The world's two most important military alliances have been rocked
hard by the changes now sweeping through Europe.
Some analysts say that both NATO and the Warsaw Pact are disintegrating
already, but that is too speculative an assessment. Neither alliance has
actually begun to break apart. In each, however, conditions for disintegration
are riper than they have been since the 1950s.
The cracks in the two alliances developed for different
NATO, which observed its fortieth anniversary earlier this
year, is unlikely to disband, but changes seem inevitable in the scope and
configuration of its military program.
Americans and Europeans alike believe that the military
threat to western Europe is over. The West, weary from forty years of Cold War,
has been swept off its feet by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who talks peace
and promises to reduce Soviet military power. It does not seem to matter much
that he has not made his reductions yet.
The resurgence of arms control further adds to the West's
comfort able feeling. Under a 1987 agreement, the United States and the Soviet
Union are removing their intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe.
The focus now is on the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe
(CAFE) proposal, which would draw down tanks, troops, and airplanes by big
percentages in both NATO and the Pact. If that succeeds, negotiations will
turn next to short-range nuclear weapons.
NATO is also beset with old arguments about defense budgets
and about how member nations share the financial burden. At their last meeting,
Alliance defense ministers reaffirmed their "guidelines" of three
percent real growth in NATO defense budgets. In reality, the Western nations
are inclined to cut back their military spending instead, no matter what
happens in arms control.
Many Americans—including influential members of
Congress—think some of the US troops in Europe should come home. They are
especially rankled by the fact that other NATO nations spend far less on
defense than the US does.
Europeans say that the burden is not measured by GNP
percentage alone. Europe supplies most of the in-place aircraft, armor, and
combat manpower. Europeans also run the more immediate risk. The first battlefields
would be on their territory.
Some Europeans agree with their American critics on one
thing: They also feel it may be time for the Americans to go home.
Budgets and burden-sharing are secondary issues, though. The
United States and Europe can afford defense if they are convinced they need
it. NATO is unstable mainly because its convictions are wavering.
Perceptions to the contrary, the threat has not disappeared.
Mr. Gorbachev says he would like to divert some of the resources consumed by
the military to other uses. That is probably true, but he has been saying the
same thing for several years. Nevertheless, Soviet military spending rose by
its usual three percent, after inflation, in 1988, and currently accounts for
something near one-fourth of the Soviet GNP.
Mr. Gorbachev told the United Nations last December that he
plans to reduce his armed forces by 500,000 troops. If he makes good on that
promise, the Soviet Union would still have 4,600,000 troops. "In terms of
combat power that can be brought to bear on the battlefield—even after the
proposed reductions—the Warsaw Pact will continue to outnumber NATO 2.5 to one
in tanks, 2.4 to one in artillery, and nearly two to one in combat
aircraft," says Gen. John R. Galvin, Supreme Allied Commander, Europe.
This year, General Galvin says, the United States will
produce 610 tanks. The Soviet Union will produce between 3,000 and 3,400 top-of-the-line
T-72s and T-80s. "If you withdraw 10,000 tanks in two years but you are
producing 3,000 new tanks per year, your withdrawals turn out to be
modernization," General Galvin says.
Those numbers are disputed by the Soviets and others, but by
any count, NATO must expect that massive military power will be deployed just
over the border for some time to come.
The Warsaw Pact, for its part, is probably closer to
internal crisis than NATO is. Dissent and disruption are flaring all along the
Soviet periphery. On paper, General of the Army Peter Lushev, Commander in
Chief of the United Armed Forces of the Warsaw Pact, can mobilize the armies
and air forces of six east European nations without consulting anyone outside
of Moscow. In practice, he must wonder how reliably those forces would respond
to Soviet control.
Mr. Gorbachev has no easy choices. If he uses traditional
Soviet methods to reimpose discipline, he risks alienating his admirers in the
West and reawakening fear of Soviet military power. If he lets matters drift,
he encourages more internal dissent, further weakening Moscow's grip on its
empire. Few Russians will take it lightly if he loses control of the western approaches
to the Soviet homeland, now guarded by the east European client states and the
Soviet forces stationed there.
"Before this, we were faced with a Soviet Union that
was big but predictable," General Galvin says. "Now they are just
Mr. Gorbachev no longer holds a monopoly on breathtaking
offers. President Bush's CAFE proposal, adopted by the NATO summit in May,
calls for sweeping reductions of armies and air forces in Europe.
