The Pentagon is offering to sell NATO ally Poland 250 M1A2 Abrams tanks -- considered the most advanced battle tank in the world -- as the alliance girds for a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced Friday.
Austin said the foreign arms sale will be requested through Congress in a joint press conference with Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak during an eve of war trip to NATO's eastern flank. The U.S. has deployed 4,700 soldiers to Poland amid the Ukraine crisis, in addition to a rotational force of 4,000 that was already in the country.
The U.S. has continued moving forces to Europe in recent days as Russian President Vladimir Putin has massed more than 150,000 troops around the border of Ukraine. A dozen Air Force F-35 fighter jets and 350 airmen from Utah's Hill Air Force Base arrived in Germany this week, and Austin announced Thursday that a U.S. Army Stryker company is going to NATO member Bulgaria as part of a joint training agreement.
Austin has repeatedly warned Putin that his demands to keep Ukraine out of NATO and pull back the alliance are backfiring during the secretary's trip this week to the alliance headquarters in Belgium and to Poland, where he will visit with U.S. troops.
"This is the most modern version of the Abrams and will provide Poland with a highly advanced tank capability," Austin said during the Friday joint press conference. "It will also strengthen our interoperability with the Polish armed forces, boosting the credibility of our combined deterrence efforts and those other NATO allies."
The timeline for getting the armor to a key ally in the east is still unknown. The Pentagon and State Department have notified Congress they intend to sell the Abrams to Poland, according to Austin, and lawmakers have a chance to block the deal as part of the foreign arms sale process.
The tanks will add to Polish military forces that already include Patriot batteries to defend against ballistic missile attacks and the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, a truck-mounted missile launcher. The country has also signed a deal to purchase the F-35A, considered the most advanced fighter jet in the world.
Russian forces were within 200 miles of Poland's border, according to Austin. The U.S. and NATO allies have pledged to protect member states from Russia, but President Joe Biden has made clear that American forces will not fight in Ukraine, which is a former Soviet republic and not a member of the alliance.
Blaszczak said the continent is on the verge of the most dangerous conflict in generations. Gen. Mark Milley, the Joint Chiefs chairman, and Austin have warned of massive casualties and suffering among both Ukrainians and Russian forces in the event of an invasion, as well as the potential for large numbers of civilian casualties and a surge of refugees fleeing to Poland and other areas of Europe.
"Poland is a country that has experienced war, the Second World War. We also experienced the cruelty of occupiers," Blaszczak said through an interpreter. "We are ready to support all those who need this support."
The Army's 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, began deploying to Poland earlier this month, and the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, began sending troops to Europe this week. About 6,000 soldiers are expected to deploy to the continent as part of the Ukraine response.
The U.S. has also been rotating about 7,000 troops to Poland and elsewhere in Europe since 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula amid global condemnation. The armored rotations have included 80 Abrams tanks, 130 Bradley fighting vehicles and 15 Paladin tracked artillery support vehicles.
Fears over Ukraine have increased in the past few days as the eastern part of the country has seen a surge in shelling that many believe could be used by Russia as a pretext for invasion. The fire hit a school along the border of a breakaway region where Moscow-backed separatist forces have been fighting with Ukrainian forces for years.
Cyber attacks on Tuesday disrupted the websites of Ukraine's army, defense ministry and banks, according to the Associated Press. Such moves have been predicted to be Putin's opening in a war that seeks to bring Ukraine back under the influence of Moscow as it was during the Soviet Union and the Cold War.
Meanwhile, Putin has continued to add thousands of troops around Ukraine's borders this week despite claims of pulling back, and made more preparations for war, such as building up supplies of blood for transfusions.
-- Travis Tritten can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.