The 52nd Operations Group, Detachment 1, was activated Nov. 9 on Lask Air Base, Poland. F-16 and C-130 crews and aircraft will rotate periodically for training, where the total number of personnel could surge to 250. (Airman 1st Class Gustavo Castillo / Air Force)
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More than 20 years after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the Air Force has established a permanent presence in Poland.
Activated Nov. 9, a detachment of about 10 airmen will be permanently assigned to Lask Air Base, a Polish installation, said Capt. William Russell, a spokesman for U.S. Air Forces in Europe. They will serve yearlong, unaccompanied tours.
The Air Force also will rotate personnel and aircraft through the base, and that could push the number of U.S. personnel there up to 200 at any given time, Russell said in an email. The Air Force has no plans to permanently station aircraft in Poland.
"Currently, the USAF plans for F-16s and C-130s to be the primary aircraft considered for the periodic rotations," Russell said in an email. "The Polish air force flies the same aircraft, which will strengthen our nations' air interoperability."
The Air Force expects aircraft and personnel to make four two-week rotations to Lask Air Base in 2013, Russell said. All airmen who go to Poland will live in communities around Lask instead of being stationed on base.
"The cities surrounding Lask Air Base offer several hotel options to incoming units; it will be the discretion of the incoming unit as to the location they select for lodging," he said.
Having U.S. airmen in Poland allows the countries to hold bilateral and multinational exercises, Russell said.
"A more capable Polish ally will help us realize our shared foreign and security policy priorities within the broader NATO alliance," he said.
Since at least two of the exercises planned for 2013 involve F-16s, it will be possible to involve allies from the Persian Gulf, said Ian Brzezinski, deputy assistant defense secretary for Europe and NATO policy from 2001 to 2005.
"Most of the air forces in the Persian Gulf fly F-16s, so one could imagine the Poles and maybe a Persian Gulf partner hosting the equivalent of a Red Flag exercise," Brzezinski said. "That benefits the U.S. Air Force and U.S. interests because we're ensuring a wider number of countries have air forces that are certified as interoperable for NATO air force operations. So for a very small investment of personnel and resources, we could get a very significant return."
The Poles have come a long way in updating their air force and the U.S. airmen at Lask will "accelerate their learning," said retired Gen. Roger Brady, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe from 2008 to 2011.
"There's an upper tier of capability in NATO," Brady said. "The upper tier are those guys that can fly modern equipment and deploy and help you and help the alliance. About a third or more of the allies can do that. Poland has joined that kind of group with this capability."
The Air Force will also benefit from the partnership by gaining a fresh perspective from the Polish troops, Brady said.
"I'm sure our guys and gals will do some mentoring along the way," he said. "Both people learn when you do that. The Poles — they're smart guys and gals — they'll have new insights; they'll probably see some things that we haven't seen. Fresh eyes on a challenge is always useful, and so I think both will benefit from that."
The presence of U.S. airmen in Poland is a huge psychological benefit to Poles, who felt in recent years the U.S. was not showing enough gratitude for Poland's contribution to efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Piotr Kosicki, who teaches history at the University of Virginia.
"For Poles, I think even having 10 people on the ground makes a difference," Kosicki said. "It's partly the gesture and it's partly the promise of something long-term. This is simply a statement that Americans are there and Americans are willing to put their own people's lives, even a small number, behind their commitment to Poland."
In recent years, the Air Force has increased its presence elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
The U.S. is one of 12 nations taking part in a multinational airlift wing based at Papa Air Base, Hungary, which reached full operational capacity Nov. 14, according to a USAFE news release.