London — The speed with which the Iran-Iraq clashes have escalated has prompted an urgent reassessment of East-West conventional strength in the Gulf region. The verdict: While the West currently holds an edge in naval strength, the Soviet Union maintains an advantage on land.
According to a recent study by the London-based International Institute for strategic Studies, the US has a 25-ship presence in Indian Ocean waters adjacent to the oil-rich Gulf. Twenty of them are warships, including two aircraft carriers.
The Soviet naval presence is 27 ships, only 12 of them combat vessels. There are well-substantiated reports that the Soviet carrier Minsk currently is deployed in the Gulf.
The Western position if further strengthened by naval contributions from Britain (10) ships) and France (15). West Germany has also contributed vessels.
The considerable combined strength of Western navies is necessary to counter better Soviet land placements, according to defense officials in London and Paris.
According to the latest estimates, the Russians could put an entire combat division into the area within 12 hours. The United States could summon up to 10 ,000 men of the Rapid Deployment Force (RDF), using equipment stockpiled at the Diego Garcia base in the Indian Ocean.
Mobilizing the RDF, however, might prove difficult. The men would have to come either from the United States or Western Europe. The Western calculation appears to be that superior naval forces will deter possible Soviet land aggression and best protect oil routes in the Gulf region, particularly the vital Strait of Hormuz.
The strait would be difficult to block -- it is too wide and too deep -- but harassing operations could be carried out and prove politically provocative.