Courtesy Reuters

US Forces in Europe: How Many? Doing What?

Download Article

Distinguished Senators ask, "What should we tell our constituents when they ask why we should keep American troops in Europe 30 years after the end of World War II?"

The answer remains what it has been throughout that period: because it is in our best interest to keep them there. A free and independent Western Europe, aligned with the United States, is vital for our national security and well-being. The U.S.S.R. and its Warsaw Pact allies have large and effective land and air forces in Eastern Europe. If our allies are to be able to preserve their independence, NATO must have in-place forces of equal size and effectiveness, and be able to match the Pact in a mobilization. If the NATO alliance does not provide such forces, a major imbalance in military power will be an intimidating factor that cannot help but influence our allies' freedom and political alignment over the years.

American forces are necessary because they help maintain the balance, and also because they demonstrate the seriousness of our commitment. Some say, "Let the Europeans provide for their own defense." Our NATO allies do pay most of the cost of that defense. European NATO members have about 3.3 million military personnel on active duty. The United States maintains about 320,000 military personnel in Europe, about ten percent of the European total. However, our allies would not provide themselves an effective defense without a substantial U.S. contribution. They do not have the necessary leadership and unity. Although Europe has aspirations toward autonomy and cohesion, these hopes have not been realized and may never be. By far the most important unifying factor is that each is an ally of the United States. American leadership is the glue that holds the alliance together.

However, while NATO outspends the Pact by roughly a third, and has almost 20 percent more military personnel on active duty, we are not achieving the military effectiveness we need and that we could achieve with the resources we are devoting to the purpose. Making NATO's conventional forces fully effective within existing budgets and manpower ought to be the major goal of the alliance. An important part of this effort, I believe, should be a reassessment of the tactical nuclear weapons now deployed in Europe, leading to an early and sharp reduction in their numbers.


When NATO defense ministers adopted the strategy of flexible response in 1967, they recognized that NATO must have strong conventional forces to ensure that it can deter, and if necessary respond to, less than total threats to the security of its members. In line with this agreed strategy, the presence of substantial U.S. forces both contributes to the necessary balance of conventional forces and gives the Europeans confidence that U.S. strategic nuclear forces are coupled to European defense. Since 1967, it has become even clearer than it was then that Europe cannot hope to replace the American nuclear guarantee, not only because Soviet nuclear capabilities have grown so much in recent years, but also because any vision of a European nuclear force under a single political authority remains remote.

In the seven intervening years, much has been done to flesh out the flexible response strategy. Yet both an adequate and effectively directed European defense effort, and a proper understanding of the role of U.S. forces by Americans and Europeans alike, have been obscured by one persistent problem that remains as serious today as it was in the 1960s. That problem is the exaggeration of the strength and capability of the Warsaw Pact forces, leading to a tendency to suppose that NATO forces are hopelessly outnumbered, and that therefore U.S. forces serve no other purpose than to act as a "trip wire." One logical implication of this view has not been missed by members of the Congress who want to bring U.S. forces home: if NATO is outnumbered in the Center Region 68 divisions to 24, as one comparison has it, they might as well be outnumbered 68 to 21, in which case we might as well cut U.S. forces to a token level.

But a trip-wire strategy would be dangerous and ineffective. Neither the Europeans nor the Soviets would be likely to believe that the United States would be willing to risk the destruction of more than 100 million Americans merely because a small number of American troops in Europe were threatened. Such a posture would not provide our European allies with the reassurance they need. Our safety requires that if we really mean to maintain our nuclear guarantee as Europe's last line of defense, we must have strong conventional forces as a first line of defense.

But equally important is the fact that NATO land forces are not outnumbered. The essential facts remain today as K. Wayne Smith and I reported them for mid-1968: NATO has more total active duty military manpower than the Pact; NATO has more total land forces manpower than the Pact; NATO and Pact land forces manpower in the critical Center Region are about equal; and NATO tactical aircraft are about equal in number and distinctly superior in quality to those of the Pact.1 For example, estimates published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies for 1974 are summarized in the following table:



NATO Warsaw Pact

Army 2,815 2,626

Air Force 1,166 937

Marine Corps/Naval Infantry 212 18

Navy 894 518

Strategic Air Defense (NORAD & PVO) 45 500

Total Active 5,132 4,599

Trained Reservists 5,295 5,093

With respect to the Center Region, total manpower in division forces as of mid-1968 was 677,000 for NATO and 619,000 for the Pact.3 Using the broader, but equally relevant, concept of total men in land forces (i.e., including, for example, training base, supply overhead, etc.), Secretary of Defense Schlesinger reported to the Congress in March 1974 that the manpower in the ground forces "which the Pact could launch against the Center with very little warning . . . amounts to about 925,000 men," while "to counter this immediate threat, NATO has in the Center Region of Europe about 29-1/3 divisions . . . manpower in ground forces amounts to about 890,000, if France is included."4 There are many sets of definitions and assumptions on which to base such comparisons. But unless we concede to the Pact a long headstart in mobilization, any balanced application of reasonable assumptions yields the same result, i.e., NATO is not badly outnumbered in total ground forces manpower.

