Ukraine Crisis: Poland’s Air Defenses Become A Pressing Concern For Washington


Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s campaign to annex the Crimean Peninsula has raised military tensions in Eastern Europe as former Soviet republics and their western neighbors wonder what Moscow’s next move might be.  Although the Crimea was part of Russia for centuries before Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev folded it into the Ukrainian republic in 1954, military planners in Eastern Europe’s capitals can’t ignore the possibility that Putin might seek to recover other lost territories.  One place where people are especially apprehensive is Poland, a country of 38 million that joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004 but shares borders with three former Soviet republics and the Russian enclave at Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea.

With few natural barriers to keep invaders out, the Poles are counting on western allies to back up their own indigenous defense efforts.  Western nations in turn need Warsaw’s support for whatever sanctions they impose on Russia to deter further expansionist moves.  But history has taught the Poles that they can’t count on other nations to save them, so long before the Ukraine crisis unfolded, Warsaw decided to buy a network of defenses against overhead threats originating in Russia.  Called the Polish Shield, the $43 billion project would be able to counter fighters, bombers, drones, cruise missiles and tactical ballistic missiles.  Longer-range ballistic missiles could be handled by land- and sea-based defenses the U.S. is deploying to the region.

The linchpin of the Polish Shield is a family of mobile radars and surface-to-air missiles that Warsaw will buy from foreign suppliers, with the aim of giving much of the production work to local contractors.  Poland’s military has narrowed down the number of prospective offerors to four teams – two led by U.S. companies, one by French companies, and one by Israelis.  And that’s where the politics begin.  The traditional U.S. champion in such competitions has been Raytheon’s RTN +0.87% Patriot air defense system, which was developed during the Cold War.  The U.S. had planned to develop a successor to Patriot called the Medium Extended Air Defense System, or MEADS, but the Army decided to kill that program several years back for lack of funding.

There isn’t much doubt that the next-generation MEADS is more capable than Patriot — or at least would be if it entered production.  It offers 360-degree radar coverage in an easily transportable configuration that could be mounted on the Army’s most common medium truck.  All of its sensors, missiles and command centers can be carried on C-130 or A400 airlifters, and once on the ground the system’s wireless links enable it to disperse to safe locations without losing any of its defensive punch.  The much heavier Patriot batteries only cover 90-120 degrees of the horizon and require a lot more airlift.  Moving them around once they are deployed on the ground is a logistical challenge.

The Army decided to stick with Patriot partly because at the time it was fighting insurgents who lacked aircraft and missiles — making air defense a low priority.  But it isn’t a low priority anymore because the focus of U.S. military strategy is shifting to the Western Pacific where U.S. forces confront a rising China, and now Russia has forced its way back into U.S. military calculations.  Both countries field ballistic missiles and airborne weapons that would present a challenge to Patriot in its current form, and the outlook is for such weapons to become more capable in the future.

So in an unusual move, the Obama Administration late last week gave prime contractor Lockheed Martin permission to offer the Medium Extended Air Defense System to Warsaw for use in Polish Shield.  The Poles have known about MEADS for some time, because two other European NATO nations — Germany and Italy – provided 42% of the money needed to develop it.  A Polish delegation showed up for November tests in which a MEADS prototype demonstrated its ability to intercept a drone and a ballistic missile approaching from opposite directions.  The Poles were predictably impressed, and have included MEADS on their short list of systems that might be suitable to defend against a Russian attack.

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