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Weapons Pre-Positioning in Eastern Europe Inadequate to the Task

Apprehensive of Russian aggression in their neighborhood, Central and Eastern European countries like Poland and the Baltic nations have beseeched the United States to establish an extensive military presence on their territory. The Obama administration has so far deflected these calls despite those allies having persistent fears of alliance abandonment. However, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced on Tuesday plans to pre-position American heavy weaponry in Central and Eastern Europe. Such a move represents the most significant demonstration of support that the United States has so far shown those allies during the ongoing crisis with Russia. Still, it is important not to overstate its strategic benefits. 

Consider first the substance of the Pentagon announcement. It declares that the United States will pre-position tanks, Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, and self-propelled howitzer artillery in Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The purpose of pre-positioning is to reduce the time needed for a military unit (e.g., a company or a battalion) to ready itself for combat upon being inserted in a theater of operations. At best, pre-positioned weapons require a small number of military personnel who serve to preside over them. 

Yet a stronger commitment would involve garrisoning even greater numbers of military personnel, something that Poland has already requested from the United States early last year. Such large-scale deployments convey military support because the United States would have “skin in the game.” Its own soldiers are on the line in case Russia would attack the ally’s territory directly. That is why the United States stationed its personnel in West Berlin during the Cold War. In so doing, it signaled its intention to fight on the side of West Germany against Soviet aggression. 

Pre-positioning instead involves the placement of military hardware without a meaningful troop garrison to accompany it. Should actual hostilities breakout between an ally and Russia, the United States could be tempted to disavow its pre-positioned military equipment so as not to incur further losses. Losing weapons in vain is easier than losing soldiers and the families stationed with them in vain.

Pre-positioning also introduces a problem that is more intractable for the relatively small Baltic countries than for Poland. In the event of an actual invasion, Russia’s military would likely overwhelm the armed forces of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania by virtue of its numerical superiority. To defend its gains on the battlefield, Russia could use its naval and air forces to deny access to NATO forces seeking to rescue the Baltic countries. Put simply, getting American soldiers to those pre-positioned weapons would present a serious challenge in a combat environment.

By virtue of its size, geography, and ground power, pre-positioned heavy weaponry in Poland have greater military value. Polish forces should be able to forestall Russian advances just long enough to buy time for the United States to dispatch its forces from Germany and come to its aid. Nevertheless, the commitment symbolized by pre-positioning remains weak precisely because the benefits are largely tactical rather than strategic. The United States could still just as well renounce its military equipment to cut its losses if hostilities do break out.

Perhaps Central and Eastern European governments recognize the limitations of this possible gesture of the United States. In their view, it has its appeal for being a step above other signals of alliance support. After all, since the crisis with Russia began late winter last year, the United States has participated in joint military exercises with those allies in order to enhance their war-fighting capabilities, improve military-to-military relations, communicate resolve, and show diplomatic support. The United States has also dispatched small units like those from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team to Central and Eastern Europe. Pre-positioning could serve as a prelude for stronger and more indefinite demonstrations of commitment. 

A meaningful response does not have to manifest itself in a massive troop deployment of the sort that Poland wanted in its early 2014 request for 10,000 NATO troops. At a minimum, moving the headquarters of the 173rd Airborne Brigade from Italy to Poland will help the United States signal its willingness to throw its lot with Central and Eastern Europe. Yes, this move will involve breaking NATO assurances made to Russia in the 1990s not to garrison combat forces on the territory of those NATO members who were once under the Soviet sphere of influence. However, with Russia violating Ukrainian sovereignty and adopting an aggressive posture vis-à-vis Central and Eastern Europe, the United States should no longer be captive to promises made in another time.

Ironically, Russia has already denounced the pre-positioning proposals as destabilizing. It has so far responded with the announcement that it intends to put more than 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles into service. This move serves to deter further American actions while holding hostage Central and Eastern European states. The Kremlin’s complaints may be disingenuous for the reasons described above. Nevertheless, its response suggests that the Pentagon’s pre-positioning proposal is a halfway measure that both plays to Russian fears and gives the Kremlin an excuse to saber rattle. And, for its part, the West’s strategic position has not been appreciably enhanced because the deployment of equipment does not deter an invasion as would the deployment of troops. 

Alexander Lanoszka is the Stanton Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT’s Security Studies Program. 

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