With respect to the buildup of forces after mobilization begins, one recent and very useful analysis estimates the buildup of manpower available for combat in the Center Region on M-Day and 30 and 60 days later as follows:5

(in thousands)

M-Day M + 30 M + 60

Total NATO 660 1,045 1,105

Total Warsaw Pact 576 1,076 1,241

The estimates used by the Secretary of Defense in briefing allied defense ministers, which are based on continuing studies by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the U.S. Army, are somewhat more favorable to NATO. But the essential fact of rough equality in manpower remains.

One important category in which NATO is at a large numerical disadvantage is tanks. The Pact has about 2.5 times as many as NATO, 15,500 vs. 6,000 in the deployed forces described by Secretary Schlesinger. Yet this numerical advantage is to some extent offset by NATO's antitank defenses and the superior quality of NATO's tanks.

In tactical air forces, NATO has a distinct advantage. Total inventories on the two sides are about equal. The numbers of aircraft in the Center Region in peacetime and that could be deployed in 30 or 60 days are roughly equal. But most Pact aircraft are primarily air-to-air fighters without strong ground-attack capabilities. On average, NATO aircraft can deliver about 2.5 times as much payload as their Pact counterparts on typical combat sorties. Moreover, NATO forces have big advantages in pilot training, sortie rate capability, and highly lethal, accurate guided weapons. If appropriately trained and equipped, NATO tactical air forces could devastate Soviet armored columns with "smart bombs."

These figures do not imply either that NATO now has conventional forces equal in effectiveness to those of the Pact, or that NATO would defend effectively today. The outcome of a Pact attack is highly uncertain, and there are serious deficiencies in NATO's posture. But manpower figures and comparative cost estimates do suggest strongly that NATO ought to be able to organize an effective defense within existing budgets and manpower.

If these data are well-established facts, how is it possible to exaggerate the Warsaw Pact and depict NATO as hopelessly outnumbered? The main vehicles of exaggeration are identifiable and easily refutable. The most time-honored method has been to count divisions instead of counting soldiers, guns, tanks, or vehicles. But the sizes and contents of divisions vary so much as to make their number meaningless for purposes of force comparison. Not only are there more men in a NATO division than in a Pact division, but NATO generally has more men outside its divisions. NATO has over 30,000 soldiers in central Europe for each of its divisions there, and the Warsaw Pact has only about 16,000 soldiers for each division.6

Another method of exaggerating the threat is to assume that all Pact divisions are at the same readiness and equipment status as the Soviet divisions in East Germany. In fact, less than a fifth of the Pact's divisions have this high level of readiness and this high quality of equipment, and almost a third are cadre divisions that would need to mobilize most of their personnel and much of their equipment from their civilian economies before they could fight.

Still another method for distorting the balance is to include on the NATO side only the forces that the NATO countries formally commit to the alliance, while counting all the Pact units. In fact, although most would be available for a conflict in Europe, about a third of the military personnel in the NATO countries are not formally committed. The forces that are most often excluded in force balance comparisons are the French. This was the basis, for example, for the following description offered by Robert E. Kuenne in The Wall Street Journal of April 8, 1974: "NATO has about 600,000 combat and direct support troops deployed in this theater, plus 50,000 French troops, to counter a Warsaw Pact deployment of 900,000 including about 600,000 Russian troops." Professor Kuenne got his data from The Military Balance 1973-1974.7 In excluding the rest of the combat forces in France's 332,000-man army, Professor Kuenne and the authors of The Military Balance are ignoring one of the major parts of NATO's deterrent. But on the Warsaw Pact side of the comparison, they count all the military forces in the East European countries. They are asking us to believe that Czech forces would cooperate effectively with Soviet forces in an attack on Western Europe, but that French forces would not cooperate with their NATO allies in the wartime defense of their homeland!

Finally, there is a continued preoccupation with planning against the "worst case." For example, while the Pact might attempt either a concealed mobilization followed by a limited-scale attack or deliberate mobilization followed by a maximum-scale attack, they could not have a concealed mobilization followed by a maximum-scale attack. Warsaw Pact preparations to attack NATO on a large scale would severely disrupt their economies and probably have to be publicly announced. NATO would surely receive intelligence reports on such activities and therefore one ought to assume that it would start mobilization no more than a week after the Pact.

Overwhelming Soviet superiority is a comforting myth; it relieves our military and our allies of the responsibility for making the sacrifices required to achieve maximum effectiveness within existing budgets and manpower levels. But exaggeration has been extremely harmful. Overstatement of the enemy leads to despair and inaction, to strategies of desperation, and to political weakness. It has made it extremely difficult to carry on a reasoned dialogue about NATO strategy and force planning, and has generated European suspicion about U.S. motives in proposing a strong conventional defense. And, as noted earlier, it has backfired and led some members of Congress to conclude that large U.S. forces in Europe serve no useful purpose.


Confusion over the role of U.S. forces in Europe has contributed to political pressures to bring them home. But the main source of these pressures has been concern over financial burdens of defense. The arguments are (1) that we must reorient national priorities to domestic human concerns, (2) that our European allies aren't doing their fair share, and (3) that our military spending in Europe causes an insupportable drain on our international balance of payments. As is so often the case in large issues of public policy, beliefs long outlive the facts that gave them birth.

