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Loss of Missiles May Magnify West’s Non-Nuclear Problems

December 1, 1987

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) _ The nuclear arms treaty reached between the two superpowers magnifies a growing dilemma for America’s allies in Europe: NATO’s conventional forces are outmanned and outgunned by the Soviet bloc.

Yet even as President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev prepare to sign the treaty eliminating intermediate-range nuclear weapons at the Dec. 8-10 summit, most of NATO’s member governments are unwilling to pay the enormous cost in closing the gap between the conventional forces.

Troubling, too, will be the Soviets’ edge in chemical arms, NATO says.

If implemented, the accord will lead to the withdrawal of more than 350 U.S. Tomahawk cruise and Pershing 2 nuclear missiles, leaving the North Atlantic Treaty Organization with no U.S. land-based missiles capable of striking Soviet territory from Western Europe. The Soviets, on the other hand, will retain missiles not covered by the treaty that can hit Europe - mainly West Germany, but also parts of Denmark, Norway, Turkey and Greece.

That, say some NATO planners, could make it more likely that the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies would risk launching a surprise attack with conventional weapons along one of the European fronts.

″The acid test is going to be whether the Soviet Union really does mean to follow up the (missile) agreement with one dealing with conventional weapons,″ Lord Pym of Britain recently told the Atlantic Treaty Association, a private pro-NATO group of which he is president.

By Western estimates, the seven-nation Warsaw Pact holds at least a 2-to-1 advantage in conventional arms in the European theater, including troops, tanks, attack aircraft and artillery. This is at least partly offset by Western advantages in weapon quality and intangible factors such as training and political cohesion.

″We still enjoy a clear qualitative advantage″ in key areas such as air and maritime forces, said Martin McCusker, director of military affairs for the North Atlantic Assembly, an official adviser to NATO.

The East bloc also enjoys a geographic edge. Whereas it can rapidly reinforce its frontline troops, the United States would need far more time to bring additional forces across the Atlantic to augment the 326,000 soldiers permanently stationed in Europe, mainly in West Germany.

In all, NATO has 2.6 million soldiers in its standing military force, compared with about 4 million for the Warsaw Pact, according to the Pentagon. This excludes French and Spanish armed forces, which would be expected to join any battle for NATO territory but are not formally commited to the alliance’s joint military command.

Experts disagree on the size of the East-West force gap and its signficance.

″A numerical comparison of forces ... cannot by itself answer basic questions about the relative capabilities of each side’s forces,″ Col. John Cross, deputy director of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said recently.

For years, NATO leaders have decried a numerical imbalance. But campaigns to boost Western conventional defenses foundered, and 14 years of negotiations to reduce troop levels in central Europe have failed.

West German Gen. Wolfgang Altenberg, the highest-ranking military officer at NATO headquarters, said earlier this month that allied governments never tried hard to boost their conventional defenses because they thought, ″Oh well, if there is a war it will go nuclear anyway.″

Now, Altenberg and others say, NATO must face up to the fact that it can pursue only two avenues to closing the gap with the Soviets: build up to their level of armaments or persuade them to come down to NATO’s.

The first option seems unworkable.

Asked recently what chances NATO governments had of winning substantial increases in defense spending, retired NATO commander Bernard W. Rogers said, ″Slim and none.″

Conventional weapons such as tanks and airplanes are much more expensive than nuclear arms.

Only four NATO members besides the United States - Italy, Luxembourg, Norway and Portugal - are expected to meet the common allied goal of increasing defense spending by 3 percent after inflation. Some, including Britain and West Germany, have actually cut spending.

Signs of economic slowdown in the major industrial nations make spending curbs even more likely in the years ahead, Gen. John R. Galvin, the commander in chief of NATO and U.S. forces in Europe, said recently.

Thus, alliance officials are pinning their hopes on negotiations as the most promising path to gaining parity with the East bloc.

Officials from the 16 NATO countries and seven Warsaw Pact nations have been meeting regularly in Vienna since last February to lay the groundwork for a new set of negotiations on conventional forces. These talks were speeded up in September, but progress has been described as slow.

The negotiations are to replace the Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction talks that have dragged on for 14 years without success. The new talks would be broader, involving more countries and encompassing armaments in addition to troops.

Lord Carrington, the NATO secretary general, has said the success of the Geneva missile talks could, indirectly, make the conventional arms bargaining easier. He notes that the Soviets agreed to scrap four medium-range nuclear rockets for each one lost on the U.S. side.

This may mean the Soviets would be willing to accept asymetric reductions in conventional arms as well, Carrington said in a speech this month.

″We have a better chance than ever before of negotiating a more stable balance of conventional forces,″ he said.

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