The US as Europe's nuclear hostage

The nation's first general and President warned his countrymen against entangling alliances that might tie their security to the ''vicissitudes'' of European politics. The Reagan administration's decision to deploy intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe ties the United States into a complex web of deterrence and war-fighting strategies that neither George Washington nor the contemporary American public could have imagined or desired. These weapons substantially increase the risk that nuclear war in Europe will escalate in intensity and trigger Soviet attacks on the continental US.

The modern SS-20 missile represents a qualitative change in the Soviet threat to Europe, but by no means is it a new threat. That threat is as old as the Soviets' earliest nuclear deployments in the 1950s.

Why then the political crisis, the arms control deadlock, and the US administration's insistence on proceeding with its own theater force modernization?

The threat to Europe is not Soviet intermediate-range missiles, but the credibility of the US nuclear deterrent in an age of nuclear parity. Europeans, most notably West Germans, fear that the Soviet Union no longer believes the US will retaliate in the event of a nuclear attack on Germany. The Soviet threat of escalation against the US weakens the American nuclear umbrella over West Germany. US missiles based in Germany that can reach the Soviet Union will, it is argued by German officials, reinforce deterrence by guaranteeing that nuclear war will not be isolated to Europe's central front. Through ''strategic coupling ,'' the US nuclear umbrella will create a hostage relationship that links US and German security by making both countries prompt nuclear targets.

The Russians have tumbled beautifully to the German strategy. In a speech before an East German military audience, Soviet Minister of Defense Dmitri Ustinov threatened, ''If Washington thinks that we will reply to the use of Pershing and cruise missiles by hitting targets in Western Europe alone, it is deeply mistaken. Retribution will follow inevitably, and against the US itself.''

The strategy of coupling US and German security through intermediate-range missiles in the Federal Republic serves the greater German interest of strengthening deterrence, but does it serve US interests if deterrence fails?

It has been the US objective since the early 1960s to raise the nuclear threshold through a strategy of flexible response. Flexible response places emphasis on the initial conventional defense of Europe. It has never been popular with West German strategists because defending with conventional weapons increases the likelihood of trading space for time and reinforcements. The use of nuclear weapons is foreseen only if defeat is threatened. By that time the battle will have penetrated deep into the heavily populated West German heartland where collateral damage from nuclear weapons would be highest and credible threats to employ them lowest.

West Germans prefer to think in terms of ''forward defense,'' early use of nuclear weapons, and striking Warsaw Pact forces in their own territory. In short, West Germans understandably emphasize deterrence over warfighting and see deterrence maintained over the long run only if there is a shared US-European community of risk.

American interests are by no means the same. With political unrest in Eastern Europe combined with an American administration that seriously questions the legitimacy of Soviet security interests there, the risk of unintended war cannot be ignored. If deterrence fails, US interests and objectives are served by the lowest possible level of violence in the narrowest possible theater of operation. With additional nuclear weapons deployed in Europe that are capable of reaching Soviet territory, Moscow will be more inclined to strike out at the nearest nuclear threats. If European-based American nuclear weapons respond, the Soviet threat to expand the theater of conflict to the continental US is real.

It is also important to understand that from the Soviet military perspective the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Europe is a significantly new strategic threat. These weapons will not be isolated to a theater of war outside Soviet territory. The extremely short flight time and accuracy of the Pershing II threatens Soviet nuclear command and control structures. A preemptive threat against these systems is one of the few conceivable paths to ''victory'' in nuclear war. The Soviets are therefore not likely to concede on any agreement that balances Soviet theater forces against American weapons with prompt strategic reach - especially if they are not counted by SALT II or START.

Few Americans would be willing to play the role of nuclear hostage to European security if they understood the issue in these terms. If intermediate-range nuclear weapons negotiations become deadlocked, and the administration proceeds with the full deployment of new missiles, the role of a US hostage to European security will become increasingly apparent. This may result in an anti-NATO backlash precipitating public and congressional opposition not only to US nuclear participation in NATO, but also to the current size of American conventional forces deployed there. This would be particularly true if European governments used US theater nuclear weapons to legitimize conventional force reductions of their own.

There are two possible approaches to the problem. One is to accept or negotiate modifications in Soviet proposals to cut back their 250 SS-20s to the level of British and French missiles. These forces combined with US nuclear-capable aircraft in Europe, submarine-based nuclear missiles, some 6,000 short-range, battlefield nuclear weapons, and 300,000 troops pose a substantial deterrent and a highly visible US commitment to the defense of Europe.

A second approach if NATO security requires a response to Soviet theater nuclear modernization programs is offshore basing of sea-launched cruise missiles or additional designation of US submarine-launched missiles to NATO. These forces would pose a far more survivable deterrent than land-base missiles.

For the West Germans such forces offer a military solution to the problem, but not a political solution, since offshore basing weakens the credibility of the West German-American hostage relationship. For American security, however, it is safer to entertain German doubts than Soviet assurances of prompt escalation if deterrence fails.

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