In Mirosławiec, the locals don’t complain on the presence of the American. They breathe life into this small town – economically and socially.
A little town on the verge of the training field in Drawsko since the 1950s had had a lot in common with the army, and the traces of this are still seen today. In the center of Mirosławiec, there is one statue – a T-34 tank on a pedestal, in Mirosławiec Górny – another one, the Su-22 aircraft. Nearby, there is a statue of the CASA air crash victims. Since 2000, there has been a large unit there: 12th Air Base with the arsenal of the Su-22 aircraft. Earlier on, this was the 8th Fighter-Bomber Air Regiment with the Il-2, Il-10, Lim-2, Lim-6, and later Su-22 aircraft. The aviators lived in an enclave, a town of Górny Mirosławiec – with its own stores, a school, kindergarten, post-office and a military casino.
The crisis came suddenly, after the C-295M air crash. On January 23, 2008, onboard the CASA were the Polish Air Force officer returning from the 50th Conference on the Armed Forces Aviation Flight Security. The aircraft crashed near Mirosławiec. Nobody survived. Soon after, the army almost disappeared from the town, but eventually, at the beginning of 2017, due to the town’s strategic location and existing infrastructure, the Ministry of National Defense decided to locate a new military unit there: the 12th Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Base (UAV Base). For the time being, the arsenal holds only small Orbiter drones, but in the future, the MALE-class drones will join it – with a wingspan several-meter long, and a capability of long-term surveillance at the height of several thousand meters.
Base in a Base
On the territory of the 12th UAV Base in Mirosławiec Górny, the „base within a base” is the place for the US soldiers of the 52nd Expeditionary Operations Group Detachment 2. Their permanent base is in German Spangdahlem. Between themselves, they call the base “Miroslawiec Up” (“górny” is Polish for “up”), directly translating the name of the town: Mirosławiec Górny. The Base is actually a modern hangar for drones and containers, where the Reaper operators work. Entering the gates of the 12th UAV Base in Mirosławiec does not mean entering the US Base, which is located in the close vicinity of the runway. It is separated from the rest of the area by barbed wire and high fence. The entrance gate is guarded by an armed US soldier.
This time it is a female, and on her uniform there are badges from the missions in different parts of the world. Smiling, she opens the gate and lets me in. The hangar, with two American MQ-9 Reapers inside, is spotlessly clean. Next are the rooms for the crew – drone operators and a commander. At the side of the hall, soldiers even have a small gym at their disposal. Outside, there is another fence with the gate electronically secured, behind which there are containers identical to those used in missions. The US Air Force soldiers have all they need for their daily routine in the air base – toilets, showers, current generators, and even their own water intake. The most important however are the containers where the drone operators do their work, and the containers with communication systems distinguished by its satellite antennas. No peeping into this container, though.
American personnel have been stationing in Mirosławiec since May 2018. Before them was the scout group. Now, the second rotation is nearing the end, because soldiers stay in Mirosławiec for half a year. “We participated in a joint exercise with other armies during Saber Strike and Clear Sky in Ukraine,” says Col Andrew Eiler, a commander of the US contingent. In the second maneuvers, seven NATO states participated.
The US soldiers have the equipment that Polish soldiers saw in missions in Iraq or Afghanistan. These are huge MQ-9 Reapers – one of the greatest in the world and the most state-of-the-art drones of MALE class. The Reaper’s range is as far as 1,850 km, and its wingspan – 20 m. The machine operates at the height of several thousand meters. It can carry both, electronic surveillance devices as well as armament.
In March 2019, the Americans in Mirosławiec reached the so-called operational readiness. “We have ended the process of installing our contingent’s entire infrastructure and all our machines. All procedures related to security, such as encrypted communication for top secret data in NATO, are on, the drones operate and do their job,” says the US commander.
The UAVs from Mirosławiec carry out reconnaissance and patrol tasks over the eastern flank of NATO. “We are monitoring the situation in several countries 24/7,” says Col Andrew Eiler. He adds: “We will stay here as long as we are needed. Mirosławiec is a strategic place for security of the entire region, and we are to guard its stability from here.” He adds that reconnaissance flights are performed over six countries of Central-Eastern Europe, such as Poland and the Baltic states. This means a huge range of the MQ-9 Reaper.
