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Countering the Soviet threat to West Europe

By Elizabeth PondStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 11, 1983



Mons, Belgium

Just before dawn the Soviet 2 Guards Tank Army, with supporting Polish and East German elements, crosses the Elbe River south of Hamburg and mops up American covering forces and I Netherlands Corps.

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By the end of ''D-Day'' the Soviet forces have seized Bremen and Kiel and sealed off Hamburg.

By D-Day plus three only half of 2d Lt. Andrei Nekrassov's 10 Soviet armored personnel carriers survive, and the rations that arrive include only 10 jars of meat paste for his entire company.

On the other side of the lines, RAF mechanic Brian Illingworth writes home to Yorkshire: ''There was an enormous bang on the roof . . . and a shower of paint and muck came down'' as Soviet planes dropped their bombs nearby. ''Corp and me and the other lads rushed out to see what had happened. We were a bit daft really, and Sarg didn't half tell us so too, because of course Ivan could have come round for a second go.''

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* This is ''The Third World War,'' as imagined by Gen. Sir John Hackett. The novel is meticulously accurate in most details. Yet some critics think the former commander in chief of the British Army of the Rhine plays down NATO conventional (nonnuclear) inferiority and doesn't force on his fictional NATO commander and the American president the agonizing resort to nuclear weapons to avoid a conventional rout.

Is Sir John right?

Or is the present NATO commander, Gen. Bernard W. Rogers, right in preaching that if NATO doesn't beef up its conventional forces, the West would have to go nuclear - fast?

What both do agree on is that the risk of a third world war has grown to some extent with the Soviet military buildup of the past 20 years. Soviet-bloc tanks outnumber NATO tanks by almost 3 to 1 along the central front of the East-West German border area (plus Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Czechoslovakia, and Poland). Soviet-bloc artillery, antitank guns, and air-defense guns also outnumber NATO equivalents by almost 3 to 1, multiple-rocket launchers by 7 to 1 .

Soviet superiority in conventional weapons in Europe is undisputed. It is a far more serious military threat than the more publicized strategic nuclear balance.

In the strategic equation, the Soviet Union's 8,000 intercontinental nuclear warheads threaten the United States. But America's 9,000 intercontinental warheads threaten the USSR just as much.

In the European equation, however, the Soviet bloc's 25,000 main battle tanks on the central front threaten Western Europe - while NATO's 9,900 tanks cannot conceivably threaten the Soviet bloc.

So what? an American might ask. Does it matter to the US if Europe stands under threat? Is Europe in fact worth defending? And if so, is it defendable?

For virtually all of the three dozen American and European military officers and civilian strategists interviewed for this series the answers to these questions were: Yes, yes, and yes.

Europe's importance to the US begins as a matter of roots. Most Americans stem from European stock. America's culture and its Enlightenment democracy are overwhelmingly European. Our shared values of freedom and individualism are worth protecting, generations of Americans have thought ever since 1917.

There are more hard-nosed reasons as well for American self-interest in the fate of Europe.

Europe is the richest geographic area in the world, with a combined gross domestic product of $3.1 trillion (NATO members only), as against North America's $2.9 trillion, Japan's $1 trillion, and the Soviet Union's close to $1 trillion. To both superpowers Western Europe was the greatest prize after World War II. Europe's domination by the Soviet Union would give Moscow such towering economic and military strength that there would no longer be two superpowers, but one alone: Soviet Eurasia.