The Complex

U.S., Canadian Militaries Bolster Air Power in Poland in Face of Ukraine Crisis

The U.S. and Canadian militaries unveiled new measures Thursday designed to show Western resolve in the face of the ongoing Ukraine crisis and signal concrete support for other vulnerable eastern European countries. Ottawa announced that it would send six warplanes to Poland, while Washington said it would keep a detachment of 12 F-16 fighters in the country through the end of the year.

The Pentagon also may increase the amount of American ground troops in Poland, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday. He provided few additional details about what is planned, but said Moscow's encroachment into Ukraine over the last two months means the United States must be prepared for any potential Russian move. Washington has enjoyed warm relations with Warsaw for years, but the Pentagon has maintained a permanent presence of U.S. troops there only since 2012, and even then it was a small detachment with just a handful of U.S. airmen. They were sent to support squadrons of U.S. warplanes that go to Poland on a rotational basis to teach Polish pilots how to fly F-16s.

"We have to be alert to all possibilities," Hagel said. "The actions of the Russians over the last two months are not only irresponsible, with violating the territorial integrity of a sovereign nation, they're dangerously irresponsible."

The announcements came as Ukrainian and Russian officials struck a deal in Geneva designed to de-escalate a situation that has plunged Western-Russian relations to their lowest point since the Cold War. Under the terms of the agreement, pro-Russian militants in Ukraine must lay down their weapons and evacuate the government buildings they'd seized in recent days. In return, Ukraine agreed to offer amnesty to the protestors who have not committed serious crimes. Secretary of State John Kerry called it "a good day's work," but warned that Washington would impose more sanctions on Russia if it doesn't make good on its promises.

The parallel announcements by the American and Canadian militaries provided a striking counterpoint to the cautious optimism coming from Geneva. And they underscored a key point: the new deal doesn't address the 80,000 troops Russia has massed on its border with eastern Ukraine, a force so large that NATO commanders have warned that Moscow could conquer the entire country in days.

Kiev's new pro-Western government isn't the only one worried about Russia. Officials from Poland and other eastern European countries have expressed mounting alarm in recent weeks that Putin might have designs on their nations as well. Poland is a NATO member, and the United States and its allies have promised to come to its aid if Russia invaded.

Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon during a joint appearance with Hagel, Polish Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak said his country wants "to be as close to the West as possible."

"There is no other way for us to guarantee our own security," he said.

Ahead of his appearance at the Pentagon, Siemoniak said Wednesday that he wanted more U.S. troops in Poland to deter Russia. He declined to specify what an increased U.S. military presence could look like, but said Poland wanted "the development of NATO and American infrastructure and an increasing military presence" from its allies in its countries.

"What's important to us is to cover diverse areas with this presence," he told Defense News. "But Army presence or [an] Army base would be a very visible testimony to the American boots on the Polish ground.

Canada was one of the first to step up. The supersonic CF-18 fighters they will deploy are based on the U.S.'s F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet, and carry a similar arsenal of missiles, bombs and guns. They will operation out of Lask, Poland, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday. Russia's "expansionism" in Ukraine, he said, is a "long-term serious threat to global peace and security," promising that Canada will help its NATO allies.

The deployment strengthens air power in eastern Europe more than two months after the Pentagon first said it would increase the amount of jet it keeps there as a result of the Ukraine crisis. Washington sent six F-15 fighters and a KC-135 tanker plane based in Great Britain to Lithuania in March. It also sent the F-16 fighters to Poland whose time there has been extended through the end of the year.

U.S. Air Force photo

National Security

Pentagon Offers to Help Following South Korean Shipwreck Disaster

The USS Bonhomme Richard is steaming toward the site of the South Korean passenger ship Sewol, which sank roughly 60 miles offshore after running aground in shallow water Wednesday morning, authorities said. The emergency has sparked a scramble to save as many of the 450 people who were on board as possible. At least four are dead and some 284 passengers -- many of the children -- remain unaccounted for, raising fears that they may be trapped below the Sewol's deck as it takes on water.

The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps could launch a variety of helicopters to respond to the deadly ferry disaster off the southern tip of South Korea, using the Bonhomme Richard, a 40,000-ton warship, as a base from which to help in the crisis, U.S. military officials said Wednesday. But with hypothermia a significant threat to stranded passengers, there is a tight window of time in which survivors may be saved.

Frigid temperatures make it unlikely that passengers could survive long in the water, said Christopher Harmer, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War and former Navy helicopter pilot. The water in the area where the ship sank is about 54 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning hypothermia will set in quickly for wet passengers still trapped on the ship, and even more swiftly for anyone floating nearby.

The Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault ship, routinely carries hundreds of U.S. Marines and sailors and was on a routine patrol in waters west of the Korean peninsula when the emergency began, Navy officials said. South Korean authorities already have launched helicopters and rescue boats and deployed military divers and other personnel, but the U.S. military is standing by to assist if requested.

If called upon, the Bonhomme Richard carries a variety of equipment that could prove useful to the rescue, including MH-60 Seahawk helicopters, MV-22 tilt-rotor Ospreys, and small boats that could be launched to perform search and rescue operations. The Osprey, which can take off like a helicopter and fly as quickly as a plane, could ferry passengers back to shore swiftly.

Harmer said launching a rescue operation would be relatively routine for U.S. troops if they're called upon to help. They frequently train to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, he said, and have a close relationship with the governments in both Seoul and nearby Japan that could prove helpful. Other ships, including minesweepers and salvage vessels, are based about 100 miles away in Sasebo, Japan, and could search the water for passengers and be used as a base from which to cut into the capsized ship and get people out.

Where the crisis gets even more complicated is if scores or hundreds of people are indeed still trapped in the ship as it takes on water. Unlike some military vessels and submarines, a commercial ferry doesn't have areas in which passengers can isolate themselves and breathe while other sections are cut into by rescue crew, allowing water to rush in.

"There's a very high probability that there are still people left alive trapped in the water," Harmer said. "It's something else entirely to get them out. When you're dealing with submarines, they are built with escape hatches. They're designed from the inside out to have an escape and egress system from underwater. A ferry like this is not designed that way, and the children on board obviously aren't trained in that. I imagine they're doing everything they can out there to get some divers down there... to try to see if there is any way to get in and rescue, but that's going to be a very challenging operation."

Photo by Park Young-Chul/Donga Daily via Getty Images