CAN the imbalance in conventional weapons in Europe be rectified through arms control? The honest answer must be: Nobody knows. But for the first time in a decade and a half of soporific negotiations on the subject, the West thinks there may be a serious possibility. In a Monitor interview, NATO commander Gen. John R. Galvin said: ``We've seen very clearly that arms reduction has to be a part of strategy. In the past, we looked at MBFR [the fruitless Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions talks conducted ever since 1973] and said well, 14 years of nothing - keep us informed, keep us briefed. But we military now realize that in NATO, arms reductions is an integral, important part of strategy.''
Gen. Wolfgang Altenburg, chairman of NATO's Military Committee, seconded this view in telling the Atlantic Commission in The Hague recently that a ``breakthrough'' is conceivable in conventional arms control. And in an interview with the Monitor he suggested one reason why: ``Countries are looking at their resources problem. And the big money is not on the nuclear side.... This may not be the most noble or ethical reasoning for arms control, but it's very helpful.''
Certainly, the West's reevaluation of prospects in conventional arms control depends heavily on economic motivations in both West and East, and on Moscow's reordering of priorities under the dynamic new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. (The West itself has hardly been a fan of non-nuclear arms control, but since the greater sacrifice will have to come from Moscow if East-West equality is to be reached, the Soviet attitude is the more crucial one in the Western view.)
In the past, any hopes for the kind of asymmetrical conventional reductions that would be needed to produce parity seemed naive. The Russians had too much faith in massed soldiers and weapons and, in the era of Leonid Brezhnev, relied too heavily on conventional military means to exercise Soviet influence abroad. In fact, until the early 1980s Soviet patriots could argue that the flexing of military muscle had enhanced Soviet power. The massive Red Army restored and expanded the Soviet Empire in Central Europe at the close of World War II.
Soviet military intervention in East Germany in 1953 and invasion of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 maintained Soviet hegemony there. Soviet officers and allied Cuban soldiers (and arms sales that came to rival America's in size) established client states in Angola and Ethiopia in the late 1970s, and Soviet troops looked like repeating the feat in Afghanistan in the early '80s.
Against this backdrop, Western analysts found it hard, until recently, to see what incentive Moscow might have to do the West the favor of dismantling the unilateral Soviet military advantage on the ground in Central Europe. To be sure, Mr. Gorbachev understands the nuclear demon, and he has been working hard to control the most apocalyptic weapons, even to the extent of forfeiting four times as many Soviet warheads as the West in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. But in that agreement he had the powerful incentive of eliminating from Europe America's accurate Pershing 3 missiles, which could reach Soviet targets within 10 minutes. And in strategic nuclear arms control he has not only the demand of survival, but also the incentive of averting the astronomical costs of an all-out race in ``star wars.''
In conventional weapons the West has no such obvious bargaining chips. On the contrary, domestic budgetary and demographic constraints and Western public opinion are going to slim down NATO military establishments in the next few years willy-nilly; the West German armed forces, which provide the bulk of NATO's troops on the central front, will automatically drop 8 percent in manpower in the 1990s under current planning.
So why shouldn't the Soviets just let the natural Western attrition occur unilaterally rather than pay something for it in negotiations? For one reason - perestroika (restructuring) - if General Altenburg's hypothesis is correct. Maintaining Soviet military superiority in Central Europe could jeopardize, in two ways, Gorbachev's ambitious goal of hauling the Soviet economy into the 21st century.
First is the sheer price tag of perpetuating current levels of armament. Second is the impact of the perceived Soviet threat in the West on overall East-West relations.
Conventional reductions would save the Soviets little on immediate outlays - even though non-nuclear weapons cost more than their nuclear counterparts. The future costs of high-tech conventional weapons promise to soar, however, and if stability and agreed limits on arms could replace a fierce competition, the Soviets could save some rubles.
Even more significant, perhaps, would be the releasing for the civilian economy of prime resources, managers, and engineers now monopolized by privileged military production. High-ranking East Europeans have told the West Germans - although there is no way to confirm the information - that Gorbachev already urged the Soviet Politburo to cut the Soviet Army by 1 million to free the manpower for more useful economic pursuits. His proposal was rejected, the East Europeans say, but it is not dead.
Furthermore, Gorbachev sees the surge in computer and information technology in the West as the key to modernization. Moscow would like to expand the categories of technology the West will allow to be exported to the USSR. This effort would presumably stand a greater chance of success if the West does not feel constantly menaced by Soviet guns.
Soviet interest in Western technology - and therefore the political price Moscow will pay for it - should not be exaggerated, of course. In the first East-West d'etente of the '70s, Moscow placed high hopes on the import of Western know-how (at that point as a substitute for rather than a stimulant to domestic economic reform). It felt it got burned when the United States Senate upped the ante on then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's deal of quiet Soviet Jewish emigration for most-favored-nation status for Soviet exports to the US. It does not want to get burned again. This time around, Soviet officials remind one another they must develop the capacity to generate their own technology and cannot risk the vulnerability of dependence on the West.
Nonetheless, within these cautionary bounds they would like to increase their access to Western technology.
Insofar as these considerations affect conventional arms control, a key question will be the attitude of Soviet generals. By and large they seem to have bought the argument that the military must forgo some new weapons now to strengthen the economy and produce better weapons later - or see the Soviet Union lose its superpower status by the next century. But there are also signs of military balking at Gorbachev's radical plans. So far as the West can see, the military consensus does not (yet) extend to the particulars of asymmetrical conventional cuts on any scale that would reassure the West.
