On November 20, authorities ceremonially inaugurated the formation of the Forward Command of the United States Army’s V Corps (HQ-F) in its new location, the city of Poznań, in western Poland. The main component of the V Corps’ headquarters will remain in Fort Knox, Kentucky. This storied US Army unit, with its decades-long history of overseas deployments, was reactivated only in February 2020, after a seven-year dormancy (Defence24.pl, February 15; Gov.pl, November 20). The establishment of the HQ-F in Poznań is a part of the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) continued effort to reinforce the Alliance’s eastern flank—a strategy initiated in reaction to the Ukrainian crisis and Russian military pressure in the region. A large share of those activities is being conducted by the US independently, on the basis of bilateral agreements with its Central and Eastern European partners. The HQ-F is expected to coordinate the activities of US Land Forces operating along NATO’s eastern flank as well as facilitate the interoperability of the US Army deployed in the region with NATO allies, including, crucially, Poland.
The total number of US troops on the territory of Poland currently amounts to almost 5,000 and is expected to grow if previous bilateral declarations are fulfilled (Bbn.gov.pl, June 12, 2019; President.pl, September 23, 2019). The number includes troops being stationed under the NATO umbrella and on the basis of US-Polish bilateral engagement. Hosting US military forces on Polish territory has been one of Warsaw’s priorities for many years. The potential character of such a presence had long been the centerpiece of public debate in Poland; and so, once an agreement with Washington was reached, the Polish authorities were particularly interested in emphasizing the “rotational but [nevertheless] permanent” (Polish Press Agency, June 14, 2019) nature of the deployment. Additionally, both the 2019 “Joint Declaration on Defense Cooperation” and the “USA-Poland Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement” (ECDA), signed in August 2020, specifically describe the US deployment as an “enduring presence” (Gov.pl, August 15), likely in no small part to Warsaw’s insistence for such language.
From the Polish perspective, the issue was important domestically. The government routinely points to the robust Polish-US defense ties as a great success of its foreign policy. But in addition, Poles are somewhat suspicious of multilateral security guarantees (Pewresearch.org, February 9; Cbos.pl, March 2019) because of the country’s historical experience. And this collective mentality is one of the reasons why the current Polish authorities have favored bilateral cooperation with the US compared to pursuing multilateral defense initiatives through NATO or with other allies. Superior US military capabilities and resources aside, Warsaw is aware that in a worst-case scenario requiring a military response, NATO mechanisms based on unanimity would be significantly slower to come to a potential decision than presumably much more rapid direct US engagement. Furthermore, national and allied military structures already deployed in the region form a knotty web of overlapping layers of command that the Polish government implicitly worries could result in a blurred division of competences—for example between NATO’s Multinational Corps North-East in Szczecin and the V Corps HQ-F.
Nonetheless, the establishment of the HQ-F was met ecstatically in Poland and celebrated twice. Ahead of the formal inauguration of the forward headquarters in November (see above), the first ceremony was held in August 2020, in Kraków, where the US Army’s chief of staff, General James McConville, announced that the HQ-F will be located in Poland and then unfurled the V Corps flag. On that occasion, General McConville also promoted V Corps commander John Kolasheski to the rank of Lieutenant General (Pl.usembassy.gov, August 4). The appointment of a commander with Polish roots had symbolic meaning and was welcomed enthusiastically in Poland (Naszemiasto.pl, September 19).
The aforementioned ECDA, which was ratified by President Andrzej Duda less than two weeks before the inauguration of the HQ-F, provides a legal framework for the functioning of the unit as well as further US-Polish military cooperation in general. The document unveils Poland’s determination to keep the US militarily engaged in the region. On the basis of the agreement, Poland commits to providing infrastructural projects able to “accommodate up to 20,000 American soldiers […] if […] necessary,” as expressed by Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak (Gov.pl, August 15). In addition to managing any future increases in the US troop presence in Poland, the HQ-F’s top priority will be to conduct operational planning and to coordinate the activities of the US Army throughout Central and Eastern Europe. But with the necessary Polish military infrastructure still under construction, the HQ-F’s most important near-term area of focus will need to be logistical planning for rapid transatlantic deployments of the US Army. Next year’s Defender Europe exercise, which had to be scaled back by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, will presumably concentrate on that theme; and the V Corps has already announced it will be a major participant in the drills (Army.mil, September 9).
The establishment of the HQ-F promises to provide Poland with new military operational capabilities. Indeed, as the presence and capacity of rotational US forces in Poland has grown, the Polish military has been moving some of its heavy armored units and equipment eastward. On November 30, for example, the 2nd Tank Battalion proved its combat readiness and was certified as a result of Lampart-20 maneuvers (Twitter.com/mblaszczak, November 30). This tank unit, now stationed in Wesoła (one of the right-bank districts of Warsaw), was relocated from Żagań, a city near Poland’s western border where an Armored Brigade Combat Team of the US Army has been deployed since 2017. Moreover, the redeployment of the 2nd Tank Battalion’s Leopard-2s to Wesoła enabled the Polish Land Forces to reinforce the 15th Mechanized Brigade in Giżycko, in northeastern Poland, with additional PT-91 “Twardy” tanks. Notably, Giżycko is located just 30 kilometers from Orzysz, a city where the US-led Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) multinational battalion is deployed.
Unquestionably, the HQ-F will progressively bolster the defensibility of not only Poland but the North Atlantic Alliance’s entire eastern flank. From the Polish perspective, however, some reservations remain. It is unclear, for example, why the HQ-F was established so late and why the majority of US capabilities in the region are being kept back at a strategic depth rather than stationed near or even in the Baltic States. Nor is Warsaw sure if it can count on continued growth in US military capabilities in the region under the incoming Joseph Biden administration—a decision that could end up being shaped by Germany’s hopeful determination to retain its role as the US “fulcrum” in Europe (Bmvg.de, November 7, 19).