First, we have reoriented national priorities. Total defense expenditures were 9.4 percent of our gross national product in 1968; they are down to 5.9 percent today,8 and projected at 5.8 percent in the budget for fiscal 1976. In constant 1974 dollars, 1974 defense expenditures were 29 percent below their 1968 value and 6.5 percent below their pre-Vietnam 1964 value.9 In fact, in 1973 our armed forces reached the lowest manpower level, the lowest spending in real terms, and the lowest spending as a percent of GNP since 1951.

Second, while the sharing of the burden with our NATO allies seemed very unequal in 1968, it is less unequal today. In 1973, our NATO allies in Europe spent about 3.6 percent of their GNPs on defense compared to our six percent. Moreover, our European allies have increased their defense expenditures in real terms by ten percent over the past three years, while we have reduced ours. And our allies on the Continent have maintained compulsory military service, which reduces the apparent financial cost in relation to real cost, while we have gone to an all-volunteer force. Finally, the United States maintains large general-purpose forces for deployment and reinforcement to other regions of the world not directly related to NATO. The Defense Department estimates the cost of these forces at about $15 billion in FY 1975, or about 17.5 percent of its budget.11 If they were excluded, U.S. defense spending would be about 4.9 percent of GNP.

This is not to say that all the inequality of burden has been removed, or that we should not continue to press our allies to do more in their own defense. It is merely to say that we ought to recognize the substantial changes that have been made.

Third, the significance of our military balance-of-payments deficit has been exaggerated by critics of our NATO posture. In fact, in May 1974, the President was able to report to the Congress that, as a result of the latest agreement with the West Germans and military procurement by the other allies, the FY 1974 U.S. balance-of-payments expenditures in NATO Europe would be completely offset, as required under the Jackson-Nunn Amendment to the 1974 military procurement bill.12 Even if European military purchases did not completely offset our expenditures, there is no particular reason why the balance on military account ought to be zero. To claim that it ought to be is to deny the principle of comparative advantage. Why shouldn't the Germans be allowed to "offset" by buying American commercial aircraft or computers? In fact, in 1974, the United States had a surplus of merchandise exports over imports to Western Europe of $4.9 billion. Over the five-year period 1969-1973, this annual surplus averaged $1.8 billion. Finally, in connection with the offset problem, the West German Federal Bank promised not to convert its large dollar holdings into gold. As a result, the West Germans subsidized the American international financial position by absorbing the losses as the dollar devalued. Between the end of 1969 and September 1973, their loss came to about $10 billion.13

The financial issues associated with our NATO forces that loomed so large five years ago do not deserve high priority today. The key issue is how to get the military effectiveness we are paying for. We should not allow it to be clouded by insistence on problems of minor importance.


NATO isn't getting the military power we are paying for. As Robert Komer and others have recommended, NATO needs to restructure its posture to meet the needs of a conventional defense within available resources.14

The assumption that most Pact divisions are ready has led NATO to concentrate most of its combat manpower in nearly full-strength units that would be available immediately, and to neglect mobilization capability. The European NATO countries have over two million trained reservists without unit assignments. And very limited planning has been done for the reception of outside reinforcements. Pact forces are designed for a period of prewar mobilization, with many cadre units to be filled up by reservists, and for a peak of readiness 30 to 60 days after mobilization begins. NATO must have some forces to protect itself against a surprise attack by forward-deployed ready Pact forces. But an at least equally likely danger to NATO is coercion based on Soviet mobilization. The time it would take the Pact to mobilize, reinforce and ready its cadre units would let European reserve units come up to strength and let reinforcements arrive. NATO should create more cadre units and prepare for effective use of reinforcements.

While the Soviets put three-fourths of their division-force manpower in combat functions, NATO puts roughly half its men in logistic and other support.15 U.S. and Soviet armored divisions have about the same number of tanks, but the U.S. division has twice the men (17,500 vs. 8,400) and three times the number of men per division in the theater. In part, this reflects different operating concepts. The Pact plans to commit its forces in echelons, supporting only a part of its force at a time, letting divisions be attrited in battle and then be replaced by fresh ones. NATO plans to support all its divisions and replace losses within engaged divisions. Each system has advantages. The Pact can probably put more weapons into battle for a short period and thus gain more shock power. But, with proper organization, NATO could concentrate its greater transportation assets and thus increase the firepower per unit at a key point on the front.

However, part of the difference is due to NATO's policy that logistics is a national responsibility. Nations now deploy support forces not needed in peacetime, such as transport and construction units, with equipment that could be drawn in wartime from the Continental allies' civilian sectors to equip their reserves. In the Center Region, the United States, West Germany, the United Kingdom, Belgium and the Netherlands all independently plan rear-area security forces for roughly the same geographic areas. Communications facilities and antennae from several different NATO nations are often located side by side on German hilltops. All of the NATO combat forces must depend on their allies' forces to help stop a Pact attack. So why shouldn't support of combat forces be a cooperative effort?

