One of our team members decided to visit Rzeszów–Jasionka Airport, a Polish airport that became the world’s link to Ukraine with flights from around the world landing there to unload supplies for the embattled country.
Rzeszów is the largest city in southeast Poland, historically serving as a crossroads connecting Eastern Europe to Asia and beyond.
In the 15th century, the city developed trade links with the Ottoman Empire and the Baltic, facilitating the movement of both people and goods. These links allowed Rzeszów to grow and develop, becoming the seat for local nobility. Rzeszów sits on ground that remains soaked in the blood of centuries of war. The town was destroyed by Tatar forces in 1458 and 1502. During the Great Northern War, several armies sacked the town, in the First World War, the area served as a bloody frontline between Russian and Austro-Hungarian forces.
At the outset of the Second World War, Nazi forces moved into the area, imprisoning and executing a number of citizens in the first few weeks of occupation. The first Gestapo post was established sometime in September of 1939. Rzeszów then became home to a large Jewish ghetto, with a population of over 12,000. Between 1942 and 1943, the ghetto was liquidated, with most residents sent to the Belzec and Szebnie concentration camps. Rzeszów also became the focal point of local resistance groups, the Polish Underground Home Army utilized the city as a regional center of operations. In 1944, the city was taken by Home Army fighters during Operation Tempest, but after disagreements with the advancing Soviet forces, the NKVD purged local resistance groups.
After the war, the city grew quickly, accelerating after Poland joined the EU in 2004. The city has served as an incubator for tech startups, as I arrived in Rzeszow, it became very clear that G2A calls the city home, as an arena bearing that namesake is located near the airport.
A mix of soviet-style apartment blocks and newer, glass-clad towers accent the skyline. The city center is populated with a number of 16th and 17th century structures, including the Town Hall, which was renovated into its modern form in 1730. At the same time, there are signs of 2022, sharable scooters litter the sidewalk, and electronic parking meters dot the side of the road.
Today, the city has renewed its status as a crossroads. Lying on the Krakow to Lviv highway and rail lines, the city is the last major stop in Poland before the Ukrainian border, and the first city after crossing the border into Poland.
As Russia moved into Ukraine on the 24th of February, tens of thousands of Ukrainians fled through the city. Most have continued on further into Europe, but some still occupy donated hotel rooms and apartments.
The city continues with its normal hustle and bustle. Near the airport, a discount shopping center was filled on Saturday morning with a mix of locals and US personnel staying in the area.
I flew into Warsaw, so in order to get to Rzeszów, I had to drive a few hours to the southeast. Rzeszów–Jasionka Airport (IATA: RZE, ICAO: EPRZ) is located about 10km north of the city of Rzeszów, 70km west of the Ukrainian border, and roughly 1000km away from the heaviest fighting in Eastern Ukraine.
In early March, the US positioned 2 Patriot SAM batteries at the airport as a precautionary defensive deployment.
After dodging various Polish military convoys while driving from Warsaw to Lublin, I was able to make it onto the shiny, new S19 motorway. Pulling off of the somewhat finished S-19, which runs from Lublin to Rzeszów, I was met with a low rise.
Cresting this rise, I came face to face with an OD green MIM-104C PAC-2 M901 Launching Station. In front of it, a vehicle depot was growing next to the ILS localizer array.
As I pulled into the parking lot of a nearby discount supermarket, a USAF C-130 roared overhead, carrying a load of supplies into the increasingly busy airfield.
As I entered the supermarket, I quickly realized that it had become a go-to location for American soldiers deployed to the airport. Areas around the airport seem to be a popular break from the monotony of work for those soldiers, and a perimeter walking path has become a popular jogging track. In general, the troops seemed to be relatively unbothered by the deployment to the edge of Ukraine. The local Poles also seemed to be unbothered, if anything, a little bit interested in the visitors. As various aircraft arrived, it would invariably draw a crowd of locals towards the glideslope, smartphones and cameras in hand.
Off in the distance, the gaping maw of a Ukrainian Antonov Airlines AN-124 could be seen on the ramp.
The terminal area also seems to have been taken over by military activity, the large tails of a contracted Silk Way West Airlines 747 and USAF C-17 could be seen peeking over the security fence. The cargo terminals are also packed, multiple large cargo aircraft sit on the ramp, and a long train of trucks wait to take cargo over the Ukrainian border.
As I was informed by NATO Joint Support and Enabling Command (JSEC), the deployment of US forces to Poland was organized between the US and Poland, “Both respective deployments were conducted on bilateral basis between the involved NATO nations.”
The Patriot deployment to the airport also sends a message. Of the 13+ quad box launchers I could see at the airport, most were pointed east, towards Ukraine, and by extension, Russia. Ukrainian sites near the Polish border have been targeted in Russian strikes, and Russian leadership has repeatedly (verbally) threatened the routes used to transport arms and materials into Ukraine. It doesn’t take much imagination to put Rzeszów–Jasionka Airport on that list.
The weapons also tell a story about the expected threats. Most launchers have a couple of tan boxes loaded next to the standard PAC-2 missiles. These are PAC-3 MSE SAMs. These enhanced interceptors serve to defend against ballistic missiles, ones like the Iskander, which Russia has used in large numbers against Ukrainian targets.
Additionally, the short, squat AN/MPQ-65 radar can be seen, surveilling the skies over eastern Poland and western Ukraine.
Sentinel C band SAR images captured this radar system lighting up and scanning the area in mid-March. This may have been a calibration test as the system was deployed around that time.
SAR imagery from earlier today, the new Patriot batteries in Rzeszow are lighting up their radars. pic.twitter.com/5wNLV3KF9u
— OSINTtechnical (@Osinttechnical) March 14, 2022
This deployment also fits doctrine outlined in a 2014 Army forecast, where Patriot batteries utilize “A mix of PAC-3 hit-to-kill missiles and PAC-2 blast fragmentation warhead missiles for negating missile and aircraft threats”
The mix of PAC 2s and 3s indicates that US forces are prepared to counter potential ballistic missile, aircraft, and cruise missile threats. The directionality of the launchers and radar systems also sends a very directional message, one aimed to the east.