WASHINGTON — NATO military commanders are preparing for a future in which they will no longer face a well-defined adversary across a clear front line of barbed wire and watchtowers. The easing of the cold-war threat means NATO forces will become both smaller and different. In the future, alliance units will likely be more mobile, more multinational in character, and kept at lower states of readiness, NATO officials say.
From a military point of view, the alliance purpose could become ``protecting what we have, rather than defending against too specific an enemy,'' said British Gen. Sir Brian Kenny, Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, in an interview.
For decades, NATO's reason for existence was defined by the forces it faced on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Now, as the Warsaw Pact crumbles more each day, NATO is an alliance in search of a new self-image.
Inevitably, NATO will become more of a political and less of a military organization. But military tasks will remain, even if a treaty greatly restricting conventional forces in Europe (CFE) is signed this fall, as expected.
Such a CFE pact could itself become a major military responsibility. Its verification could require a large contingent of NATO experts to keep track of remaining Warsaw Pact equipment. A follow-on pact, CFE-2, could further increase this workload. ``We've got to be able to manage the very significant matrix of treaties'' which could result from lessened tension between East and West, says General Kenny. He and other analysts predict these changes for NATO forces:
Greater mobility. In the future, fewer NATO troops will be charged with defending the same amount of Western European territory. That means they will have to be able to move faster from point to point. Army units will have less slow heavy equipment; air wings will have more multi-purpose aircraft.
``There will be more emphasis on agile systems,'' said Gen. Larry Welch, US Air Force chief of staff, in a meeting with defense reporters.
NATO officials used to figure the Warsaw Pact could mount three major thrusts into Central Europe at the same time. Soon, they figure the Soviets will be able to mount only one central attack, in the unlikely event they wanted to.
For years NATO has planned against a big set-piece attack in central Germany. Now, they are less certain where hostilities are most likely to occur.
``It had almost got to the point where we were telling soldiers, if there's fighting, you dig a hole in that piece of ground and defend it,'' General Kenny says. ``Now, we don't know how the threat might develop.''
More Multinationalism. NATO headquarters is studying a proposal to combine divisions from different nations into multinational units.
The purpose of such a move would be partly political. As the Soviets pull out of Eastern Europe, there could be increasing calls in both Western Europe and the United States to bring US troops home. Their presence could be more acceptable to publics on both sides of the Atlantic if they were ``bound in'' to multinational corps.
Smaller NATO nations, such as Belgium, could also continue to play a role in the common defense under such an arrangement, even as their own forces shrink.
Each multinational corps, a military unit with upwards of 50,000 men, would have a lead nation largely responsible for headquarters staffing. Still, communications could be a problem, both because of language barriers and such prosaic obstacles as lack of interoperable radios. If multinationalism is to work NATO may have to make greater progress toward standardizing weapons and equipment.
Relaxed readiness. On July 1, some small reductions in the state of readiness of selected NATO units will take effect. Certain helicopter units that previously had been expected to be ready to fight within four hours will have 48 hours to prepare themselves under the new rules, for instance.
Crucial units, such as air-defense radars and quick-reaction defense aircraft, will remain at high rates of alert. But NATO officials are studying more sweeping readiness reductions that could follow implementation of a CFE treaty. Such changes would save money and allow units to rotate away for more home leave and better training.
Training in Western Europe is likely to have less emphasis on large-scale maneuvers and more on computer-generated war games and other types of simulation. Four years ago, the large US REFORGER (Return of Forces to Germany) exercise involved 118,000 people. Next year, plans call for 37,000 people.
After watching Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev tour the US, pressing the flesh and talking about business opportunities, one might question the need for a continued NATO military role. But officials say there is a need for a continued military deterrent, no matter what is happening to the long-demonized Soviet threat.