President Barack Obama announced Saturday that the United States has agreed to send F-16 fighter jets and C-130 cargo aircraft to train in Poland, a move Polish leadership welcomed as a sign of the U.S. commitment to defend Central and Eastern Europe.
In a quick first step, F-16s from the California Air National Guard will work alongside Polish F-16s this July in a training exercise as part of the preparations for the EURO 2012 soccer tournament. Other F-16s and C-130s will be rotated to Poland starting in 2013. Despite Polish media reports before Obama’s visit, the agreement does not deploy any F-16s for long periods and does not transfer any from a key NATO base at Aviano, Italy.
In addition to the sending of F-16s and C-130s to Poland, Obama and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk discussed the new missile defense plan and said U.S. and Polish military will conduct talks on deploying land-based interceptors in Poland in 2018.
Obama came to Poland from that summit, noting that as a member of NATO, Poland is entitled to the same pledge of support as any NATO nation. “We defend each other,” Obama said.
“No US F-16s are being deployed permanently in Poland,” said a White House aide on condition of anonymity. “What we are talking about is regular rotations of U.S. military aircraft to Poland for training and exercises – four per year. U.S. aircraft will come for a few weeks to Poland and then return to their home station.”
Temporary or not, the dispatch of U.S. pilots to Poland sent a message of assurance to Polish leaders who are skittish about Obama’s work to improve relations with Poland’s old nemesis, Russia.
Seeking to improve commercial and personal ties, Obama also announced that he’ll ask Congress to change a law so that Poles can visit the United States without visas. Obama also met Saturday with some of the veterans of the Solidarity movement who first challenged Soviet rule and helped usher in the collapse of the Soviet Union.