The United States Air Force is relocating its airborne refueling infrastructure for combat aircraft from Germany to Poland in an unmistakable bid to bolster NATO’s eastern frontier. Along this periphery, the Alliance grapples with significant challenges and recurrently confronts the Kremlin’s provocations.
While dismissing the Baltic states’ sovereignty as the Chinese ambassador to France has recently done would be unwarranted, the question of their capacity to defend their region merits consideration. As Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—NATO members since 2004—lack the requisite aerial assets, the Alliance’s other governments are responsible for patrolling their skies. This is rendered even more critical by the existence of the strategic Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, nestled between Lithuania, the Baltic Sea, and Poland, and lacking direct terrestrial links to Russia. The situation is further exacerbated by routine incursions of Russian aircraft with disabled transponders that bypass communication with Baltic air traffic control and eschew flight plans.
Since Ukraine’s invasion, the Pentagon has elevated the presence of American troops on the continent from approximately 80,000 to over 100,000, with more than 10,000 stationed at Polish bases. To enhance command and control capacities, a U.S. Army garrison was established in Poznan, Poland, in March—situated a mere 60 miles west of Powidz, the impending destination for nearly 20 tanker aircraft. As part of Operation Copper Arrow, the U.S. Air Force Reserve, and Air National Guard will transfer “tankers” from Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany to Poland, thereby augmenting aerial refueling capabilities on the continent and targeting NATO’s “soft underbelly.”
U.S. military personnel have expressed immense satisfaction with the seamless integration of these assets with allied aircraft. Observing these “flying petrol stations,” from the venerable KC-135 to the advanced KC-46, refueling a Polish F-16 or a Finnish F/A-18, underscores the achievement of “interoperability”—the capacity for diverse assets and systems to interact harmoniously.
The 33rd Air Base in Powidz, which hosts these in-flight refueling and strategic transport military aircraft, represents NATO’s most substantial infrastructure investment since the Cold War’s denouement. In addition to the tanker aircraft, it will accommodate a long-term storage and maintenance complex for equipment and a brigade’s combat-ready hardware. Both Washington and Warsaw emphasize that this facility will ensure the rapid and decisive response of the U.S. and the Alliance to crises. Refueling capabilities could potentially extend to the world’s most sophisticated fighter jet, the F-35A Lightning II, thereby broadening NATO’s mission range. Washington asserts that the move signifies “the ability of the U.S. European Command to swiftly deploy sizeable forces and credible combat equipment across Europe.” In essence, the Atlantic Alliance can now “cover” the air forces of member nations along the entire eastern flank, rendering it less vulnerable.
Notably, the “air tankers” at Powidz commenced flights in early March, with Finland’s fighter aircraft—having recently joined NATO—among the first “customers.” This sends an unambiguous and potent message to Moscow. It has been received, as Russia’s Deputy Chairman of the Supreme Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, has gone so far as to declare Poland perpetually “hostile” to Russia, with imperial aspirations rivaling Moscow’s. In other words, Russia perceives Poland as an adversary to be treated accordingly, even if it necessitates pushing its borders further away, which, in the absence of a European security pact, poses a risk to Russia.
Moscow is undoubtedly displeased with the deployment of American assets and the presence of Dutch and French fighter jets safeguarding the Baltic, which will facilitate greater integration and heightened efficacy of NATO member states’ aerial capabilities. The Nordic countries—Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway—have independently embarked on the creation of a unified air force. Washington now appears poised to lend support to such initiatives, allowing it to maintain a central role and continue dictating the terms of engagement with Russia.