Both sides would drop back to equal ceilings of 20,000
tanks, 28,000 armored troop carriers, and 16,000 artillery pieces. Land-based
combat aircraft and helicopters would be reduced to levels fifteen percent
below the present NATO total. These limits would apply to the Pact and NATO in
aggregate. All of the withdrawn equipment would be destroyed.
The United States and the Soviet Union would each limit
their combat manpower, outside of national territory from the Atlantic to the
Urals, to 275,000. The troops withdrawn—30,000 by the US, 350,000 by the Soviets—would
The first problem is that NATO and the Warsaw Pact disagree
by wide margins on the number of troops, tanks, and aircraft in place now. They
also disagree on the definition of combat aircraft and about whether naval
forces should be included in the negotiations.
MiG-29s Are Pure
"We consider totally unjustified the inclusion by the
US of a purely defensive weapon, fighter-interceptor aircraft, into the
category of aircraft slated for reduction," says Victor Karpov, Soviet
Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs.
General Galvin says he has difficulty swallowing the idea
that such aircraft as the MiG-25 Foxbat, the MiG-29 Fulcrum, and the Su-27
Flanker should be excluded. Like the American F-16, the Soviet MiG-25 and
MiG-29 are multirole aircraft, perfectly capable of ground attack. The Su-27's
primary duty is escorting deep-interdiction strikes—not exactly a "purely
defensive" mission in itself—and it probably has a secondary role of
"Although frequently assigned as interceptors, these
aircraft have the capability aboard to become strike aircraft," General
Galvin says. "It is a common characteristic of air forces that they are
flexible, and that an aircraft is built to do one thing one day and something
It will be to the advantage of the Soviets, who are not
dependent on sealift for resupply, if they can pull naval forces into the CAFE
According to General Galvin, seventy-five percent of the
Warsaw Pact equipment moves forward by rail, and most of the remainder moves by
road. The Soviets have 3,500 heavy-equipment transporters, on which they can
carry ten divisions' worth of tanks in a single haul.
By contrast, ninety percent of NATO's reinforcement moves by
sea and requires protection against the 200 or so killer submarines the Soviets
could unleash against allied shipping.
If the negotiators can agree on definitions, base numbers,
and terms of a treaty, the next problem is how to verify compliance with the
agreement. As nuclear arms-control efforts have demonstrated, keeping track of
big, hard-to-hide weapons is difficult enough. Monitoring troops, tanks, and
artillery would require surveillance capabilities that do not now exist.
Since 1967, NATO's strategy has been Flexible Response/Forward
Defense. "Flexible Response" means fielding a conventional force
adequate to deter or defeat an attack without early reliance on nuclear
weapons. "Forward Defense" means repelling an attack at the border
instead of conceding territory (unacceptable to the West Germans), falling
back, and conducting a defense in depth.
"Force-to-space ratios and the dictates of terrain mean
there are certain force levels below which the West cannot reduce,"
General Gal-yin wrote in the British magazine Survival last spring.
"Currently, NATO has twenty-two divisions deployed in the central region
of Allied Command Europe, covering a frontage of more than 1,000 kilometers."
Under NATO doctrine, a division defends forty-six kilometers
of front, he explained. The Alliance does not have enough forces for an
adequate reserve now, and if reductions cut too deep, they would make the
"In order to cover the front and carry out the
defensive mission, Allied Command Europe would be forced to conduct more mobile
operations, giving ground to gain time and to discover the main attack of the
enemy while holding onto a strong mobile reserve for counterattack," he
said. "This is not the current NATO strategy. Deep cuts in forces would
compel a change."
Forward Defense also means a large military presence on
German soil. Seven foreign nations station 400,000 troops in Germany. They,
along with German forces and additional allied units on training deployments,
conduct thousands of exercises there each year.
"In the Federal Republic of Germany, a country the
size of Oregon with the population density of the Eastern seaboard, there are
nearly 900,000 men and women in uniform, training at high operating
tempos," Gen. Thomas C. Richards, Deputy Commander in Chief of US European
Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in April.
