serious security issue. Poland also has the third largest tank fleet in NATO, right behind the US and Turkey. However, many of those tanks are old, too. They are, however, scheduled to be outfitted with newer onboard equipment as part of the PiS modernization scheme.

Read more: What you need to know about NATO

Polish President Andrzej Duda (l.) and US President Donald Trump
Polish President Duda at the White House in June 2019: Sealing ties with a key allyImage: picture-alliance/Newscom/UPI Photo/S. Thew

More military expenditures

The PiS government finds it flattering that US President Donald Trump regularly singles it out for praise when speaking about military expenditures within NATO. The country spends more than others within the alliance, and is one of the few that allots more than 2% of annual GDP to military expenditures.

Warsaw has continued to set the bar higher still, and plans to boost its military investments to 2.5% of GDP by 2030. One of the largest beneficiaries of Poland's relatively high military budget has been the US arms industry. For instance, in 2018, Poland spent even more on two Patriot surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems — produced by Raytheon — than it did for the F-35s. With a final price tag of $4.75 billion, the arms deal was the largest in Polish history.

Criticism from the opposition

Still, Friday's deal is controversial in Poland. Tomasz Siemoniak of the opposition Civic Platform party, himself a former defense minister (2011-2015), said the decision was made "too quickly and without adhering to proper procedures." He noted that "analyses were ignored, parliament was not consulted, and there was no public debate on the issue."

Opposition politicians have accused the government of holding "secret" negotiations with the US, and parliamentarians complain they had no opportunity to familiarize themselves with the planned purchase because it was not clearly listed in the military's annual defense budget. Civic Platform politicians have decried the deal as "propaganda," and have asked the Supreme Chamber of Control (NIK), Poland's chief state auditor, to investigate the cost effectiveness of the deal.

US tanks of the "Atlantic Resolve" mission in Poland
Welcome to Poland: US tanks of the mission 'Atlantic Resolve' at Poland's Camp Drawsko PomorskieImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Bielecki/PAP

Cementing US protection

Yet, despite complaints about the high costs required to guarantee US protection, even opposition politicians agree that it is far more desirable to get protection from Washington than from Brussels. "There can be no doubt, the US is Poland's most important ally, and it is right that we should purchase military hardware from US manufacturers," says Siemoniak. 

Warsaw has long been wary of the threat posed by its eastern neighbor, Russia, and since war broke out in eastern Ukraine, Poland has gone to great lengths to get Washington to permanently station US troops within its borders. In the wake of Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, NATO battalions were subsequently deployed to Poland and the Baltic states. Currently, more than 4,500 US troops are stationed in Poland. But that has not been enough to satisfy decision makers in Warsaw, who complain about the US rotation system, which has soldiers coming and going regularly.

NATO's show of force in Poland

Making the pitch for Fort Trump

In 2018, the PiS launched a diplomatic offensive in Washington in hopes of convincing the US to build a permanent military base in the central European country. Part of that offensive included providing US administration officials and members of Congress with a paper entitled, "Proposal for a US Permanent Presence in Poland." Produced by a Polish think tank, the paper emphasized the fact that Warsaw would like the US to station an entire tank division in the country, and that it would be willing to pay $2 billion for the privilege of hosting them.

In a clear attempt to gain his US counterpart's blessing through overt flattery, Duda quickly dubbed the proposed military base "Fort Trump." To date, Trump has failed to deliver on his 2019 promise to deploy a further 1,000 troops to Poland. And now Warsaw is continuing to ingratiate itself with Trump by making large-scale purchases of US military hardware as a way to move the ball forward in hopes of one day opening the fort bearing his name.