What was billed as the largest French-German maneuvers in history Sept. 21 and 24 in Bavaria put Moscow on notice that French forces are ready to be NATO's desperately needed operational reserves. In exercises that were formally bilateral but immediately followed large NATO maneuvers in northern Germany, 20,000 French Rapid Action Forces (FAR) were put under the command of a West German general to relieve 55,000 beleaguered West German troops. The message about the new French commitment to provide operational reserves to defend Western Europe is a point the West is eager to impress on the Soviets as the superpowers move toward final agreement on removing all intermediate-range nuclear (INF) missiles from Europe and Asia.
They want to avoid any Soviet misreading of the elimination of NATO's most powerful and accurate theater nuclear weapons as meaning that Western Europe would be left vulnerable to attack by the Soviet bloc's superior conventional forces (or to political blackmail based on this threat).
Since NATO conceives of nuclear weapons as offsetting its conventional inferiority - and since one of NATO's chief conventional weaknesses is lack of manpower to fill developing holes in the crucial front line - the new French willingness to fill this gap represents a significant improvement in NATO defense and therefore in overall deterrence. In the 10-day war games, codenamed ``Cheeky Sparrow,'' the West's message was emphasized by the climax of a meeting between French and West German government leaders on a pontoon bridge on the Danube, by the location of the exercises fairly near West Germany's eastern border, and by some unusually blunt remarks to journalists about France's commitment to help defend West Germany made by the French Inspector of the Army, Gen. Maurice Schmitt.
At a press conference concluding the maneuvers West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Francois Mitterrand went out of their way to stress the special importance of the ``privileged'' (Mitterrand) ``security community'' (Kohl) between their two countries.
Mitterrand confirmed that they are even considering establishing a bilateral ``security council.'' While he declined to say outright that French forces would be committed to ``forward defense'' of West Germany's eastern border in time of attack, he said he thought the line of cooperation between the French army and NATO forces committed to such forward defense ``can be changed.''
General Schmitt's phraseology was even more pointed. The four-star general told reporters the basis for the maneuvers was not only the special French-German security cooperation called for in the bilateral postwar treaty of reconciliation of 1963, but also the 1954 agreement founding the seven-nation Western European Union. The WEU treaty, Schmitt reminded his listeners, has a clause requiring automatic military assistance to allies when any one of them is attacked. It is precisely this automaticity of immediate French military intervention on behalf of West Germany that has been a taboo in France ever since President Charles de Gaulle pulled French forces out of the unified NATO military command in 1967.
Since then Paris has consistently stressed that it would make a sovereign decision about whether and when to send French forces to help defend West Germany only at the time of any attack and not before.
In deference to this long-held position of independence from NATO, France made it clear that it would not welcome the presence of the NATO supreme commander General John R. Galvin as an observer at the maneuvers. Nor would it allow any official connection to be made between Cheeky Sparrow and the unusually large NATO exercises just held in north Germany.
Inhibitions about engaging French forces in the immediate defense of West Germany have grown progressively weaker in the past five years, however, and the French have deliberately used ostensibly non-NATO exercises with the West Germans to signal this, according to both French and West German sources. General Schmitt's promise of automaticity in this decision is therefore especially striking in going further than any other public remarks by French officials in the past 20 years.
In this context the importance of the first dispatch of FAR forces to West Germany since their establishment in 1983 as an interventionary force for the Third World and elsewhere is less important for the specific military contribution of these poorly-equipped troops than for their conspicuous engagement here, their mobility, and the venue of the exercises.
Located within some 100 kilometers (about 60 miles) from the Czech border, the area around Manching and Ingolstadt is far enough away from the borders not to be provocative but is also far enough east to demonstrate the French intention to give swift support to West Germany's ``forward defense.''
This is especially crucial, since West Germany is so narrow east to west that there is no leeway for the traditional defensive tactic of trading space for time. The frontline must be held.