NATO takes a good first step

THE North Atlantic Treaty Organization's defense ministers have taken an important step toward improving NATO's conventional defenses. Meeting in Brussels Dec. 4, they agreed on a six-year, $7.85 billion package to upgrade the alliance's ground equipment and ammunition stockpiles to strengthen NATO in its most vulnerable area - sustainability.

The agreement comes soon after the Senate narrowly defeated the Nunn-Roth amendment in June. That amendment, which I cosponsored with Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, would have required the withdrawal of some 90,000 United States troops from Europe if our allies did not act to improve their conventional defenses.

The amendment won strong Senate support, and the European members of NATO may have realized that they would have to take substantive action to prevent the amendment from being introduced in 1985.

Lord Carrington, NATO's new secretary-general, deserves special recognition for trying to teach the European allies the facts of American political life. While some European old-school diplomats were trying to dismiss the Nunn-Roth amendment, Lord Carrington insisted that the United States was deadly serious, and that we had many legitimate grievances. There is little point, for example, in our investing millions to build up large stockpiles of spare parts and ammunition if the allies who would be guarding the flanks of US troops only have enough supplies for a few days' combat.

While the action of the defense ministers is a step in the right direction, much remains to be done. The defense ministers have no power to bind their national governments. Europe's defense budgets will continue to be determined in debates between each nation's defense and finance ministries. The question is whether the political leadership in Bonn, London, Rome, and other capitals will have the courage to carry out the recommendations of their defense ministers.

And if the new agreement is kept, Washington will have to keep a close eye on the source of the funds. This $7.85 billion must be new money; the commitment can't be met by simply diverting funds from other parts of Europe's defense, such as readiness or acquisition programs. There would be little point to improving NATO's sustainability at the expense of its overall military readiness.

Finally, while the Brussels accord does deal with the most obvious of NATO's current weaknesses, it makes no mention of the larger problem facing the alliance: the cost of procuring a new generation of deep-strike conventional weapons which could halt a Warsaw Pact assault in Europe without resort to nuclear weaponry.

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