The U.S. Air Force is flying for the first time at least one unarmed, unmanned drone from an air base in Poland, a move that comes soon after Warsaw said it wants to pay for a permanent American military presence in the country.
U.S. Air Forces in Europe said in a recent statement that it is operating an MQ-9 Reaper aircraft at Miroslawiec Air Base “as a visible expression of U.S. efforts to enhance regional stability.”
The base in northwestern Poland has hosted drones for a little more than two years, according to The Aviationist, a military aviation blog.
European security analysts say the drone mission is likely aimed at watching Russia’s movements along borders and coastal areas.
The U.S. has greatly increased its activity in Eastern Europe as part of a NATO mission to reassure allies, following the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
USAFE’s “priority for this mission is to maintain ready and postured forces on land, in the air, and at sea,” said USAFE spokeswoman Auburn Davis, in a statement following questions from Stars and Stripes.
“These aircraft, as currently configured, are unarmed and are only used for (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) in support of U.S. foreign policy security objectives and those of our regional partners,” Davis said.
The end date of the mission at Miroslawiec depends on funding, operational needs and other factors, Davis said.
Officials could not share exact numbers of U.S. aircraft or personnel deployed to Poland due to security concerns.
A mix of uniformed military, civilian and contract personnel will operate from the base to provide program support, Davis said.
No additional aircraft will be deployed to support the Reaper mission in Poland, which began earlier this month, officials said.
As its name implies, the Reaper is used primarily by the U.S. military to find and strike high-value targets in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq.
It’s unlikely that the aircraft is being used as a combat deterrent to Russia, said Gustav Gressel, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.
“In any conflict scenario, the Russian air defense would be quite able to take it down,” Gressel said.
The Reaper is a light aircraft with no electronic warfare defense capabilities against sophisticated Russian air defense systems, he said.
It’s more plausible, Gressel said, that the Reaper could be used to survey coastal areas along the Baltic Sea – where the Russian navy has increased its exercises and other maneuvers, as well as the border near the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and near Belarus, a Russian ally.
The Reaper could be used to support border patrols, he said.
“It can stay over ground for a very long time,” Gressel said.
But “a deeper look into Russia” is unlikely, Gressel said. The Reaper can’t overfly Russian territory and doesn’t have a particularly long range, he said.
The Reaper announcement comes as the Polish government is vying for a permanent U.S. military presence in Poland.
The Polish defense ministry wants to host a permanent U.S. armored division and has offered up to $2 billion in funding, according to a Defense Ministry proposal.
“Establishing such a force is necessary to present an unequivocal challenge and deterrence to Russia’s increasingly emboldened and dangerous posture that threatens Europe,” said the proposal, which was obtained by Polish news outlet Onet.
Poland and the Baltic states host U.S. military and NATO units that deploy on a rotational basis.
The defense “of the eastern flank is very much about time,” Gressel said. “Russia enjoys a superiority in dictating time and location of the confrontation.
“The more forces pre-deployed to the east, the easier this gets,” which Gressel said is why Poland’s desire to have more troops deployed is understandable.
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