The level of training activity—the low-level flying in
particular—has become a controversial issue. Anti-defense critics in Germany
lead complaints about the disruption. They also charge that such flying is the
result of NATO's Follow-On Forces Attack (FOFA) concept, which they denounce as
In wartime, Allied airmen would be required to penetrate
enemy defenses to attack the rear echelons. To survive the radar-directed fire
from the ground, they would have to fly low and fast.
"The only way to avoid that kind of flak is to fly in
the weeds," General Galvin says. "We don't even fly as low [in
training] as we would fly in combat, but we have to fly low in order to
NATO has cut back sharply on low-level flying in Germany.
Tactical units deploy elsewhere for considerable portions of their training.
"The average amount of time that a pilot gets today to
practice [at low level] is rather small, considering the difficulty of the
operation," General Galvin says. "It is often a matter of less than
half an hour a week for a crew."
Under a concept called "Right Mix," General Galvin
and the NATO air chiefs are exploring less disruptive options, including simulation, to ensure adequate
General Galvin cautions Americans against jumping to
conclusions about the training controversy. In a June 6 speech to the Columbus,
Ohio, Rotary Club, he said that recent polls show that West Germans are still
in favor of the Alliance.
"Eighty percent of the Germans are for NATO, and
seventy-five percent are for the deployment of Allied forces within their
country," he said. "The Germans don't like low-level flying. It
scares the chickens and all that. And they don't like tanks in their backyard.
But they sure like NATO. I wouldn't worry about the Germans."
Money and Other Upsets
Since its inception in 1967, the weakest aspect of the
flexible Defense strategy has been that it is not really flexible. The Western
nations have never been willing to pay for sufficient conventional forces. This
led to excessive reliance on tactical nuclear weapons, with US strategic
nuclear forces as the ultimate backup. In turn, the nightmare of a nuclear
shootout became a staple of the European antidefense movement.
The unwillingness to spend more on conventional defense is
at the heart of the burden-sharing issue. The United States, Greece, Britain,
and Turkey allocate between four and six percent of their respective Gross Domestic
Products to defense. The other allies spend less. West Germany is
conspicuously low at three percent of GDP.
In its annual report to Congress on Alliance burden-sharing,
the Pentagon says that GDP percentage alone is not a valid measure of a nation's
contribution. It lists thirteen other factors, such as host nation support,
that should be considered. It also notes that nations with a military draft
get more manpower for their money than the United States does with its
Congress does not buy that argument. The burden-sharing
panel of the House Armed Services Committee, chaired by Rep. Patricia
Schroeder (D-Colo.), expresses a strong view: "The US and its allies do
not agree on the immediacy or level of the threat, [but] a high level of US
defense spending provides them with a no-cost insurance policy if our threat
assessment turns out to be right and their assessment wrong."
Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) of the
Senate Armed Services Committee also call for the Europeans to do more.
"If our NATO Allies are not serious about conventional defense, then we do
not need all of the 325,000 American troops deployed in western Europe,"
they said in August. "If the only function of our armed forces in Europe is
to make our allies confident that we will use nuclear weapons to defend the
continent, we can make do with substantially fewer US troops there."
New Record for Peace
Europeans have a keen sense of history, and this has been a
big year for anniversaries in Europe. NATO celebrated its fortieth birthday
April 4. World War II began fifty years ago in September. In August, more than
a million Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians timed their anti-Soviet
demonstration to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the pact between
Hitler and Stalin that cost the Baltic nations their independence.
On the occasion of the NATO observance, British Foreign
Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe pointed out that "four months ago, another
milestone was reached which attracted little notice at the time. It was the
surpassing of the previous record for the period when Europe had been at peace,
forty-three years and seven months between January 1871 and August 1914. The
forty years of NATO's existence has, lam sure, been a primary reason why that
record has been broken."
NATO, an alliance of sixteen sovereign nations with
considerable experience at resolving their differences, has more options for
continued vitality than the Warsaw Pact does.
If Mr. Gorbachev makes major reductions to his armed forces
and forgoes centralized control from Moscow, the Warsaw Pact is essentially
defunct. If he reasserts control and maintains his force structure, the
success of his international public relations campaign will be at an end, and he
will become the catalyst that pulls NATO back together.
As a free affiance of free nations, NATO has room for
organizational maneuvering. It can change its military size and configuration
as well as the internal alignments of power and still have a functioning
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the days top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag