NATO must be ready to counter Soviet conventional forces

In choosing to emphasize nuclear weapons as the primary leg of NATO defense, NATO is responding inadequately to new developments in Soviet military thinking and is undercutting political and military deterrence.

Soviet doctrinal writings continue to emphasize the importance of surprise, speed, and improved command and control. These points combine with a new focus on mobility and maneuver of forces in a battle of the future.

Significantly, the Soviets are applying their new doctrines primarily to conventional forces. Although prepared to fight a nuclear war in Europe, they would prefer not to. It would play to the strength of NATO's nuclear forces and could lead to a strategic strike from the United States or Europe. The new Soviet strategy is to move division-size units westward, taking advantage of weaknesses in Western defenses, to eliminate NATO nuclear bases, in two or three days. This would enmesh Warsaw Pact troops so thoroughly with NATO troops in the European countryside that NATO would not be able to use nuclear weapons for fear of killing its own troops and population.

This is not to say that the Soviets are poised to attack Europe. They are not eager for a fight and voice doubts in their own military writings about their current abilities to wage war. Nor is it to say that new Soviet strategies would succeed; forming a division and penetrating in a few days would take a miracle today and remains unlikely in the near future.

Yet ideas such as these are forming an important basis for Soviet military planning. Prudent NATO planners must take account of them to ensure the continuance of deterrence in Europe.

First, a stronger NATO conventional capability is needed. NATO's reliance on the nuclear deterrent becomes a major deficiency, as the alliance may fail to deter the new Soviet formations and could be weakened in case of Soviet successes.

Second, stronger conventional defenses could meet the challenges of surprise and rapid advance. NATO governments may find it difficult and take too much time to grant permission to use theater nuclear forces. Permission to use conventional weapons would be far easier to obtain.

Third, stronger conventional defenses would also help to buy time. Reinforcements could arrive from the United States. If a nuclear response became necessary to halt movement of Warsaw Pact forces, NATO would have the time to make a politically acceptable, well-considered decision.

More important, perhaps, NATO could use the time to structure appropriate and credible political responses and threats to stop further Soviet attack.

Fourth, a strengthened conventional defense would still include the option of possible theater or strategic nuclear retaliation in case the Soviets used nuclear weapons and could help to deter the Soviets from launching them. But the adoption of a conventional strategy could make it less likely that either NATO or the Warsaw Pact would initiate a nuclear war.

Fifth, discussion and adoption of a nonnuclear force posture would answer many US and European critics of the NATO nuclear program. Because policymakers have emphasized nuclear weapons in alliance strategy and force posture, Europeans and Americans cannot be blamed for believing that any war in Europe would inevitably become nuclear. A strong conventional-force posture serves to raise the nuclear threshold.

Sixth, stronger conventional forces would strengthen deterrence in Europe by frustrating Soviet hopes that the Warsaw Pact could win a conventional European war quickly. A balance between conventional and nuclear deterrents could exist in the Europe of the late 1980s and '90s.

These implications for NATO defense strategy suggest certain developments in weapons construction. For instance, increased production of precision-guided, conventional munitions would be essential for the kind of precise targeting required to combat Soviet conventional operations.

Suggestions for weapons reductions are also implicit. With a resolve for stronger conventional defense, Western governments could feel more secure in negotiating reductions on intermediate-range nuclear weapons. NATO's evolving conventional strength could convince the Soviets that arms control agreements, including nuclear and conventional arms in Europe, are the best courses of action to limit the NATO ''threat.''

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