Fort Trump: A Silly Name Masks a Good Idea

Troops assigned to the Polish Army's 2nd Engineer Battalion, 5th Engineer Regiment and the U.S. Army's 82nd Brigade Engineer Battalion, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division train together near Oleszno, Poland Nov. 27, 2017.

U.S. ARMY PHOTO BY SPC. ANDREW MCNEIL

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Troops assigned to the Polish Army's 2nd Engineer Battalion, 5th Engineer Regiment and the U.S. Army's 82nd Brigade Engineer Battalion, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division train together near Oleszno, Poland Nov. 27, 2017.

A permanent U.S. presence in Poland makes sense for several reasons.

For months, the Trump administration had no clear stance after leaked documents revealed in May that Poland was actively requesting a permanent U.S. base. Even Poland’s promise to invest $2 billion in the effort seems to have made little impact.

This situation changed on Tuesday, when Polish President Andrzej Duda met with President Trump at the White House. At that meeting, Trump declared that his administration is seriously considering a permanent base in Poland. Jokingly or not, Duda offered to name the base Fort Trump.

Pundits were quick to mock the idea. They should not. Offering the naming rights to a former real estate developer was a canny move. More important, America has an interest in establishing a permanent presence in Poland. Whatever its ultimate name, a base there will deter Russian aggression and reassure our allies in Poland and the Baltic region.

We say this having spent several weeks interviewing government officials and defense experts in the region last year. Our conversations persuaded us that there are four reasons why Trump should fulfill Poland’s request.

First, a permanent military presence in Poland will enhance deterrence against Russia. Putting ground troops on Polish soil is a powerful signal that the United States is serious about defending Poland and, for that matter, Europe. Forward-based troops show allies and adversaries alike that Washington has “skin in the game” and is thus willing to put its own troops in danger so as to make Russia think twice about attacking. Moreover, those troops would also increase the combat power that Poland can bring to bear in the earliest stages of a conflict. As we argue elsewhere, “allies do not have faith in American commitments because American troops might die; they have faith because American troops can kill and win.”

Second, a permanent U.S. base in Poland would save American lives if a conflict broke out. Russia is investing heavily in anti-access capabilities. If it ever decides to attack Poland—or its Baltic neighbors—it will use its vast stockpiles of precision missiles, long-range artillery, and mines to interdict U.S. and NATO forces as they race into central and northeastern Europe. Every U.S. combat unit not already in position when the war breaks starts will have to fight its way into theater. The best way to conserve American combat power is to make sure it is already there.

Third, a permanent base in Poland will signal that Washington is willing to sustain its focus on NATO’s vulnerable northeastern flank. Complacency is a real threat, given the imbalance of interests, since Russia cares more its neighborhood than the United States does. Russia knows it. So does Poland. Washington may be highly attuned to the Russian threat right now, but it may not be in several years.

For partly this reason, the existing U.S. rotational presence in Poland is insufficient. Rotational deployments are easy to end. Sending a new U.S. Army combat brigade to Poland every seven months will not convince Poland or Russia that the United States will be as committed to the region in five years as it is today.

Finally, establishing a permanent base in Poland tells other allies that the United States helps allies that help themselves. Poland does not free-ride. It has promised to pay for the U.S. base. It spends about 2 percent of its GDP on defense. It is investing heavily in military modernization, including buying U.S. weapons. It is expanding its active-duty force and, since 2016, has been developing a territorial defense force.

Nevertheless, if the Trump administration does fulfill Poland’s request, there are better and worse ways of doing so. The Cold War model of a massive military footprint is inappropriate to today’s threat. We offer two suggestions based on our conversations with regional defense experts.

First, do not build one Fort Trump; build a dozen Trump-themed outposts. Big bases are too easy to hit and isolate with long-range weapons. Putting American troops in one place negates the advantages of having them in Poland in the first place. Big bases are also more likely to disrupt life for local citizens in all sorts of minor ways that could produce domestic resistance over time.

Spreading a permanent presence across multiple hardened compounds complicates Russian targeting. It also lets the United States put troops astride likely invasion routes. After all, as we argue in our forthcoming Strategic Studies Institute monograph, “tripwires only work when Russia thinks it will trip on them.”

Additionally, the focus thus far has been on putting a permanent U.S. Army divisional headquarters command. We think that putting air and missile defense units in these “bases” makes more sense. A division headquarters unit will be a major target for Russian planners, whereas air and missile defense units will increase Poland’s ability to withstand a surprise attack. They can also help “keep the door open” for U.S. and NATO reinforcements to arrive.

A division headquarters is also provocative. Russia can—and will—argue that the U.S. can use it to lead and direct an attack on Russia. Air and missile defenses, however, are far less useful for offensive missions.

Finally, a division headquarters might ironically make it harder for our allies to help themselves. A two-star American general will be a powerful figure. Polish political and military leaders will instinctively look to her or him for guidance and direction. Air and missile defense units will increase Poland’s combat power without running the risk of neglecting regional coordination.

Regardless of whether U.S. forces will be garrisoned at a place called Fort Trump, such a military presence would be worthwhile. The name may not be what we need, but the base is.

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