Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. — If an intermediate nuclear forces (INF) accord becomes a reality, a whole layer of nuclear weapons will be removed, leaving NATO more dependent on conventional forces to deter a Soviet attack on Western Europe. It is unlikely that the West could match Warsaw Pact troop strength. According to the Defense Department, the Warsaw Pact has 133 divisions (43 more than NATO) either deployed or rapidly deployable in Europe.
Even if members of the alliance were willing to do what they have been reluctant to do for 40 years - pay the costs of increased divisions - a shrinking pool of draft-age males makes the possibility of matching East Bloc troop strength increasingly unlikely.
One frequently discussed solution to the conventional imbalance is to exploit Western high-technology superiority by developing advanced conventional weapons that could accomplish some of the military objectives now thought to require nuclear forces.
During a nuclear strategy symposium earlier this month at Maxwell Air Force Base, military and civilian defense experts explored non-nuclear technology and other defense options.
Dr. Carl Builder, an authority on non-nuclear weapons at the RAND Corporation, a defense consulting company, suggested that while non-nuclear ``emerging technologies'' may never completely replace nuclear forces, they could perform some tasks previously assigned to nuclear weapons.
Emerging technologies include so-called ``smart'' weapons: precision-guided munitions that can search out and strike targets with devastating accuracy. Based on the microelectronics revolution, superaccurate weapons are beginning to move out of the laboratories and into the US arsenal.
A ``smart'' weapon uses sophisticated sensors to detect specific types and levels of heat and sound as well as electronic signals such as radar. The weapon uses its own miniature computer to distinguish a specific target from the infinite ``signatures'' around it and then propels itself to the target.
Compared to even the ``small'' nuclear warheads in NATO's arsenal, high-yield nonnuclear weapons, if directed at military targets, will cause significantly less damage to civilians in the vicinity of attacks, and with no radioactive fallout either. On the other hand, advanced conventional weapons, in comparison to nuclear forces, would be severely limited in their capacity to destroy large military targets. Opponents of denuclearization assert that only nuclear weapons are powerful enough to destroy the massed divisions of troops that would attack Western Europe in a Warsaw Pact invasion.
But another conference panelist, British Vice-Marshal R.A. Mason, pointed out that a successful Soviet invasion - which would unfold in echelons or waves - depends not only on mass, but on momentum: that is, on a rapid and perfectly timed combination of air attacks and ground reinforcements.
Vice-Marshal Mason, secretary of the Royal Air Force, argued that by exploiting the accuracy of emerging conventional technologies and the vulnerabilities of enemy targets, NATO could destroy Soviet synchronization of combined military operations.
Possible uses of high-precision weapons could be attacks on tanks and thinly protected munitions supply vehicles as well as crucial bridges, railways, and runways. His assumption is that even the shortest delay imposed on Warsaw Pact air power, reinforcements, or resupply of ground forces could cause an attack to come unhinged.
Mason criticized the ``obsession'' among some military strategists with the need to destroy ``follow-on'' or second echelon troops.
Instead, Mason maintained that disturbing the enemy's ``tempo'' could pose a similar threat to Soviet plans even if selective strikes could not by themselves deny the Warsaw Pact of its offensive objectives.
If the West can create sufficient uncertainty in the minds of Warsaw Pact military planners about their ability to control the tempo of an offensive, then ``deterrence will be considerably enhanced without recourse to nuclear weapons,'' Mason said. And if deterrence should fail, he believes nonnuclear attacks could make a significant contribution to offsetting the numerically superior Warsaw Pact forces.
How would the Soviets respond to such a move?
In anticipation, they already are responding in kind. Although lagging in computer and sensor technologies, they are probably hoping that Mikhail Gorbachev's economic reforms will so strengthen the Soviet technological base that they can qualitatively match the West in smart weapons.
In the meantime, they will rely on superior quantity of conventional armaments. According to Michael MccGwire of the Brookings Institution, Moscow is downgrading nuclear forces: In the event of war in Europe, ``the Soviet objective is to defeat NATO on the ground by the use of conventional forces alone.''
One of the major concerns about substituting superaccurate, minimally destructive nonnuclear forces for the intermediate-range nuclear forces currently deployed is, could it make a conflict between the two alliances inevitable because war will no longer seem suicidal?
Should advanced conventional weapons replace INF? Even if the remaining details of an INF agreement are worked out between the White House and the Kremlin, it must still be ratified by the Senate. The fate of the INF deal may depend on administration concessions to supporters of nonnuclear weapons.
A Senate INF ratification debate will be an important forum for discussing not only the wisdom of removing a nuclear layer from NATO, but also the wisdom of replacing what has been a relatively inexpensive 40-plus years of European peace based on militarily unusable weapons of mass destruction with a new form of security based on less terrible, more expensive, and perhaps more tempting-to-use high-tech weapons.