Defending Europe -- without nukes

The danger of nuclear weapons being used in warfare would be reduced if one condition prevalent in the world for a long time could be removed. The condition is the presumed Soviet superiority over NATO in conventional weapons in Central Europe.

This has led to the assumption that the NATO allies would be forced to use nuclear weapons to defend Europe. Either NATO would use nuclear weapons or Western Europe would be overrun by Soviet armies and taken over by Moscow.

But to use even one nuclear weapon to break up a Soviet offensive into Western Europe would presumably lead to a nuclear response. This in turn could lead to a general nuclear exchange. This would mean enormous destruction to everyone involved, including the United States.

But such calculations would be altered if NATO could defend itself by conventional weapons without using ''nukes.''

If that ability were obvious to all, the danger of nuclear weapons being used would descend.

Indeed, if NATO could achieve recognized defensive capability it would possess the biggest deterrent of all.

The Soviets would be deterred from even thinking of trying an offensive into Western Europe if they knew in advance that their offensive power could be stopped in its tracks by conventional, nonnuclear weapons.

Is this idea merely wishful thinking, or a serious possibility?

The question is so important that in the fall of 1981 a study group was assembled under the aegis of the American National Academy of Arts and Sciences. The members were chosen for balance in two different ways. The group was made up roughly of one-third persons from the US, one-third from Britain, and the other third from West Germany, with one Norwegian added.

It was divided roughly by thirds in a second category; one-third military experts (several on active service), a third foreign policy experts, and the last third political experts.

The work has been going on ever since. This week the result is ready for anyone to read.

It is in the form of a 250-page book titled ''Strengthening Conventional Deterrence in Europe,'' published by St. Martin's Press in New York. It should be in major bookstores or available to them from yesterday at $9.95.

The conclusion is encouraging.

The report finds that the weapons necessary to make NATO defensible without using ''nukes'' exist either already in production or nearing readiness for production. The cost is not prohibitive. It would cost somewhere between $1.5 billion and $2.5 billion a year over a 10-year period, in addition to existing NATO budgets.

The end result would be the ability to smother or strangle a Soviet offensive at the outset by attacking Soviet rear area command posts, communications, supply routes, and airfields at the start of hostilities.

This, the report says, would require 900 medium-range, nonnuclear missiles to attack Soviet main operating bases and line of supply ''choke points'' in rear areas. Second, it estimates at 5,000 the number of nonnuclear missiles armed with ''smart'' warheads ''for the interdiction of follow-on echelons.'' Then, for the ''close-in battle'' they propose ''some 1,000 salvos of multiple launch rocket systems with terminally guided warheads.''

The new defenses would not take forever to set up. The report says:

''We calculate that through decisive funding and imaginative, stable, and efficient planning and execution of procurement, the new technologies for the suppression of Warsaw Pact airbases and interdiction of choke points could be acquired and deployed in 1986; and that those designed for the disruption of Warsaw Pact follow-on forces could be made effectively available by 1984.''

The history of warfare has often recorded a shift in advantage from defense to offense. The machine gun in World War I gave a decided new advantage to the defense. Four years of trench warfare proved the point.

The tank and air power in World War II transferred the advantage to the offense.

The report on new means to conventional deterrence suggests that the new high technology weapons now available would once again reverse the advantage. The Soviets have been perfecting an offensive force capable of delivering a sudden, shock blow which, in Soviet military theory, might paralyze NATO and secure a military decision before NATO could react.

Anyone seriously interested in knowing why this need not be so should read this report.

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