Gorbachev's `new thinking'
The Soviet debate goes on, however, in the potentially revolutionary ideological shifts introduced by Gorbachev in his ``new thinking''; his assertion of the ``interdependence'' (in terms of nuclear survival) even of states of differing social systems; innovative Soviet exploration of a ``defensive'' military doctrine - and, most strikingly, the unprecedented Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and unprecedented acceptance of intrusive on-site verification and asymmetrical reductions in the INF Treaty.
In the realm of defensive military doctrine, the shift of most immediate relevance to conventional arms control in Europe, Western analysts are reserving judgment. They no longer treat Soviet rhetoric as no more than a propaganda ploy to lull Western publics into euphoria or drive wedges between Western allies. They no longer fear that East-West talks about conventional reductions would serve mainly as a forum in which the Soviets would berate the West for asserting a right of first use of nuclear weapons if it is losing a conventional war.
They do ask, however, what the difference is between Moscow's old offensive and new defensive military doctrines when both call for defending the Soviet Union on the territory of its enemies, and when both still define even a military offensive as politically defensive if its declared purpose is to preserve the gains of socialism. Western governments are therefore holding back on the cheers until they see the Soviet Union's defensive rhetoric translated into less threatening real deployments and force structures.
In the meantime, however, they are tantalized by several questions. What if Gorbachev, for domestic reasons, really does want to cut back the Soviet military's slice of the pie - as an article this year in the ideological journal Kommunist might be hinting in saying that previous Soviet estimates of the threat from NATO were exaggerated? And what if, as part of his campaign to persuade the Soviet military of the virtues of restraint, Gorbachev seeks to justify cuts he wants to make unilaterally by signing mutually agreed reductions with the West?
In that case a deal could be in the making.
Certainly the Soviets have pushed conventional arms control in the past two years, while the West has dragged its feet. The Warsaw Pact has proposed 25 percent cuts by both East and West, and Gorbachev has said he could accept asymmetrical reductions where there are imbalances. His offer is ambiguous; Soviet officials continue to claim there is already overall equality, and to imply disproportionate cuts in Soviet tanks should be matched by disproportionate cuts in Western aircraft (or sometimes navies). The West is getting indications, however, that there may be a serious core in the layers of ambiguity. NATO in no rush to bargain
For its part, the West is not rushing to formulate its own counterproposal - and France stoutly resists any negotiated reductions. But NATO has at least established certain principles of what it would consider an interesting bargain. It aims at dismantling ``invasion capability,'' by reducing Soviet superiority in tanks and artillery (rather than manpower). It wants to ensure that any agreed reductions do not thin out NATO's front line so severely that the integrity of West Germany's ``forward defense'' is breached. NATO insists conventional cuts must not be mixed with arms control negotiations in short-range nuclear weapons in a way that could lead to ``denuclearization'' of Europe and reversion to an unreliable conventional-only deterrence. In this context it would entertain the notion of eventually negotiating cuts in ``dual capable'' aircraft and artillery.
In accord with these precepts, Bonn has been floating a proposal of roughly 5 percent Western cuts against much larger Soviet cuts that would bring the Warsaw Pact down to parity on the central front in key heavy weapons - and would thin out Soviet concentrations of shock troops near the East-West German border. This may well find Western consensus.
At the conventional stability talks, expected to open this fall, neither the Soviets' nor the West's first bids will be acceptable to the other side. But they will start the probing. And if both East and West are feeling a military pinch for domestic reasons anyway, they might just want a framework of arms predictability in a treaty that codifies their mutual restraints.
That seems to be the bargain both the West and Gorbachev seek following expected INF Treaty ratification.
This is the second of two articles on conventional (non-nuclear) arms in Europe. The first appeared on these pages yesterday.
Further reading ``After INF: Toward Conventional Arms Control in Europe?'' and ``Policy Focus: The European Conventional Balance'' in International Security, Spring 1988. Six articles. Biddle, Stephen D., ``The European conventional balance,'' Survival, March/April 1988 Collins, John M., ``US-Soviet Military Balance 1980-1985.'' Washington: Pergamon-Brassey's, 1985. Dean, Jonathan, ``Watershed in Europe.'' Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1987. International Institute for Strategic Studies, ``The Military Balance 1987-1988,'' pp. 226-234. London, 1987. Karber, Phillip A., ``To Lose an Arms Race: the Competition in Conventional Forces Deployed in Central Europe 1965-1980.'' In The Soviet Asset, Uwe Nerlich, ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger, 1983. Levin, Senator Carl, Chairman, Armed Services Subcommittee on Conventional Forces and Alliance Defense, ``Beyond the Bean Count.'' Washington: January 20, 1988. Longstreth, Thomas K., ``The Future of Conventional Arms Control in Europe,'' Federation of American Scientists Public Interest Report, February 1988. Mearsheimer, John, ``Conventional Deterrence,'' Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983. Sloan, Stanley et al, Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, Conventional Arms Control and Military Stability in Europe, October 16, 1987. US Department of Defense, Soviet Military Power. Washington: 1987. Voigt, Karsten, Rapporteur, General Report on Alliance Security, North Atlantic Assembly, September 1987.