THE sinking of the advanced Soviet attack submarine in the Norwegian Sea April 7 puts the spotlight on a region neglected by the news media, but with the greatest concentration of naval power in the world. Though it may seem remote from the world's hot spots, the north is of vital strategic importance in the East-West conflict. It is on the Kola Peninsula, bordering Norway, that the USSR maintains its ``nuclear bastion.'' And it is to the north that one may look for the most telling clues to the reality of the Soviet's ``new thinking'' in military policy. The Soviet submarine, nicknamed ``Mike'' in NATO circles, was one of the largest and most advanced attack subs found in Moscow's northern fleet. By the Soviets' own admission, the 361-foot vessel carried two torpedoes with nuclear warheads. Western experts, meanwhile, say the Mike is armed with an estimated 16 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles with a range of 1,100 miles.
At a time when the United States Navy no longer places nuclear torpedoes on its submarine fleet and has its maritime strategy under review, the discovery of this fated warrior in the Norwegian Sea offers a sharp reminder of the Soviet Navy's dominant position in the region. This is NATO's northern flank, critical for the defense of Europe. Norway's and Denmark's vulnerability and the geostrategic importance of the Norwegian coast and the Danish straits leading from the Baltic into the North Sea are understood in NATO circles. The northern flank was, in fact, dubbed the alliance's ``Achilles' heel'' some years ago.
It is in the north that NATO's vital lifeline, the sea lines of communication between the Continent and the American mainland, can be most easily broken. That could, in current estimates, lead to a collapse of European defenses in less than a month. Unlikely as the prospect of a conventional war in Europe may be, one cannot forget the lessons of history: Military imbalances, acute resource needs, and long-term ambitions can tempt great powers to use what advantages they have vis-`a-vis weaker states.
The possibilities do not appear to be missed by the Soviet Union. About a year ago, Norway revealed the creation of a new Soviet nuclear-submarine base just 30 miles from its border. This January, news came that this home of the Typhoons, the world's largest nuclear submarines, is under expansion and fortification. A new aircraft carrier, the Baku, has been added to the northern fleet - the second of the Kiev-class carriers to have its home on the Kola.
The north is the only area from which Soviet ships have open, ice-free passage into the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic. The choice of the Kola as the site of the Soviet northern fleet is natural. This is where one finds the greatest concentration of Soviet nuclear weapons in the world today, with 66 percent of the strategic nuclear reserve force, 30 percent of intercontinental bombers, and 21 percent of the total Soviet intercontinental warhead inventory.
It is the improvement and strengthening of Soviet conventional forces on the Kola, in particular amphibious forces, that is causing the greatest concern among Norwegian and NATO military planners. Norway maintains a stationary force of only 450 men on the border - facing two Soviet divisions, a naval infantry brigade, and an air-assault brigade. Soviet conventional forces on the Kola is estimated to outnumber Norwegian forces in the north 30 to 1.
The force deployment on the Kola suggests strongly that Soviet military planners consider a swift attack and takeover of coastal areas in northern Norway an important objective - possibly in the opening stages of a wider military conflict with Western forces.
Warnings have come recently from both Oslo and Brussels. Pointing to the increase in Soviet military strength in the north, Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorvald Stoltenberg said: ``We must bear in mind that the balance of naval forces in the north is of decisive importance ... to defend Norway and Western Europe in general.''
Sir Geoffrey Howlett, chief of NATO's Northern Command, emphasizes the enormous expansion of the Kola base. ``But in the last couple of years,'' he says, ``we have also seen a strengthened buildup in quality. It is this they have been concentrating on lately, to modernize ships, planes, and other equipment.''
In that context, acceptance of restrictions on the operational freedom of Western navies in the north appears foolhardy. Western arms control negotiators must take notice of the acute imbalance and the lack of action to follow Soviet rhetoric in this vital region!