Richard Lawrence and Jeffrey Record recommend creation of a multinational logistics command for the Center Region to enhance "the ability of the senior field commanders in the Center Region to shift national forces and reorient lines of communication in reaction to an attack."16 Among the many potential benefits, they estimate that the 16,000-man sustaining support increments of each of our eight NATO-oriented active army division forces (mostly reservists in peacetime) could be cut in half. And as Komer observed, "Such European assumption of certain support functions might even permit more equitable burden sharing on a basis palatable to our allies."17 In this connection, the Nunn Amendment, passed last summer by the Congress, requiring the U.S. armed forces in Europe to reduce 18,000 support personnel with the option of converting them to combat functions, was particularly appropriate; this is now being done.

Many resources are wasted because each of our Center Region allies maintains a separate defense establishment with three services and separate national and service overheads, training establishments, supply systems, etc. What military-economic sense is there in countries with small forces maintaining some of each kind of force-for the Belgians to have a 4,200 man navy, for the Germans to buy large frigates and destroyers, or for both the Dutch and Belgians to maintain reconnaissance, ground attack, air defense, and deep interdiction capabilities in their small air forces? There has been some joint production and shared procurement, but much more is needed. General Andrew J. Goodpaster, the retiring Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), recently estimated that lack of standardization costs NATO 30 to 50 percent of its potential capability. If one considers the potential economies from long production runs of standard weapons and the gains in military flexibility resulting from interchangeability of spare parts and ammunition, it is not too difficult to see how this can happen.

Finally, critical vulnerabilities persist in NATO's posture. Perhaps the most glaring and inexcusable one has been the lack of aircraft shelters and rapid runway repair capabilities. The critical importance of aircraft shelters should have been obvious years earlier. But the Israelis dramatized the point for all the world to see by wiping out the Egyptian Air Force on the ground in 1967. Seven years later, there were only about 860 shelters in the NATO Center Region for the 3,800 tactical aircraft, including U.S. reinforcements, that would be in the Center Region by M + 30. About 1,070 more shelters are in the planning or construction phase. When these are completed, about half of NATO's tactical air forces will remain critically vulnerable. It makes no sense at all to spend several million dollars for a tactical fighter, not to mention all the associated costs of basing and operation, and then fail to spend the less than $500,000 required to build a shelter (including runways, camouflage, etc.) to protect it from non-nuclear attack. Moreover, for lack of basing agreements, U.S. reinforcing aircraft would be concentrated with about twice the number per base as allied aircraft, leaving them unnecessarily vulnerable. Another major vulnerability is that the war matériel reserves of some of our main allies remain inadequate even for a short war. NATO should not concede to the Warsaw Pact an easy victory gained by merely outlasting a few short weeks of NATO supply.

But these problems are not insoluble. Each of them can be solved, given the political will, which must come in part from a recognition of the necessity and value of doing so. And there has been significant progress. Aircraft shelters are being built. There has been some joint procurement; more is under consideration. Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway have formed a consortium to buy a single replacement for their aging F-104s. This could produce big savings. The German Territorial Army was formed to make better use of German reservists. The United States and its allies are negotiating to share airbases, which can both reduce the concentration of U.S. aircraft and share base overhead costs. NATO's two Center Region air force headquarters have recently been placed under one command to permit allied aircraft to be employed more flexibly across the front. Our NATO allies have been increasing and upgrading their tank forces. Nearly all the Center Region countries are upgrading their antitank forces with new highly effective guided missiles.


One of the most important realignments needed in NATO's posture is in its theater nuclear forces. The present posture is dangerous and in conflict with a sensible strategy for the defense of Europe. It diverts considerable resources from our non-nuclear posture where they would contribute much more to European security. And heavy psychological reliance on the large numbers of nuclear weapons acts as a barrier to strengthening NATO's conventional force posture.

In December 1966, Secretary McNamara announced that we had 7,000 tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. The number has stayed about the same ever since. They are of many different types, including warheads for surface-to-surface missiles, bombs to be delivered by aircraft, artillery shells, surface-to-air missiles for air defense, and atomic demolition munitions.18 While all of these weapons are under U.S. control, more than one-third of them would be delivered by allied forces. The yields of these weapons vary all the way from less than a kiloton (equivalent to 1,000 tons of TNT) to hundreds of kilotons. Their combined lethal area is substantially more than the equivalent of 7,000 Hiroshimas. These weapons are intended for use against military targets, but many military targets are in or near heavily populated areas. The number of people killed in a nuclear war in central Europe would depend critically on how the weapons were used. For the number of civilians killed in a two-sided nuclear war using, say, half the 7,000 weapons to be less than in the tens of millions would require a degree of control, restraint and discrimination that is hard to believe possible. Moreover, the Soviet tactical nuclear posture is not designed for such discrimination.

Why do we have so many nuclear weapons in Europe? There is absolutely no logical reason. The historical reason is that in the 1950s, NATO doctrine was based on the concept that any war with the Warsaw Pact would be nuclear. There was no role for non-nuclear forces. So our military services raced to equip U.S. forces in Europe with nuclear weapons to make them fit approved doctrine. The United States built a large production base for fissionable materials, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff regularly projected requirements that would use them all up. This was done without any coherent plan or doctrine for the conduct of a theater nuclear war.

