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Defense Outlays Give NATO Needed Muscle : Major Non-Nuclear Gains Seen as Making Units Better Able to Deter or Repel East Bloc Forces

January 31, 1988|TYLER MARSHALL | Times Staff Writer

KOBLENZ, West Germany — With an impressive display of firepower, the tanks, field guns and support vehicles of the West German army's 34th Panzer Brigade lumbered through the hilly training area just east of the Rhine.

It was a new generation of hardware and, officers noted proudly, the soldiers manning it were better trained than at any time in memory.

"At present we're damned good," stated the unit's commander, Col. Gero Koch.

In the city of Wurzburg, 100 miles farther east, an officer of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division spoke with equal confidence.

"Ten years ago, about a third of my platoon had high school diplomas," said Capt. David Tippet, now his unit's public affairs officer. "But in my section today, everyone is a graduate, and some have gone to college. Our soldiers are smarter, our equipment is newer and our preparedness is higher."

Buoyed by sharply increased defense spending over the last decade, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's non-nuclear forces stationed in Europe have dramatically improved in recent years, military analysts agree.

Yet there are also serious problems looming for the alliance that could significantly affect preparedness in the future. By far the most worrisome of these is financial.

Whether the improvements of the past are enough to compensate for the numerically superior Soviet Bloc forces deployed along Europe's East-West divide is expected to dominate the U.S. Senate debate on ratifying the U.S.-Soviet Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty.

The treaty, signed last month in Washington by President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, would remove an entire class of nuclear missiles from Europe: ground-launched weapons with ranges of 300 to 3,000 miles.

Senate opponents of the treaty question whether removing all 1,800 of the American and Soviet intermediate-range nuclear warheads could irreparably compromise the West's nuclear "equalizer," make nonsense of alliance strategy and leave its defenses dangerously exposed to Moscow's acknowledged larger conventional forces.

The Senate debate unfolds against a backdrop of U.S.-Soviet negotiations in Geneva to cut long-range nuclear arsenals by up to 50%. It also comes after a gradual reduction over the last two decades of allied short-range, tactical nuclear weapons stockpiled in Europe from about 7,000 to 4,000.

Despite these developments, planners at NATO's sprawling headquarters in Brussels maintain that even with a 50% cut in strategic arsenals, the West would retain a credible nuclear threat of about 6,000 warheads to back up its conventional defenses.

Forces Called Strong

Further, Western military analysts believe that NATO's conventional forces today are strong enough on their own to block any quick Soviet thrust through Western Europe, and, perhaps more importantly, present a powerful enough image to deter the Soviets from contemplating such an attack.

"The conventional structure is presently enough to persuade Moscow that an attack would bring costs far beyond any perceived political gains," noted a senior NATO planner.

A Pentagon study prepared by the Joint Chiefs of Staff for then-Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger last year assessed such intangibles as leadership, morale and training quality in addition to numerical strength, and is reported to have reached a similar conclusion.

"Those who see the Soviets crashing through in 48 hours are giving them the benefit of every doubt and that's just not credible," maintained a senior NATO official. As is customary at NATO, the official declined to be identified by name or nationality.

Still, defense analysts believe that the sheer weight of numbers possessed by the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact, coupled with its shorter supply lines in time of conflict, tip the overall conventional balance in Moscow's favor.

According to the publication Military Balance, issued last fall by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Warsaw Pact's numerical advantage is substantial in many areas: 2.4 to 1 in main battle tanks, 3 to 1 in artillery and 2 to 1 in combat aircraft, although roughly equal in total mobilized manpower.

"If you eliminated nuclear weapons today, then the Soviets would have an edge," noted Francois Heisbourg, director of the respected institute. "You can quibble about the extent of that edge, but it's there."

Deterrents Interlinked

NATO strategists tend to agree with this assessment, but they note that under present strategy, the alliance's conventional and nuclear deterrents are tightly interlinked.

Also, those who monitor the East-West military balance believe that the upgrading of NATO forces over the last decade has narrowed the differences in conventional arms strength significantly.

Among the major changes:

-- Armed forces in the major alliance countries, including the United States, Britain and West Germany, have modernized their equipment, brought their units up to full strength and intensified training in recent years.

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