NATO Scales Back Maneuvers

WEST GERMANY: LIMITING LOW FLIGHTS

CHRISTOPH BORNEBUSCH counts jets. On clear days, low-flying fighter jets blast over his town in southern Germany about 120 times. During his daughter's mathematics class alone, the average tally is 22. ``Just how is she supposed to concentrate?'' he asks. West Germany's defense minister will try to address such concerns today when he presents the Bundestag with a plan to cut back on low-altitude flying. The plan, which has NATO backing, is just one sign that Western military leaders are becoming more sensitive to Germans' demands to scale back military activity.

This year's NATO autumn maneuvers in Germany, for instance, relied heavily on computers to simulate the battlefield and involved far fewer tanks, equipment, and soldiers than exercises in the past. And maneuvers on the L"uneburg moors are to be canceled for a month during the blooming of the heather.

But it is hard to know whether such changes will impress the public in this densely populated country. The improvements - which are expected to apply to all NATO low-altitude flights in Germany - are already being called ``inadequate'' by groups opposed to the flights. NATO considers low-level flights crucial practice in eluding enemy radar.

The plan, whose details have not yet been released by the Defense Ministry, reportedly would:

Cut noise by as much as 25 percent by reducing a fighter's speed by roughly 7 percent.

Reduce by a third the number of interceptor flights that take place between 500 and 1,500 feet.

Reduce the duration cap on the lowest flights (250 feet) from 28 minutes to 15 minutes.

Shift 86 percent of air-battle exercises at heights above 10,000 feet to other countries or over the ocean.

Mr. Bornebusch is skeptical of the plan. First, says this leader of Bavaria's 5,000 opponents to low-flying, NATO hasn't lived up to past promises. His area is one of seven in the country designated for flights at 250 feet. Since 1986, he says, NATO has promised a ``lunch break'' from the jets, ``but there always seem to be exceptions.''

Second, the 86 percent reduction applies only to high-flying exercises, not to the lowest ones which make the most noise, he says.

Angelika Beer, a member of the Bundestag defense committee and of the left Green party, calls the plan ``pure cosmetics.'' The Greens plan to present a motion to stop low-flying exercises altogether, she says. Last year the much larger opposition group, the Social Democrats, also proposed a ban on such flights.

The allies have free rein of German airspace, except for areas off-limits to low-flying craft. ``[Germany] is by far the heaviest burdened nation when it comes to low-level flying,'' says Maj. Danny Clifton, the assistant chief of US Air Forces Europe. But according to his data, the US has reduced the number of low-level flights by 43 percent since 1985.

While Bundestag member Beer thinks the population won't significantly quiet down over this issue, she expects fewer protests against NATO maneuvers, because people see a difference.

NATO chief Gen. John Galvin emphasizes that the lower manpower and equipment trend is here to stay. Respecting the wishes of West German citizens is one reason, but a need for more efficient training is really the primary one, he said last month in an interview in the German press.

An ever-denser network of roads, railway lines, and towns combined with masses of military equipment makes very large-scale maneuvers impractical, said General Galvin. A soldier on maneuvers stuck in a traffic jam ``cannot be considered good military training,'' he said.

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