In the early 1960s, the Secretary of Defense tried to stop this production and deployment of nuclear weapons because it was costly and dangerous, and the total finally did level off at about 7,000 weapons. Proposals for cutting it back were then considered, but there was intense political resistance to the idea at home and in Europe. The controversy over the role of conventional forces in NATO strategy was troubling our European allies. We did not want to add to this by raising the specter of "denuclearizing NATO."

Are there logical reasons for having a force of nuclear weapons in Europe? I think there are.

First, it has been proposed that we should have the capability for the demonstrative use of one or a few nuclear weapons as a way of showing resolve in a crisis. In eight years of studying the problem, I never saw a convincing scenario in which such use would make sense. But it is an uncertain world. This kind of limited capability does not cost much. I believe we should have it.

Second, NATO's possession of a substantial force of nuclear weapons makes a solid contribution to the deterrence of a large deliberate conventional attack by making such an attack exceedingly dangerous for the Soviets, especially if it were pressed to the point where it clearly threatened our vital interests. Moreover, in such an event, NATO's possession of nuclear weapons should act as a strong deterrent to the Soviets concentrating their land forces, lest they present attractive targets for nuclear counterattack. More generally, it imposes constraints and costs on their conventional force posture.

Third, while two-sided theater nuclear war makes no sense at all, one-sided nuclear war is even worse for the side that does not have nuclear weapons. We need a substantial nuclear posture in Europe to deter the other side from using nuclear weapons against us.

Finally, many people believe that tactical nuclear weapons act as a kind of bridge to general nuclear war. The best form of the argument has it that nuclear war is indivisible. Once it starts, there are no recognized firebreaks or stopping points. If a war breaks out in Europe, and nuclear weapons are used, then general nuclear war, including the destruction of the U.S.S.R., will ensue. This enhances the deterrent to any aggression in Europe. I have my doubts about the logic of the argument, about whether tactical nuclear war is or ought to be inevitably tied in with strategic nuclear war. But I will readily grant that the issue is sufficiently complex and uncertain that nobody can really know. Once the nuclear threshold is crossed, the danger of escalation to large-scale nuclear war is very great. And perhaps the more important fact is that the inevitability of escalation is a belief held by many people.

It is equally worth recording that there are several purposes that tactical nuclear weapons do not serve.

First, tactical nuclear weapons cannot defend Europe; they can only destroy it. Studies and war games done in the 1960s showed repeatedly that even under the most favorable assumptions about restraint and limitations in yields and targets, between 2 and 20 million Europeans would be killed in a limited tactical nuclear war, with widespread damage to the economy of the affected area, and a high risk of 100 million deaths if the war escalated to attacks on cities. And, because of the vulnerability of key forces, the big advantages to striking first, and the location near cities of many airfields, transportation links, command posts and the like, the likelihood of such escalation would be very high.

Second, beyond the limited demonstrative use of a few weapons, there is no such thing as a two-sided tactical nuclear war in the sense of sustained purposive military operations. Studies showed that the first spasm of destruction would destroy airfields, communication and logistic centers, headquarters, and troop concentrations. General breakdown and paralysis would ensue.

Third, nobody knows how to fight a tactical nuclear war. Twenty years of effort by many military experts have failed to produce a believable doctrine for tactical nuclear warfare.

Given the purposes that can be served by tactical nuclear weapons, how many do we need? I believe that all the useful purposes can be more than adequately served by 1,000 tactical nuclear weapons. This is, admittedly, an arbitrary number, not based on a calculation of target destruction requirements. But nobody has been able to produce a calculation that makes much sense. And, compared to the area and targets involved, the destructive power of 1,000 weapons would be enormous, especially when backed up as they are by the U.S. strategic forces now armed with over 8,000 nuclear weapons.

Many parts of our tactical nuclear posture cannot stand up to scrutiny. For example, a very substantial fraction of the 7,000 weapons are bombs to be delivered by tactical aircraft, some of which are kept on what is known as "Quick Reaction Alert" or QRA in peacetime. Neither QRA nor non-alert aircraft for nuclear delivery makes sense. They became an anachronism more than ten years ago when the Soviets deployed more than enough IRBMs and MRBMs in the western U.S.S.R. to destroy each of the airfields several times over.

Theater-based aircraft, including those on QRA, are useless in a second-strike mode because they are hopelessly vulnerable. We protect our U.S.-based Strategic Air Command (SAC) bombers from surprise ballistic missile attack by a set of procedures based on tactical warning (provided by early warning radars and in other ways), alert response, and launch subject to Positive Control. The SAC Commander has the authority to launch the alert bombers because there is still time for the President to decide afterwards whether he wants them to proceed to target or to return to base. The same procedure cannot work for the QRA aircraft in Europe. The warning times are too short. The range of aircraft and the flight times to enemy airspace make positive control procedures comparable to those of SAC impractical. And the need for consultation makes decision times too long.

The whole nuclear mission of our tactical aircraft could be done much better and more cheaply by three or four Poseidon submarines with MIRV warheads. Poseidon, with about 5,000 MIRVs, was originally bought to be sure we could overcome a projected Soviet nationwide ABM system. With the U.S.S.R. limited to ABM defense of Moscow, most of these weapons are not needed for their original purpose and should be available to replace theater-based weapons programmed for preplanned targets.

