Puzzling days for NATO

Gen. John Galvin's new job will be a tough one. This spring the personable four-star general will leave Panama and the United States Southern Command for Belgium and the post of supreme allied commander of Europe. As NATO's top soldier, he will need all the mediating skills he can muster to handle the alliance problems piled on his desk.

``I'll be stepping in at a time when a number of serious questions will require my attention,'' General Galvin said gingerly in a recent interview. He declined to specify how he thinks those questions should be answered.

Right now the most contentious issue in NATO is whether the proposed superpower agreement limiting medium-range nuclear missiles would really make Europe a safer place.

But argument over this has sparked renewal of a larger debate: What should NATO do about the Soviet Union's superiority in other conventional weapons? And in the background, still faint but growing louder, is the murmur of US politicians saying it may time to bring some US troops home from Europe.

NATO planners, of course, have been worrying for decades about the Warsaw Pact's large armies on the central front.

Gen. Bernard Rogers, the man Galvin will replace, has appeared before Congress each year during his tenure and warned that if Soviet tanks rolled into West Germany, the thin screen of NATO defenses would soon collapse, and the US would have to fire off nuclear weapons, or lose.

``NATO's current conventional posture does not provide credible deterrence,'' General Rogers said last month.

But the prospect of some of those nuclear weapons being scrapped, as a medium-range missile pact would require, has concentrated the minds of those who feel NATO would then be more exposed to the Soviet Union's conventional divisions. Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, the thoughtful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, complained at an April 24 breakfast for reporters that in the US ``we don't pay any attention to the conventional balance. All we talk about is nuclear weapons.''

Senator Nunn said NATO's first military priority should be conventional force improvements - specifically, the building up of ammunition stocks, aircraft shelters, and other materiel.

He said he would favor a medium-range nuclear treaty - if it were linked ``at least psychologically'' in Western public opinion with the need for a new round of superpower negotiations aimed at redressing the conventional-force imbalance.

If a medium-range pact is signed, it would probably allow five years for the US to pack up and ship out its nuclear-tipped missiles in Europe. Mr. Nunn proposed including a treaty escape clause, under which the US would stop withdrawing missiles if no progress were being made in the arms talks on conventional forces.

Talks aimed at reducing the number of soldiers in Europe have been going on with little success for over a decade. The new round proposed by Nunn would focus on reducing forward-deployed equipment instead of manpower.

Complicating this picture is the growing, though still small, support in Congress for unilaterally withdrawing some of the 300,000 US troops in Europe.

``There is a boomlet'' of such opinion in Congress, said John Maresca, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO, in an interview last month. ``We take it seriously.''

Liberal lawmakers who have talked about bringing some of the boys home, such as Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado, see it as a way to cut the defense budget. Some conservatives who favor the idea want the US to pull back from foreign commitments and focus on defending the homeland.

Those who call themselves defense reformers, such as presidential candidate Gary Hart, say troop withdrawals may be a way of rationalizing US military efforts and forcing the Europeans to spend more on their own defense.

Troop-cut bills will likely be introduced this year, though it is unlikely they would pass soon. Rep. Jim Courter (R) of New Jersey says he favors a five-year process of bringing back 100,000 troops. This, he says, would leave the US military presence in Europe at the same level it was in 1970.

According to Mr. Maresca, there is nothing magic about the current US troop strength. But he says that if the US starts bringing a portion of these forces home, ``it suggests that we are considering broader withdrawals, and it tends to reinforce concerns in Europe that somehow the US is headed for a general withdrawal from its European commitments.''

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