Why NATO doesn't have to respond to Gorbachev's cutback

ONE day prior to President Gorbachev's unilateral pledge to reduce and reconfigure Soviet forces in Eastern Europe, the defense policy panel of the House Armed Services Committee issued a report entitled, ``Soviet Readiness for War: Assessing One of the Major Sources of East-West Instability.'' Based on both open and classified sources, the document explodes the myth of a Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact able to apply overwhelming numerical strength against NATO in a standing start or short mobilization surge to the Atlantic. Instead, it shows that the forces likely to participate in such a campaign are relatively equal, with the Soviets running the greater short-term risks of failure.

In the light of the subsequent Gorbachev address, the report could well support the proposition that NATO is quite literally in the happy position of being able to do nothing, constructively.

With NATO and Warsaw Pact divisions of different size and capability, the report employs as its unit of measurement the term Armored Division Equivalent (ADE) developed by the US Army Concept Development Agency to denote units of roughly equivalent combat strength. Then, addressing NATO's historic concerns, it asks, how many ADEs would match up against each other from a ``standing start,'' a complete surprise attack? And, how many ADEs could be brought to the front after a one- to three-week period of mobilization?

Stunningly, the report finds that in a surprise attack the Warsaw Pact could throw the equivalent of only 25 armored divisions against 24 NATO divisions, a 1.1 to 1 ratio not generally regarded as adequate to support an offensive campaign. Further, after a short mobilization period, the Warsaw Pact advantage disappears entirely, each side able to bring 34 ADEs to the front within three weeks of the war's beginning.

The report finds that even the best Soviet units are maintained at only 80 percent of full strength; the presence of raw conscripts in each unit reduces the true percentage of trained manpower to about 65 percent.

Matched up against the fully manned, better-trained NATO units, the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies hardly seem capable of short-warning aggression. Experts appearing before the committee noted that such an attack would carry enormous risk.

Rather than poised for offensive action, Soviet European deployments consist of a ``classic covering force,'' whose mission is ``to defend until the forces in the Western Military District (of the Soviet Union) could be brought forward.'' Only then would the Soviets likely launch their massive ``counter-offensive.''

But here too NATO's conventional strength is considerable. For 15 years NATO planners have addressed the problem of quickly reinforcing frontline troops with units based in the United States, the aim being to add ten divisions in ten days.

And while the US would be transporting its men aboard the most modern aircraft to their prepositioned supplies or ferrying both men and equipment across an ocean guarded by American sea power, the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies would be trying to move men and material hundreds of kilometers over relatively primitive road and rail systems in the face of NATO strategies specifically designed to disrupt reinforcement.

The situation is not without its perils. A Soviet breakthrough on the northern front or the failure of NATO to mobilize as planned could, according to the report, quickly give the Warsaw Pact the numerical edge it otherwise lacks. And the positioning near the front of so many Soviet tanks, artillery pieces, and forging equipment is a matter of legitimate Western concern.

The Gorbachev plan is thus of special significance. If carried out in good faith over the indicated two year period the withdrawal from the European theater of 40 percent of all Soviet tanks, more than 20 percent of Soviet artillery, 800 attack aircraft and the auxiliary equipment referred to in the address should virtually eliminate the perceived threat of aggressive Soviet attack in Central Europe.

Reciprocal NATO cuts are unwarranted since by no stretch of the imagination are NATO forces positioned to conduct a blitzkrieg-type operation against Eastern Europe or the vast Soviet land area.

Nor is there any manifest advantage to sizeable mutual reductions even if achieved through negotiation and on the basis of parity. Even against a diminished Soviet threat the NATO defense line remains - as noted by a recent Rand Corporation study - long and intricate. Defending that line requires considerable manpower and equipment. Reductions in US manpower based in Europe or a shift in the burdens of NATO nations are fit subjects for negotiations between the US and its allies rather than between either and the Soviets.

There is likewise no urgency that the debate over modernization of NATO's battlefield nuclear weapons be resolved at once nor that the alliance press forward with an assortment of costly and elaborate conventional systems designed to compensate for illusory Warsaw Pact advantages in conventional forces.

The march of battlefield technology is an inexorable process which proceeds in fits and starts according to need, resource availability, and political exigency.

The new administration would do well not to force the process. A little breathing time is no sin in a world of diminished great power tensions.

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