Forces: Size And Tripwires Matter


November 21, 2021: Poland recently announced it was doubling the size of its military to 300,000 troops, giving the largest force among the European NATO nations. The Polish military currently consists of 110,000 troops in the land forces and 40,000 in the air force (16,500), navy (7,000), special forces (3,500), military police (4.500) and command/support (9,000). The largest component is the land forces which consists of four divisions and five independent brigades, plus support units and 30,000 TDF (Territorial Defense Force) troops. The expansion would increase the overall force to 250,000 regular troops and 50,000 TDF. The military will not resort to conscription but will increase the length of service for new volunteers and accept more volunteers. Poland already spends more (2.2 percent of GDP) than most NATO members on defense. The current budget is $13.1 billion a year. The goal for NATO nations is two percent of GDP but only a few reach or exceed that, including the United States (3.7 percent), Britain (2.2 percent) and France (2.1 percent). Russia spends 4.3 percent. Elsewhere in the world Saudi Arabia spends 8.4 percent, Israel 5.6 percent, India 2.9 percent, South Korea 2.8 percent, Australia 2.1 percent and China somewhere between two and three percent. North Korea spends about a quarter of GDP on the military but has a GDP that is only about five percent the size of South Korea’s. Global defense spending is about two trillion dollars and 2.4 percent of global GDP. U.S. spending accounts for 39 percent of that, which is equal to the next fourteen nations combined.

Polish defense has increased enormously since it joined NATO in 1999, when it was spending $3.2 billion a year. To be a NATO member they had to bring all their military equipment up to NATO standards. While some of the Cold War era Russian equipment qualified, or could do so with some modifications, Poland wanted to replace most of the Cold War gear with modern Western weapons and equipment. Fortunately for Poland and other East European nations that joined NATO after 1991, the Cold War era NATO nations were reducing their armed forces and offered a lot of modern NATO weapons to the new members at very low cost or for free. Poland was able to upgrade its forces with German and American tanks and is also buying F-35 fighters, guided rockets, more effective electronics and modern military logistical equipment. Poland was a major manufacturer of ships, aircraft, and military vehicles while part of the Russian “Warsaw Pact” that dissolved two decades ago as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. Poland is now producing NATO standard ships, aircraft, vehicles, and all manner of modern weapons. For that reason, most of the cost for expanding the military will be spent in Poland and make it possible to complete the expansion by the end of the decade or sooner.

Poland has already been expanding the size of the military, which was previously expected to reach 169,000 by 2022 as the new TDF reached its full strength of 35,000 volunteers. The TDF was established in 2016 in response to the 2014 Russian attack on Ukraine and increased aggression towards East European NATO members. TDF is like the American Active Reserve, which also requires volunteers to devote 30 days a year to active duty for training. Similar TDFs were created in the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) as part of an effort by the only NATO nations to border Russia, to have a rapidly mobilized reserve force that can handle rear-area security while the regular army troops deal with stopping a Russian offensive. The Polish TDF has a brigade for each of the 16 provinces plus one for the capital Warsaw. Each brigade has from one to five infantry battalions consisting of personnel living in that province. If Russia remains a threat, there will be no shortage of volunteers and that means the most capable volunteers can be selected. Similar territorial forces are being formed throughout Eastern Europe but Poland and the Baltic States face the most immediate threat if Russia attacks one or more of them.

After 2014 many East European nations feared Russia has gone from former occupier to current threat and all decided to speed upgrades to their armed forces, as quickly as limited budgets allowed. For example, in 2015 Lithuania increased the 2016 defense budget by 35 percent. This made defense spending 1.48 percent of GDP. All this is eerily like what happened after World War I when France and Britain tried to help protect newly created (from the wreckage of the Russian and Austrian empires) countries like Poland and the Baltic States with cheap World War I surplus weapons and promises of aid if Russia should seek to rebuild its fractured empire. The Russians did, and now that bit of history seems to be repeating itself. The newly liberated nations of East Europe are seeking some new solutions to avoid repeating old history.

In 2016 Poland and the Baltic States also asked for some American troops. Not enough to halt a Russian invasion, just enough to ensure that the Americans and their NATO allies, or at least some of them, would intervene if Russia did attack. These four nations already have a mutual defense guarantee from NATO in the form of NATO membership. But that is not enough and what has been asked for, and granted, are some American troops in each of these nations. The response is an offer to send one reinforced battalion per country. That means about 4,000 troops overall.

These four East European countries join a growing list of nations who, threatened by dangerous neighbors, have agreed, and often asked, to host American troops. The first and most obvious examples of this are South Korea, Japan, and Germany. This form of defense has been quietly followed by several nations in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE (United Arab Emirates). All these Persian Gulf nations want the Americans around to keep the Iranians out. But it is not just the Iranians. Inside Iraq there have been American troops in northern Iraq since the early 1990s, to protect the autonomous Kurdish majority up there from the Arab majority. This form of security is also called a "tripwire force" because if the host nation is attacked the presence of some U.S. troops means that a lot of U.S. reinforcements will promptly arrive. Several other nations are seeking this form of security guarantee but are not getting it, at least not yet. This includes Ukraine and Georgia. The United States is the favored source of these armed hostages because the U.S. is a superpower and, compared to all the alternatives, the least likely to take advantage of the situation.




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