Washington — Western Europe is not about to become a nuclear-free zone. Even if the superpowers agree to eliminate all their nuclear missiles with a range greater than 300 miles, a move under serious discussion, thousands of nuclear warheads would remain based on European soil.
The shortest-range, nuclear-missile systems of both sides would still be intact. For the West this means the Lance, a mobile weapon with a 70-mile range.
The US and its allies in the NATO military command between them field 163 Lance launchers, according to the authoritative International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). The Warsaw Pact in this category has a total of about 1,000 launchers, split evenly between the SS-21/FROG and the older SS-1 and its derivatives.
Both sides would continue to field nuclear shells for their artillery. The theory behind these short-range battlefield weapons is that they would be useful in striking enemy armor massed for attack. None can fire further than about 11 miles.
The US and its allies have 3,032 nuclear-capable cannons of several types; the Warsaw Pact fields 3,884, according to IISS.
Both sides would also still have at their disposal many aircraft that can deliver nuclear munitions. Making a US plane ``dual-capable'' requires only installation of an aircraft monitoring and control system to arm a nuclear bomb in flight, and a special permissive action link switch in the cockpit to release the weapon for detonation.
The newest models of nuclear bombs have parachutes and delayed action timing, and thus can be dropped by a jet as low as 50 feet.
The US and its allies in the NATO military wing between them have about 1,500 dual-capable aircraft in Europe, says IISS. Models range from a few old F-104 interceptors to long-range F-111 bombers, carrier-based strike planes, and European-produced Tornados. The Soviet Union, by contrast, maintains about 2,000 jets that can deliver nuclear weapons.
There are a handful of nuclear anti-aircraft weapons in NATO: US allies have under their control 443 old Nike/Hercules air defense missile launchers.
A last type of nuclear weapon that would ring Europe in the event of an intermediate-force pact is based at sea. IISS figures that US naval forces dedicated to NATO tasks carry between them 400 Poseidon submarine missile warheads and 166 ship-carried cruise missiles.
Britain, in addition, has its own submarine force with 64 warheads. (None of these figures includes the forces of France, which is not a member of NATO's military command.) Soviet naval deployments likely include 24 sub-launched missiles, and 446 sea-based cruise missiles.
The total number of US and allied nuclear warheads for these forces is about 4,600, estimates William Arkin, a weapons expert at the Institute for Policy Studies. The US physically controls them all; warheads assigned to British planes or German artillery are guarded by Americans in a compound within the other country's base.