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A Countdown for Conventional Arms Control

October 25, 1987|Robert D. Blackwill and James A. Thomson | Robert D. Blackwill, U.S. ambassador to the conventional force reductions talks in 1985-87, is a faculty member at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. James A. Thomson is a vice president of the RAND Corp.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — After years of deserved obscurity, conventional arms control is pushing its way up the East-West political agenda. In Vienna, the 23 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Warsaw Pact are discussing a mandate for new conventional force "stability" talks to cover the whole of Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals. So far, Mikhail S. Gorbachev has been the only leader making proposals, part of his energetic peace offensive in Europe. To reverse this unhealthy trend, NATO now needs to put forward its concept of how conventional arms control could contribute to European security. We suggest one approach.

The central question is: Can arms control help eliminate the Warsaw Pact's conventional advantages over NATO? In Central Europe, the East outnumbers the West in actual combat divisions, fixed-wing tactical aircraft, tanks and artillery pieces. Some weapons balances are better and some worse, but in no case does the West have an edge. The ratios tend to favor the East by 2-1 or more.

The question of the seriousness of the imbalances is a matter of substantial debate and analysis. Not only do numbers come into play but other factors such as the quality of weapons and troops, the geography, the advantages to the defense and to the attacker--and most important of all, the scenario for conflict. This includes such issues as the nations involved (would France fight with the West at the outset? would Poland stick with the Soviets?) and the time both sides have to ready forces and move them into position.

When the many uncertainties are accounted for, most Western analysis indicates that NATO would do badly today in a conventional war in Europe. We agree.

The West could theoretically take care of this problem through a combination of additional ground and air units but the needed increases are substantial and are not in the cards. During the current period of declining defense budgets, no member of the NATO alliance is ready to spend the money. In addition to cost, our allies have always been wary of too much emphasis on conventional defenses for deterrence. They fear that overly strong conventional forces will "decouple" the American strategic nuclear deterrent from Europe's defense and increase the chances of conventional war on the Continent. After all, conventional deterrence failed Europe in 1812, 1815, 1870, 1914 and in 1938, 1939, 1940 and 1941. Nuclear deterrence has kept the peace.

This leaves arms control as the way to wrestle with the conventional imbalance in Europe. The West's proposal ought to aim at improving imbalances and thus reduce the requirements for a stalwart conventional defense. In this way, arms control could work together with conventional defense efforts to enhance security, without trashing nuclear deterrence.

One notion is to have a first-phase agreement with only U.S.-Soviet reductions and try to negotiate larger cuts on the part of the two alliances later. For many reasons, this is a bad idea.

Small reductions, even if quite asymmetrical--such as one U.S. division for six Soviet divisions--would not improve the balance. The Warsaw Pact force of 200 divisions west of the Urals is simply too large for such a cut to have much effect on Eastern war-fighting capacity. To the contrary, any such agreement could cut dangerously into NATO's few forces held in reserve to stem breakthroughs. In addition it would have to be accompanied by no increased committments that could hinder U.S. reinforcement in a crisis mobilization and block some efforts to improve the West's defenses

Any accord should go a long way toward improving the alliance's vulnerability. This means very large cuts in Warsaw Pact forces, including those that can be initially held back and then used to create and exploit weaknesses in NATO's forward defenses. Small reductions would be worse than nothing.

Emphasizing U.S.-Soviet first-phase withdrawals is unwise for other reasons. Many of our allies already worry about the effect of a missiles agreement and fear this marks the beginning of U.S. disengagement from Europe. A proposal from Washington that Western reductions should start with U.S. cuts would only jangle their nerves more. Additionally, withdrawal of some forces back to the United States would not improve our global capabilities as some have argued; the forces would probably disappear altogether for budgetary reasons.

Instead of a superpower emphasis, it is preferble to reduce the number of offensive weapons in the two alliances to equal ceilings. In the Central European setting, the tank is clearly the pre-eminent offensive weapon. It could be used to spearhead blitzkrieg attacks designed to seize Western territory. Although tanks are also the best anti-tank weapon, NATO's need for tanks springs largely from the fact the Warsaw Pact has them, and in great numbers. Thus, if the pact sharply cut tank forces, NATO could also reduce tank holdings.

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