Reykjavik's lone saving grace. Summit drew attention to value of conventional forces

THE United States-Soviet arms control talks reopened in Geneva Jan. 15 under the shadow of Reykjavik. The administration's damage-control efforts notwithstanding, the Reykjavik summit was a categorical failure. No tangible agreement was concluded in any important category of Soviet-American relations.

Nevertheless, Reykjavik had a lone saving grace. The talks at Hofdi House may have contributed significantly to our security by throwing a harsh spotlight on the importance of conventional forces.

That spotlight was long overdue. Our conventional defense needs have played the understudy to nuclear forces for too long. No matter what happens with future arms control negotiations, the dire need to improve our conventional military capabilities is a reality today.

The talks brought the role of conventional forces to center stage because they included serious discussion of first, the elimination of all ballistic missiles; then, the elimination of all nuclear weapons.

The elimination of all ballistic missiles would drastically alter the dynamics of the strategic balance. The elimination of all nuclear weapons would go further, making conventional forces the ultimate arbiter in war, and thus the keystone of deterrence.

Either move might ultimately enhance Western security, but both would render the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's current strategy obsolete. The fact is, we are already in danger of making our own strategy nonsensical, even without arms control.

NATO's ``flexible response'' strategy is designed to deter a Soviet attack on Western Europe by presenting Soviet leaders with as much uncertainty as possible about the course a war would take. NATO plans to resist a Soviet attack with only conventional forces at first. Yet we reserve the option to initiate the use of nuclear weapons if the conventional battle does not go well.

GIVEN the Warsaw Pact's current conventional advantage over NATO, that battle is not likely to go well. Thus, the West's strategy today rests on the use of nuclear weapons in response to a conventional attack. That could ultimately mean the use of US strategic weapons against Soviet targets. And vice versa.

Our strategy has been effective to date, but since its inception there have been major changes in the overall military balance. The Soviets have achieved strategic nuclear parity, and arguably possess a measure of theater nuclear superiority. Neither condition existed when flexible response became NATO policy in 1967.

These changes have increased the relative importance of conventional forces. They have also created a conflict within the alliances between two competing views of deterrence. Until recently the two views coexisted under the gossamer umbrella of flexible response, a strategy prone to being all things to all people.

The first concept contends that war can be deterred by making it appear obvious that any attack on NATO will almost certainly result in a total nuclear exchange. Adherents of this concept seek to shape NATO forces, doctrine, and deployment so as virtually to guarantee the use of nuclear weapons by NATO, and by the US in particular. Such a posture may work quite well in peacetime, but it amounts to a cosmic gamble that deterrence will not fail in a crisis.

The second deterrent concept is in my view more responsible. Its proponents recognize that, while the threat of nuclear escalation is a very powerful deterrent to attack, war is nonetheless possible. This concept holds that the best deterrent to aggression is the ability to prevent defeat, to deny the enemy his goals. It also takes into account that deterrence might fail, and that we then would have to fight with what we have on hand.

Flexible response deters by creating severe uncertainty in the minds of the Soviet leadership. In contemplating an attack on NATO, the Soviets would be forced to ask themselves two questions: How will NATO react to a conventional attack, and what are our chances of achieving our goals, given NATO's likely reaction?

Their answers will depend in large part on the credibility of NATO's conventional defenses and nuclear threat. If both are lacking simultaneously in a crisis, war could result. The Soviets could well conclude that a quick conventional victory in Central Europe is achievable, and would preclude a nuclear response.

IN the face of this threat, NATO's conventional forces are inadequate. We can conventionally defend Western Europe for no more than several weeks at best. At the same time our nuclear threat is tenuous, because we would gain nothing of consequence by using nuclear weapons - as the Soviets know.

The importance of conventional forces in the East-West balance is thus twofold. First, a credible conventional capability would enhance deterrence by making a quick Soviet victory extremely unlikely, if not impossible. By ensuring a more extended conventional conflict, our improved conventional forces would provide NATO additional time to decide to use nuclear weapons if necessary, thus further enhancing deterrence.

Second, if NATO's nuclear bluff were called, and Soviet tanks rolled across the West German border, we would be faced with a decision either to do our best conventionally, or to start firing nukes in the very region we were trying to defend. Were we incapable of conventional defense, we would find ourselves robbed of the first option, and left to face a choice between nuclear war and capitulation.

The effectiveness of NATO's deterrent is thus largely a function of our preparedness for a conventional war. The uncertainties inherent in our flexible-response strategy are not diminished by deploying stronger conventional forces. We must realize that having only a marginal conventional capability places the burden of those uncertainties on ourselves as much as on the Soviets.

Let's not forget that conventional forces are the front line of deterrence around the globe. Libya, Cuba, and Syria are not concerned with US strategic forces, but rather fear our Navy's carrier battle groups, the Army's 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, and the entire Marine Corps. But for some reason we seem blind to all this.

And while the President seeks tens of billions for research on exotic beam weapons, American infantrymen still lack a weapon that will kill enemy tanks within 1,000 meters (five-eighths of a mile) of their position. While we spend billions to deploy 50 MX missiles in vulnerable silos, we lack sufficient ammunition stocks to sustain our troops in a conventional war in Europe.

A number of us in Congress have sought to ensure that conventional forces do not get short shrift. For that purpose the House and the Senate Armed Services Committees cooperatively began a Conventional Defense Initiative program. The CDI program funds the application of new technologies to conventional arms and encourages US forces to make greater use of effective conventional weapons developed by our allies. Some of us intend to continue to redirect US defense spending priorities toward conventional force improvements this year.

The security of our democracy depends on both public awareness of the threats we face and consensus on a response to those threats. The Reykjavik summit helped focus public attention on the need to improve our conventional forces. If we act on this newfound insight, the meeting at Reykjavik may have contributed more to our security than any arms control agreement.

Rep. Charles E. Bennett (D) of Florida is a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee and chairman of the Subcommittee on Seapower.

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