Falklands hasn't distracted NATO from its chief threat - Soviets

NATO defense ministers and military experts have been saying here this week that the British experience in the South Atlantic will enable the alliance to better pursue its primary task - defending Western Europe against Soviet aggression.

Public attention in recent weeks has been riveted on the increasingly violent military engagements in the Falkland Islands, 8,000 miles from Western Europe. Little attention has therefore been paid to how these battles are influencing NATO's effectiveness in countering the Soviet threat.

But that and other related questions were examined in detail - both behind closed doors and publicly - by NATO defense ministers and their aides for the first time at their regular meeting in Brussels this week.

Members of NATO's Military Committee, including its chairman, Canadian Admiral Robert Falls, have been emphatic on at least three points:

1) That the alliance is in no danger now (even though what NATO Secretary-General Joseph Luns called a ''not inconsiderable'' part of the British force has been sent to the tip of South America).

2) That even if the ''world situation'' were to ''deteriorate'' rapidly, in Admiral Falls's words, there would be ''no crisis'' for the alliance in Western Europe.

3) And that the alliance will be vastly strengthened by the British experience in combat.

''They've been under fire,'' Falls said, referring to the British troops. ''There's nothing like that to sharpen the mind and to make you absorb the lessons and training you've had. . . .They will be in very good shape when they get back.''

The Canadian admiral said that while NATO military experts ''regretted'' the temporary absence of the British air, sea, and land forces from their normal station in the North Atlantic, other NATO countries were making sure that their ''readiness is held to a sufficient degree'' and, if possible, upgraded to offset the loss.

The state of affairs in the South Atlantic is ''unfortunate,'' Falls said, ''but it is not one that causes me to lose sleep.'' There is ''nothing that imminent'' on the horizon, he said.

British Defense Secretary John Nott took the point further, at a news conference May 6, saying that the positive response by Western countries, including every NATO member, to Britain's call for diplomatic and other support represents a ''concrete expression'' of the growing recognition reflected in several NATO communiques that Western interests are not limited to the NATO treaty area.

But this is not to say, the British defense secretary emphasized, that ''there can be any deflection on our part from the alliance's primary purpose, . . . to deter the Soviet threat.

''I believe that in an important sense the events of these last weeks have strengthened alliance deterence,'' Nott said. ''They have demonstrated the solidarity of the countries in the alliance in a crisis affecting one of its members, and they have demonstrated the UK's defense capabilities in a fashion that can leave few doubts in Soviet minds as to their readiness and effectiveness.''

Other NATO defense ministers generally supported Nott's claims. But some European defense officials were quick to restate their governments' position that diplomatic efforts to solve the crisis should now take precedence over military pressure.

No country followed the United States lead here this week and offered Britain materiel support. Well-informed sources said Italian Defense Minister Lelio Lagorio, chairman of NATO's 11-nation ''Eurogroup,'' used the occasion, in fact, to tell the international press that his government wanted an immediate cease-fire - a suggestion Nott rejected unless that would include a ''concurrent'' Argentine withdrawal.

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