President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev soon will sign a treaty to eliminate their countries' intermediate-range nuclear force (INF) missiles. How could the treaty, which will trade fewer than 500 warheads for more than 2,000, be bad for us?
The problem is that the INF treaty is fundamentally flawed. It would ban all intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missiles, conventional as well as nuclear. Yet future NATO defense and deterrence are asymmetrically dependent on these missiles. That the INF treaty is intrinsically unverifiable makes matters worse: While NATO forgoes the use of ground-launched cruise missiles, the Soviets could well stockpile them under the guise of sea-launched cruise missiles, which could easily be ground-launched.
Unfortunately, public debate seems to have focused on the weakening of our nuclear deterrent and verification difficulties. These divert attention from the critical potential contribution of conventional ground-launched cruise missiles to North Atlantic alliance security.
Soviet strategy stresses surprise and quick victory. Moscow would use forward troops to force NATO to commit its in-place armies, pinning them while threatening multiple penetrations. Rear-echelon Warsaw Pact forces would then rejuvenate the front, concentrating at selected points to exploit key breakthroughs. Taking advantage of superior forces and rapid reinforcement, the Soviets would attempt to win the battle for Central Europe before NATO's counter-mobilization could be mounted.
NATO has long recognized the necessity to delay and disrupt follow-on Soviet reinforcements, and in the late 1970s developed the "follow-on force attack" concept to implement this deep-strike operation.
Cruise missiles are well suited for delivering strikes deep behind enemy lines, for three reasons:
--Greatly improved Warsaw Pact air defenses have made bomber raids unacceptably hazardous in many areas, especially around high-value targets. While "stealth" technology may help aircraft to penetrate, it will do little to protect them on the ground. Improving Soviet precision- strike capability makes it increasingly uncertain whether aircraft on airfields can survive. On the other hand, ground-launched cruise missile launchers can use mobility and camouflage to avoid Soviet targeting.
--High-tech allows much better target acquisition and long-range delivery with great precision. While the Soviets have an enduring advantage in massing large armies, high-tech electronics can give the West a much needed compensating advantage. Deep strike is a key means for NATO to use it.
--NATO is a defensive alliance. While an aggressor can afford to concentrate his forces, a defender traditionally needs to spread his across the range of possible points of attack. The defender thus would then be too late to concentrate his forces at the actual point of attack. Long-range strike permits counter-fire to be concentrated immediately.
Thus, an effective conventional strike capability offers a rare opportunity for NATO to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons and raise the nuclear threshold. But the proposed treaty, which bans conventional ground-launched cruise missiles, would seriously degrade that opportunity.
What if we instead use air- and sea-launched cruise missiles not banned by the treaty?
It should be noted first that the INF treaty does relatively little to reduce the threat to the bulk of NATO's air bases and air defense. The missiles to be banned would have ranges between 300 and 3,000 miles. The Soviets could still build land-based 299-mile ballistic missiles that could reach all of West Germany and most of Belgium and the Netherlands.
Even with the treaty, airplanes carrying cruise missiles will continue to be vulnerable on the ground to ballistic missiles and Soviet aircraft. Surface ships that carry cruise missiles also are vulnerable to a great variety of threats. Submarines may be much less vulnerable, but an effective conventional missile force needs an inventory measured in thousands for attacks and reattacks. Submarine-launched cruise missiles simply price themselves out of the market in a Central European battle. Thus, the treaty forecloses the most promising avenue to increase the robustness of NATO's conventional defense through improved deep strike capability.
Yet a treaty that eliminates theater ballistic (but not cruise) missiles for some foreseeable period, say 10 years, from both sides could be quite useful. Their fast speed make these missiles especially potent in a sudden surprise attack.
If we go ahead with an INF treaty that bans ground-launched cruise missiles, the Soviets will have traded a small part of their current nuclear arsenal for a major constraint on future NATO conventional defenses. NATO would continue to rely much more on nuclear weapons than it should. The debate over this treaty should focus as much on long-term consequences for the conventional balance as on any short-term nuclear benefits.