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Defending NATO's East: Rapid Reinforcement or Forward Deployment?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

In early August 2008, Russian military forces invaded the nation of Georgia. An American action encouraged the Kremlin to halt its attack. U.S. Air Force transports flew elite Georgian infantrymen deployed in Iraq from Iraqi bases to their hard-pressed home country.

August 2018, a decade later: Poland audaciously asked America to build a permanent U.S. military base on its territory.

Poles contend the Russo-Georgia War signaled Russia's imperialist revival. Russia's 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea and its war with Ukraine provide uncontestable proof Eastern Europeans must prepare to fight an aggressive Russia.

Deterrence is preferable to war. On August 15, speaking at a Polish Armed Forces Day parade, Polish President Andrzej Duda said a permanent U.S. Army presence in his country would "deter every potential aggressor."

"Every potential aggressor" qualifies as a wry Polish joke. Eastern Europe confronts only one significant aggressor: Russia.

Warsaw believes deterring Russia requires more than just an American alliance. It requires in-the-flesh American soldiers.

After Russia annexed Crimea, NATO began regular "rotational" (temporary) deployments in Eastern European NATO nations, specifically Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia.

NATO exercises in these nations have increased in size and frequency. Though Georgia is not yet a NATO member, it is on track to become one. NATO units exercise with Georgian forces. U.S. Army Abrams tank units recently trained on a Georgian gunnery range. NATO members have politically committed the alliance to preserving Georgia's territorial integrity.

However, no American or Western European NATO combat units are permanently deployed in vulnerable "eastern rim" nations.

Permanent military garrisons are tangible physical and political commitments. That's why the Poles want one. If NATO opts for permanent garrisons, the neo-imperialist Kremlin will go on neo-Red alert, claiming the garrison proves America plans to attack Mother Russia. Perhaps pitiful Kremlin threats exposing Russian military impotence is the response NATO seeks.

But that leads to another consideration. Permanent U.S. military installations in Poland are within range of literally thousands of Russian short and intermediate range missiles and tactical strike aircraft. Unless heavily defended, the "forward deployed" permanent garrison could forward destroyed in 20 minutes.

Heavy defenses require money. Defense spending within NATO is a factor, militarily and politically. Europe 2018 is not 1945's shattered wreck. Germany, France and the Low Countries are wealthy.

In 2014, NATO members agreed to buy new equipment and spend a minimum of two percent of GDP on defense. But by the beginning of 2017, only five of NATO's 29 members had achieved the two percent goal (U.S., Britain, Greece, Estonia and Poland). Incoming President Donald Trump threw theatrical fits, appearing to suggest NATO did nothing but fleece the U.S. Treasury.

I'll defend this depiction as accurate. Trump never explicitly said he wanted to quit NATO, and his subsequent actions demonstrate he supports the alliance. However, The Dealmaker in Chief did want to scare defense-spending laggards who did not meet alliance budget obligations.

That's Trump diplomacy. His theater may have gotten some results. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "If one looks closely at the most recent trends in the NATO data, they imply that Europe has been doing more doing more while the U.S. share of NATO has been shrinking." CSIS also reported: "Eight NATO Allies will reach the 2 percent benchmark (by December 2018), and 15 Allies are on track to spend 2 percent by 2024."

Perhaps these were the long-term trends, but Trump demanded tangible spending increases.

CSIS's chief analyst Anthony Cordesman argues that a strict budget analysis of NATO is a mistake. Cordesman says the alliance has made some "tangible efforts" to "create the forces needed for defense and deterrence: The 30-30-30-30 plan that calls for NATO to have 30 land battalions, 30 air fighter squadrons and 30 ships ready to deploy within 30 days of being put on alert."

This is a rapid reinforcement option, not a permanent forward deployment. Unfortunately, both may be required.

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