How many American soldiers are stationing in Mirosławiec right now? Col Eiler does not reveal this information. Let’s say, it is about several dozen people. “The numbers of personnel and the machines fluctuate. It all depends on a current situation and the needs of our mission,” he explains. “Now we operate unarmed drones. They are only fit with devices for performing reconnaissance,” says Col Eiler. They are mainly operated by civil personnel. “The soldiers of the US National Guards have more authority than our employees,” explains the Colonel. If the machines were to perform combat flights with the use of onboard armament, the civilians would be replaced by soldiers.
Drones Don’t Scare Our Chicken
“We don’t notice the Reapers every day, but we realize they are flying over our heads. They don’t scare our chicken, though,” jokes Piotr Pawlik, the Mayor of Mirosławiec. “The town is full of Americans. They don’t wear uniforms, but we know them by their cars, because they drive SUVs with Polish number plates. They have become integrated with the town people, and are now part of our community and the entire region.”
The US soldiers’ living places are scattered throughout the entire district, and most of them live in the blocks of flats owned by Military Property Agency (AMW) in Mirosławiec Górny. “It is our permanent living place here in Poland. In fact, we spend most of our time in the base, but after work we like to go to town or take a trip out of town.” Civilians are accommodated in the hotel near Mirosławiec. They usually leave their place to go shopping or eat out – all local pizzerias know them, not only in Mirosławiec, but also in Drawsko or Kalisz Pomorski. They buy bread in local bakeries, groceries from local grocery stores, cut their hair at local barber, etc. “Several dozen people is not enough to get the local economy going, but still those who run their local business here can’t complain,” says the Mayor. He emphasizes that there is more: “They actively participate in all local events, celebrations, picnics, or charity auctions. We are the guests during their events. For instance, I was invited to celebrate Thanksgiving Day and the Fourth of July Independence Day.”
Some time ago, the Americans visited local kindergarten which collected funds for equipment. They made a donation of several thousand dollars. They were also generous during the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity (WOŚP) funds raising. They take part in local sports events like running or bike races. Local Community Center twice a week hosts American soldiers who give English lessons to children and adults free of charge. “The beginners and advanced students take English conversation classes,” says Anna Dzida, Director of the Community Center in Mirosławiec. “It’s a mutual help, because we teach our American teachers speak Polish. These classes for the locals are an opportunity to get to know more about the world, to break barriers, not only these related to speaking a foreign language. They meet different people, of different races. We join together in various workshops, such as glass-painting. Our town community has taken them in,” emphasizes Anna Dzida. This is confirmed by Col Andrew Eiler: “We have become a part of this community. We take part in all events in Mirosławiec. We are learning about history of the region. We ride our bicycles and run with locals. We have great relationship with schools and the Community Center. People know us and smile at us on the street. This is very important when you live in such a small town where everyone knows everyone”.
Getting More Experienced
The cooperation is also great at the level of military unit. Col (Pilot) Łukasz Andrzejewski, a commander of the 12th UAV Base in Mirosławiec says that the presence of the Americans is very advantageous days before the arrival of the large, state-of-the-art UAVs at the unit’s arsenal. “The presence of American soldiers requires much effort on our part. It’s been over a year since the first reconnaissance group arrived. We’ve been assisting them at every level, starting from infrastructure, social affairs, to performing air operations, including air space management,” says Col (Pilot) Andrzejewski. “On our part, we’re trying to take the best of their presence here, getting more experienced.”
The 12th UAV Base right now has at its disposal small Orbiter drones, but it is getting ready for the arrival of the machines similar to the Reapers. The Orlik operational program assumes a delivery to Mirosławiec of the PGZ-19R UAVs with a wingspan of about 10 m. The deliveries will probably start after 2021. “To a large extent, we’re already prepared for these drones,” ensures Col (Pilot) Andrzejewski.
“The help of our Polish allies is priceless, their knowledge about the region is great, which allows us effectively perform our tasks. But we have also become close friends, not only allies,” says Col Andrew Eiler. “I’m often invited to their homes. Just recently, one of the pilots said: »Andrew, come to our place for a waffle party tonight«. There’s a lot of such meetings.”
autor zdjęć: Marcin Górka