NATO tactical aircraft ought to be removed from all nuclear attack assignments and the aircraft fully committed to conventional operations. The nuclear weapons ought to be brought home and dismantled.

One argument against this is that dual capability (conventional and nuclear) is cheap: it only means adding nuclear weapons to the air forces we already have. This, however, is not true. For one thing, the nuclear weapons aren't cheap. But far more important is the fact that so-called dual capability is an illusion. The moment of conventional combat is the moment of greatest strain on our nuclear deterrent. SACEUR will not want to risk losing his nuclear attack aircraft in a conventional war. So he will be strongly tempted to hold them out of the conventional battle and make them, in effect, specialized nuclear forces. There is even a danger that he will increase the number of aircraft dedicated to nuclear missions, thus worsening the conventional balance. The result is not dual capable forces; it is extremely expensive and inferior nuclear forces.

The vulnerability of these forces is a menace. In a crisis, their vulnerability would put pressure on our decision-makers to launch them before they are wiped out. And it would put pressure on the Soviet leaders to destroy them before they are launched. Far better to leave the job to Poseidon out at sea where it can safely hold its fire until the President is ready to decide. Vulnerable forces such as nuclear-armed aircraft exacerbate and destabilize a crisis.

Moreover, the impact of NATO's European-based nuclear-armed aircraft on strategic arms negotiations (SALT) must be taken into account. In the Vladivostok preliminary agreement of November 1974, the Soviet Union has agreed not to include in the agreed basic ceilings (for launchers and for launchers equipped with MIRVs) any allowance for these NATO "forward-based systems." Thus it might appear that the question of reducing this element in the U.S. strategic posture has shifted wholly to the MBFR negotiations in Vienna, to which I shall refer in a moment. Yet the forward-based systems were apparently eliminated from the Vladivostok accord largely because their bearing was small so long as the overall ceilings were set fairly high. Thus, if-as one must hope-the completion of the Vladivostok accords is followed quite rapidly by talks aimed at reducing the overall ceilings, the forward-based systems could well come back as an obstacle. Certainly they remain a thorn in the side of Soviet military planners, apparently to a much greater extent than an objective estimate of their military value would warrant.

Other parts of our theater nuclear posture are also inappropriate to a sensible NATO strategy. Atomic Demolition Munitions, or ADMs as they are generally known, also can put our President in an intolerable position. They are supposed to give us the capability to create a sort of "instant Maginot Line." The scenario in which they are to be used goes something like this. Holes are dug for them in peacetime at key places near the border. When the invasion starts, our ADM teams set the weapons in the holes and retreat. When the weapons are detonated, big holes or earth slides are created that will slow the enemy's advance or channel his forces to make them better targets. The concept does not make political sense. Once the weapons are implanted and our forces have retreated, the President is in a position where he has to give the order to fire the weapons or else face their being overrun and captured by the enemy. The use of the ADMs requires an early decision to escalate to nuclear weapons before we have a chance to see whether our conventional defenses can hold. And if the President decides to initiate the use of nuclear weapons by the use of ADMs, he will have created a precedent for nuclear weapons being used on friendly territory, which cannot make this a very attractive prospect for our allies. I do not believe ADMs would ever be used. They too ought to be brought home and dismantled.

Another large category of theater nuclear weapons that doesn't make sense is warheads for surface-to-air missiles. The Soviets have more than enough nuclear-armed ballistic missiles to destroy Western Europe in a nuclear war. Our nuclear-armed surface-to-air missiles would contribute nothing to defense against such an attack. They would be useless in a conventional war we wanted to keep non-nuclear. And firing nuclear warheads in surface-to-air missiles would be a particularly ineffective way of starting a nuclear war.

All this being said, there is of course a political factor. The purpose of our forces in Europe is to protect and reassure our allies. We cannot remove 6,000 nuclear weapons without their understanding and agreement. While the 1,000 remaining weapons (backed up by our strategic forces) would represent enormous destructive power, our allies have relied so heavily for so long on our large nuclear force that the sudden removal of large numbers of nuclear weapons would risk causing a serious loss in their confidence in their security. The removal of these weapons would need to be a part of a broad program for the substantial and visible improvement of our conventional forces. Our European allies would need to be convinced that their security was not being reduced by the change. Admittedly, it will not be easy. But the conventional power of the Pact forces and the political pressures on NATO defense budgets make it a necessity.

The manpower costs of our theater nuclear posture are hard to estimate. I can do no more than offer an educated guess: if the 6,000 nuclear weapons we do not need were removed, roughly 30,000 U.S. military personnel in Europe would be freed for non-nuclear missions. In addition, because many U.S. and allied "dual capable" units would be relieved of their nuclear training duties, their conventional proficiency could be increased significantly.

The cost of a nuclear weapon is a complex matter that depends in large part on how the fissionable material is valued. Some people have argued that we are going to produce the fissionable material anyway, and it is only being stored, not used, in the warheads. However, as long as we continue to produce fissionable materials and require them for our strategic forces, tactical nuclear weapons generate an extra requirement for fissionable materials and should be charged with the cost. By one authoritative report, the fissionable materials in our present inventory of 8-inch and 155-millimeter nuclear shells are worth about $1 billion, with an 8-inch nuclear-armed shell costing over $400,000, and a 155-millimeter shell $452,000.19 From such sample figures it would appear that, compared with retiring the 6,000 weapons and using the materials elsewhere, it would cost roughly $2.5 to $3 billion to replace them with new ones.

