Courtesy Reuters

Europe and America: Nuclear Weapons and the "Gray Area"

At the fringes of public attention to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), the United States and its European allies are considering changes in NATO nuclear arrangements that bear on two decades of Alliance practice. The issue is what to do about the nuclear threat to Western Europe, and to NATO's deterrent, posed by Soviet systems targeted on Western Europe-the SS-20 mobile missile and other Soviet weapons in the "gray area" between the strategic and the tactical. Those weapons, coupled with strategic parity between the United States and the Soviet Union, have sharpened a long-standing European concern about the commitment of the American central nuclear deterrent to Europe's defense. This issue will rank behind only the dollar on the agenda of U.S. relations with Europe in the several years ahead.

SALT, present and prospective, bears directly on gray area issues. Europeans worry that SALT will do nothing about the Soviet weapons of immediate concern to them, and worse, will constrain possible Western "counters," especially cruise missiles. In the end, the United States and its allies may decide to modify NATO nuclear arrangements. But the political and military implications of the choices run deep into Alliance doctrine. On these sensitive issues, how the United States goes about reaching a decision with its European allies will be as important as what is decided.


In the late 1950s and early 1960s, NATO leaders decided, more or less consciously, to locate the bulk of NATO's strategic nuclear deterrent-its weapons capable of striking the Soviet homeland-not in Europe but rather "offshore," that is, in American bombers, submarines and land-based missiles. Debate about that decision ended with the demise in 1965 of the Multilateral Force (MLF), which was to be a fleet of NATO surface ships manned by sailors from different nations, carrying nuclear weapons whose firing would be controlled by the United States. Nuclear forces located in the European theater would serve as adjuncts to conventional defenses and, most important of all, as a critical

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