THE proposal to remove from Europe all intermediate-range (over 621 miles) and all shorter-range nuclear missiles (311-621 miles) has sparked vigorous debate in NATO. Will such an agreement denuclearize Western Europe? Will it leave Europe exposed to superior Soviet conventional power? Will it ``decouple'' the US from European defense? The critics say it will. The issues are central to NATO security. In 1952 NATO opted to rely primarily on nuclear weapons. In the 1960s, as Soviet nuclear power grew, NATO adopted the ``flexible response'' strategy, based on increasing its conventional capabilities in order to postpone nuclear use in case of war. Yet NATO has fallen short of its goals for conventional forces. According to Gen. Bernard W. Rogers, supreme allied commander in Europe, NATO would have to resort to nuclear weapons within days to avoid defeat by a Soviet conventional attack. Still, a mix of weapons and forces has kept the peace for nearly four decades.
The proposed withdrawal would change the present mix. But it is essential to keep this change in perspective. NATO added the INF only after the Soviets began deploying SS-20s in the late 1970s. Before deploying, NATO proposed full Soviet withdrawal of SS-20s instead (the zero-zero option). Now the Soviets are accepting the zero-zero option, which entails their taking out over three times as many INF warheads as NATO. And they are also proposing to remove all the 140 or so short-range missiles brought in more recently, of which the US has none.
The objections to such an agreement are not really persuasive.
It would not strip NATO Europe of nuclear weapons. The Alliance will still retain many nuclear-armed planes in Europe and 400 Polaris missiles dedicated to NATO, both able to strike the USSR; and Britain and France will continue to have their own strategic nuclear forces, both of which are expanding. In addition, NATO will still have thousands of so-called battlefield or tactical nuclear weapons, like the Warsaw Pact.
Nor will their removal ``decouple'' the US from European defense, or degrade its readiness to use its nuclear arsenal for Europe. The INF weapons in Europe are under full US control; their use against the USSR would surely provoke the same Soviet response as a strike by Polaris missiles or other US strategic forces. The surest guarantee of US response to an attack is the physical presence of the 350,000 US troops in Europe, which the nuclear weapons do little to reinforce.
An INF agreement will actually have hardly any effect on the stability of Europe. Its main significance will be as a start, a unique instance of actually getting rid of deployed forces, and possibly a breakthrough on verification measures. In both respects it could open the way for further steps of greater moment.
In devising such steps the priority should be to enhance the stability of deterrence, by achieving balance across the spectrum of forces at lower levels and strengthening safeguards against sudden attack.
In NATO, the main imbalance today, as in the past, is in conventional forces. The disparity in numbers of tanks, artillery, etc., is substantial. But that can be misleading: It takes no account, for example, of quality of equipment, or of the uncertain reliability of East bloc forces. NATO needs to improve its forces, but not to match those on the Soviet side.
Conventional arms control could also help achieve equilibrium in Europe. Several weeks ago, in Prague, Mr. Gorbachev so suggested:
``There naturally is an asymmetry in the armed forces of the two sides in Europe, but it stems from historical, geographical, and other factors. We are in favor of removing the disparity...not through the increase by the side which is behind but by reducing their numbers on the side which has superiority.''
Propaganda? The West should lose no time in finding out by making proposals which would redress imbalances and enhance stability and confidence if the Soviets cooperate.
Such an agreement might parallel one on offensive strategic weapons, where there appears to be a real chance for major cuts designed to reduce first-strike and multiple warhead capabilities, if the US would agree to abide by limits on Strategic Defense Initiative research and testing compatible with the traditional interpretation of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty. Thus far Reagan has adamantly refused. But Congress can keep the option open by blocking administration efforts to gut the ABM Treaty and deploy SDI prematurely.
Robert R. Bowie has been concerned with foreign affairs for nearly 40 years on the Harvard faculty, in government posts, and as a consultant.