An important issue was injected by the 1973 proposal of the retiring NATO Commander, General Goodpaster, to replace the 155-millimeter and 8-inch nuclear shells with new weapons with lower yields, or so-called mini-nukes. His argument was that "achievable new weapons of lower yields and of greater accuracy could increase military effectiveness, while reducing possible collateral damage, thereby increasing their utility as well as the acceptability in NATO planning for employment in the NATO countries. . . ." Moreover, "this kind of capability . . . can be employed against them [the Soviet forces] with a good prospect of defeating their attack, and with minimum escalatory effect. . . ."20

Small nuclear weapons with sub-kiloton yields have been deployed in Europe for many years. So the issue here is not one of a few weapons for demonstrative purposes. The issues are large investments and broad strategic principles.

Looking at the tactical nuclear weapons in isolation, it appears very attractive to be able to destroy military targets with less collateral damage to civilian populations, especially since, in the presumed circumstances, the weapons would be used on allied territory. However, in the context of the actual situation, the idea has several serious defects. First, given the tight budgetary situation in all NATO countries, the cost is bound to be at the expense of conventional capabilities. Second, the "firebreak" between conventional and nuclear weapons remains extremely important. Once it has been crossed, there is no recognizable stopping point. The idea that a theater nuclear war would be limited to small nuclear weapons does not make sense. It takes an expert on an instrumented test range to tell the yield of a nuclear weapon. An inexperienced observer cannot tell the yield merely by looking at the explosion, nor, certainly, by interpreting confused reports. So how would the Soviets or we know that only small yields were being used? And where is the dividing line between a small yield and a yield that is not small? Moreover, General Goodpaster himself said of the Soviet posture, "The weapons that they are assessed as having are generally considered to be of larger yield and not susceptible of the kind of employment that we would visualize in our selective use program."21

This is not to say that escalation to strategic nuclear war is absolutely inevitable once any nuclear weapons are used. Nobody knows. But the incentives to escalate would be very strong indeed. The danger would be extremely high. In a crisis, I doubt that a President would find the use of small nuclear weapons a very satisfactory substitute for the use of conventional forces.

One might say that the proposed mini-nukes combine the disadvantages of nuclear weapons with the shortcomings of conventional weapons. Their use would entail a high danger of escalation and mass destruction. Their costs are high in dollars and in operational flexibility. But, like the conventional weapons their designers seek to emulate, their destructive power is comparatively low.

Instead of spending scarce resources on mini-nukes, we ought to be concentrating on "maxi-non-nukes," that is, non-nuclear weapon systems of maximum effectiveness. In past wars, the great majority of aircraft-delivered bombs and artillery shells missed their targets, if they were aimed at targets to begin with. Typical average "miss distances" for aircraft-delivered bombs were on the order of several hundred feet. Developments of the past decade now offer dramatic improvements in target acquisition capabilities, and in the accuracy and lethality of conventional munitions. Precision-guided munitions such as Maverick have average miss distances similar to the sizes of typical targets. New technology now offers laser range-finding devices, night vision systems, television-guided homing systems, and others.

As the experience of the recent Middle East war suggests, these weapons are likely to have a revolutionary impact on conventional warfare. While "one shot one kill" may not be as close at hand as some popular commentaries would suggest, it is no longer in the realm of fantasy. If history repeats itself, there will be countermeasures and counter-countermeasures. It will be a technological race in which the United States must and can stay ahead. But to do so, we will have to concentrate our scarce defense resources there, and on other top-priority missions, and not waste them on useless refinements to capabilities for theater nuclear war. Albert Wohlstetter recently put it very well: "With the new accuracies, it becomes possible to use non-nuclear munitions in many circumstances where a desperate hope had formerly been pinned on using small nuclear weapons."22

In short, we ought to use the new technologies of discrimination and control, in which we have a major potential advantage, to raise, not lower, the nuclear threshold.

The improvement in NATO's conventional force posture must take place at the same time as the Mutual Balanced Force Reductions negotiations. NATO's goal in the MBFR talks should be to enhance European security by bringing about approximate equality in conventional power and by removing those elements of the military postures on the two sides that contribute most to instability.

MBFR will not enhance European security if it locks in the Pact advantages and NATO disadvantages described earlier. Thus, NATO representatives should have no interest in an agreement to make equal (absolute or proportional) across the board cuts in combat units. By the nature of the force designs on the two sides, such a cut would favor the Pact. As Robert Komer has recommended, "MBFR or other troop cuts should be absorbed as much as possible from support and overhead structure, rather than at the expense of initial combat strength."23 NATO representatives should also have no interest in an agreement that would freeze NATO national manpower totals in such a way that one ally could not make up for reductions by another. If the MBFR negotiations were to result in an agreement to cut to, e.g., 700,000 troops on each side in the NATO Guidelines Area (Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, West Germany, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Poland) and NATO were to restructure its forces, European security would be enhanced.

