THE North Atlantic Treaty Organization marks its 40th anniversary this year in vigorous health. Its 16 nations are on track, joined behind a new plan for conventional arms reductions. NATO's success in the East-West talks in Vienna, which resumed May 5, would propel the entire European continent toward a more stable relationship. NATO's proposal in the talks on conventional armed forces in Europe addresses three fundamental security problems that have overshadowed Europe for four decades: first, the artificial division of Europe caused by Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe at the end of World War II; second, the enormous concentration of the Soviets' forward-deployed, offensive formations, giving them capability for surprise attack; and third, the Soviets' potential for large-scale and protracted offensive operations resulting from the preponderance of their conventional forces.
For the past 16 years, East and West sparred over the complicated issue of European conventional-force reductions in the Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction (MBFR) talks. This failed to produce any cuts, primarily because neither side could produce force data acceptable to the other side.
Learning from this experience, NATO's current proposal goes to the heart of all three fundamental security problems. Simple and logical, it calls for deep cuts in those weapon systems best suited for seizing and holding territory in Europe. Among its goals is security at equal, lower levels of forces. Its focus is on asymmetrical reductions and limits on tanks, artillery, and armored troop carriers.
To prevent any country from dominating Europe with conventional arms, the NATO plan limits any country to 30 percent of both alliances' tanks, artillery pieces, and armored troop carriers. This is highly important, since the Soviet Union has over 50 percent of the active heavy tanks of the two alliances combined. NATO's proposal also significantly limits the forces any one nation could deploy outside its own borders. Based on current holdings, this would require the Soviets to cut at least 2,000 more heavy tanks in addition to the 5,000 they've already pledged to remove from Eastern Europe.
This proposal would address a wide range of potential hostilities in Europe, from surprise attack to protracted large-scale offensives. In accounting for the unique security requirements of various countries and regions, it limits readiness and force concentrations in geographical sub-regions, yet avoids creating artificial boundaries within the alliances.
The Warsaw Pact has also presented a proposal that contains some notions similar to NATO's. Soviet-bloc nations now at least implicitly accept the Western insistence upon deep, asymmetrical cuts to reach equal force levels below those of today. They agree in principle to the need for robust verification, including on-site inspection. Their plan, however, also contains some pitfalls. For example, they want to include tactical aircraft in the initial focus, arguing that aircraft are an essential component of any surprise attack.
What they don't say is that aircraft cannot seize or hold territory without large, mobile armored forces like those of the Warsaw Pact. They also seem to care little that aircraft withdrawn or limited by the negotiations can be rapidly returned to the theater of operations in time of crisis. This high degree of mobility also presents significant problems in verification. NATO does not refuse to talk about aircraft, which are covered by the agreed mandate. Moreover, the pact nations have far more combat aircraft than NATO. But priority must be given to reducing asymmetries in ground systems that seize and hold territory.
The pact proposal also calls for ``zones of reduced levels of armaments.'' This is an old ploy to exploit the West's lack of territorial depth, limiting its ability to conduct a forward defense. It is an attempt to remove NATO's tactical nuclear weapons from the forward area even though nuclear weapons themselves are excluded from the negotiations.
The Soviet bloc is also staging a spectacular sideshow with its announcement of unilateral force reductions. The West will resist pressures to respond with unilateral cuts of its own, for three solid reasons:
First, the Soviets' promise of significant reductions remains just that - a promise for the future. Their plans call for completion of force cuts in late 1990. NATO should not exacerbate existing imbalances with cuts in its own forces. Second, in the absence of a formal treaty, unilateral conventional force reductions by the East can be reversed at any time, and much more rapidly than any reciprocal reductions undertaken by the West. Finally, even if all Warsaw Pact reductions are carried out as announced, NATO will still be outgunned 2 to 1 in tanks and artillery and almost 2 to 1 in combat aircraft.
The communist bloc is attempting to make a virtue of necessity. Its declining economies and demographic shortcomings are making it ever more difficult to field large offensive formations. The Soviets may attempt to divert us with clever propaganda. But NATO must stay on track. The Western proposal provides a solid basis for an agreement that could strengthen security for all the peoples of Europe.