In reviewing our position, NATO's negotiators should be aware that we have many more tactical nuclear weapons than we need for any rational military or political purpose, and should be receptive to proposals to reduce them in exchange for Soviet reductions in their forces. For example, a significant reduction in NATO's tactical nuclear weapons could well be offered in exchange for substantial reductions in Warsaw Pact tank forces, thus moderating at one stroke the most striking asymmetries and elements of concern in present force postures.

In the long run, however, the changes I have recommended in our tactical nuclear posture are part of a more effective overall NATO defense posture. Thus, it is in our best interest to carry them out, even if to some degree unilaterally, and we should be careful not to let MBFR prevent us from doing so.


If this reasoning is persuasive, how many American troops must remain in Europe? It has become popular to say, "there is nothing magic about 320,000 troops." That may be. But equal conventional military power and a substantial U.S. presence are very important. With military power equal to that of the Pact, NATO would be well placed to resist political aggression. It would be able to explore ways of developing improved relations with the U.S.S.R. on a basis of equality and self-confidence, not subservience and fear. A substantial U.S. presence is needed because the United States cannot exercise effective leadership without it, and the United States remains the only generally acceptable leader of the alliance. What would "a substantial U.S. presence" amount to? It is hard to put a precise number on it. But I agree with Senator Nunn's conclusion that "a cut of 100,000 or more in U.S. troops would destabilize the overall military posture, but would have even more effect on the NATO political posture. The psychological and political impact of such a cut could lead to the 'Finlandization' of Europe and Soviet political dominance in Europe."24

To continue debate over lesser marginal cuts is to focus on the wrong issue. The potential financial savings would be small compared with the importance of what is at stake. Such debate weakens the confidence of our allies that we are in Europe to stay and it encourages the Soviets to believe that in time the United States will withdraw, so there is no need for them to agree to reductions in their forces. The key issue is how to get the most conventional military power out of the resources NATO is now spending on defense-including 320,000 U.S. troops. That is far more important than attempting to fine-tune the U.S. troop level.

Must our forces stay another 30 years? Perhaps. They should stay as long as Western Europe is not able to produce an integrated defense establishment with military power equal to that of the Pact, or as long as Western Europe is threatened by Soviet forces. That might be a very long time. Even so, it would be money well spent.


1 Alain C. Enthoven and K. Wayne Smith, How Much Is Enough? Shaping the Defense Program 1961-1969, New York: Harper & Row, 1971, Chapter 4.

2 The data are taken directly from The Military Balance 1974-1975, London, 1974, except for estimates of U.S. Army and Air Force personnel in NORAD of about 1,000 and 35,000 respectively. (There are also about 9,000 Canadians in NORAD.) U.S. Department of Defense data, which are more accurate, show a numerical balance more favorable to NATO.

Because they are grand totals, the data include about 150,000 U.S. military personnel in the Pacific and over 400,000 Soviet personnel adjacent to the Chinese border.

3 How Much Is Enough?, p. 148.

5 Richard D. Lawrence and Jeffrey Record, U.S. Force Structure in NATO, An Alternative, Washington: The Brookings Institution, 1974.

8 GNP valued at market prices. U.S. Department of Defense, OASD (Comptroller), February 3, 1975.

9 Edward Fried, Alice Rivlin, Charles Schultze, and Nancy Teeters, Setting National Priorities, The 1974 Budget, Washington: The Brookings Institution, 1973, p. 292.

11 Manpower Authorization Hearings, Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate, March 21-22, 1974, Washington: GPO, 1974.

12 A Report on Progress Made in Securing an Equitable Sharing of The Costs of The North Atlantic Treaty Organization Among Its Members, pursuant to Section 812(d) of Public Law 93-155, May 16, 1974.

13 James Lowenstein and Richard Moose, U.S. Security Issues in Europe: Burden Sharing and Offset, MBFR and Nuclear Weapons, A staff report prepared for the use of the subcommittee on U.S. Security Agreements and Commitments Abroad of the Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate, September 1973, p. 6.

14 R. W. Komer, "Treating NATO's Self-Inflicted Wound," Foreign Policy, No. 13, Winter 1973-74.

15 Lawrence and Record, op. cit., p. 15.

17 Komer, op. cit., p. 46.

18 For a detailed discussion of the U.S. posture in Europe, see Jeffrey Record, U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Europe, Issues and Alternatives, Washington: The Brookings Institution, 1974.

19 Senator Stuart Symington, quoting expert testimony, in Military Applications of Nuclear Technology, Hearings before the Subcommittee on Military Applications of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, Ninety-Third Congress, Part 2, June 29, 1973, Washington: GPO, p. 101.

21 Op. cit., p. 73.

22 Albert Wohlstetter, "Threats and Promises of Peace: Europe and America in the New Era," Orbis, Vol. XVII, Winter 1974, p. 1124.

23 R. W. Komer, op. cit., p. 43.

24 Policy, Troops, and the NATO Alliance, Report of Senator Sam Nunn to the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate, April 2, 1974, p. 10.

Browse Related Articles on {{}}

{{ | number}} Articles Found

  • {{bucket.key_as_string}}