The spring and summer of 1987 marked the 40th anniversary of the emergence of the cold war—the falling out among the four main Allies after their victory over Nazi Germany—which divided Europe and led to enduring political conflict between East and West.

In the intervening four decades, the NATO-Warsaw Pact military confrontation in Europe has emerged as the largest peacetime military concentration in history. It now comprises over six million men in active-duty military forces on both sides, with an additional four million in organized reserves, over 200 standing ground force divisions, over 100 reserve divisions, 65,000 heavy tanks, 20,000 combat aircraft, over 2,600 naval vessels in the seas bordering Europe, and over 10,000 nuclear warheads for tactical and intermediate-range delivery systems. Adding together the expenditures of both alliances, the European confrontation consumes roughly two-thirds of the world’s total annual trillion-dollar expenditures for armed forces.

Over the last couple of decades, much of the ideological steam of the cold war has seeped away. Moscow has lost its monopolistic position as the center of an expanding world network of communist parties, including those of Western Europe. For 30 years, despite persistent effort, the Soviet Union has not been able to convene a comprehensive meeting of these parties.

For the first 20 years of the cold war, the NATO states insisted that any improvement in East-West relations be dependent on progress toward German reunification and other manifestations of Soviet retrenchment in Eastern Europe. In 1975, however, they signed the Helsinki accords acknowledging the postwar boundaries in Eastern Europe and the incorporation of former German territory into Poland and the U.S.S.R. In the 1970s, too, West and East Germany concluded a treaty regulating their relations and even providing for consultation on security and arms control issues at the official level. The United States, the United Kingdom and France concluded the quadripartite Berlin agreement with the U.S.S.R.; it assured ground access to and from West Berlin for West Berliners, West Germans and other nonmilitary travelers, and removed the Berlin issue as a source of daily East-West political confrontation.

But there was no accompanying letup in the military confrontation in Europe. Continuing increases in both the nuclear and the conventional firepower of both alliances made the military standoff appear an enduring, nearly permanent feature of the international system.

Now, rather suddenly, during the past two years, wide-ranging shifts in Soviet positions following Mikhail Gorbachev’s designation as general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party have raised the possibility of major change.

Prospective U.S.-Soviet arms control agreements are especially prone to derailment through negative developments in East-West relations. But it is likely that a U.S.-Soviet agreement on eliminating intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) from Europe will be concluded in the near future. In the early months of 1988, a new East-West negotiation to reduce NATO and Warsaw Pact armed forces in the vast area from the Atlantic to the Urals will probably be under way, based on a Soviet proposal of April 1986. A second phase of the European Conference on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures and Disarmament in Europe, called CDE for short, will be launched at the same time. (The first phase of CDE was concluded successfully in Stockholm in September 1986. Initial Warsaw Pact compliance with its provisions for pre-notification of large force movements and invitation of observers to military exercises has been good.)

Conclusion of an INF treaty during the Reagan Administration may well lead to completion of an agreement on reductions of U.S. and Soviet strategic nuclear weapons, though probably in the succeeding American administration. Agreements to eliminate chemical weapons and to restrict nuclear testing are also possible within the next several years. Gorbachev continues to bombard NATO leaders with a surfeit of new arms control proposals, among them bids for the elimination of tactical nuclear weapons, for a mutual force restructuring, for nuclear-free corridors in Central Europe, and for discussion by the rival alliances of their military strategies and doctrines.


In the West there is considerable confusion among leaders about how to cope with the strongest, most substantive Soviet "peace offensive" of the entire cold war period. For many of them the central issue posed by these developments is whether Western policy should be based on a calculation that the European military confrontation is entering a genuine phase of de-escalation, or alternatively on the belief that recent proposals are chiefly of tactical significance, and that the confrontation will endure at least until there is profound change in the Soviet system itself.

The question of which view is right will be thoroughly debated—and probably unresolved—for a long time to come. Nevertheless, adherents of both views agree that Soviet willingness to make large-scale reductions in conventional forces of the U.S.S.R., as well as of other Warsaw Pact states, is a valid and necessary test of whether a real break in the cold war has come after 40 years.

An evaluation of the prospects for success of the pending Atlantic-to-the-Urals force reduction talks can suggest a preliminary reply to the question of Soviet willingness to make such reductions. To make this evaluation, we will first take a brief look at the potential effects of an INF agreement on European conventional force concentrations, from the viewpoints both of the proponents of an agreement and of its critics, who argue that an INF agreement will considerably worsen NATO’s conventional position.

For proponents, the benefits of an INF agreement are clear: it would be the first U.S.-Soviet agreement providing for a significant reduction of nuclear armaments, and the first agreement providing for reduction of some part of the huge NATO-Warsaw Pact confrontation in Europe. It would also improve the East-West political climate and encourage further progress toward agreement on reducing strategic weapons as well as conventional forces.

The terms of trade in an INF agreement of the kind now under discussion are favorable to the West: the U.S.S.R. would be removing nearly a thousand more warheads than the United States. After eliminating the SS-20s and their precursors, the SS-4s and SS-5s, the Soviet Union will have about 600 fewer intermediate-range delivery systems than it had in 1979.

NATO countries, given continuing increases in British and French nuclear forces, will have many more intermediate-range nuclear warheads at their disposal than they had in 1979 when the initial NATO decision to deploy INF systems was taken. (Pursuant to that decision, the United States has withdrawn 2,400 short-range warheads from Europe.) Technically superior Western fighter-bombers will be untouched by the planned INF agreement. Sea-launched cruise missiles are gradually being introduced on U.S. Navy surface vessels deployed off European shores. The 400-plus Poseidon submarine-launched warheads assigned to NATO through the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (SACEUR) will be gradually replaced by more accurate Trident D-5 missiles. Both types of missiles will be capable of hitting military installations in the U.S.S.R. currently targeted by the U.S. Pershing 2 and ground-launched cruise missiles in Europe, which would be eliminated in a U.S.-Soviet agreement on INF.

Whatever political solution is found to the complex question of short-range intermediate nuclear forces (SRINF), those of 500-1,000 kilometer range, it is also likely to improve the NATO-Warsaw Pact balance in this particular category. (It appears likely that the number of Soviet missiles of this range will be reduced to zero.)

Although the verification measures which the Administration has proposed—and which the U.S.S.R. seems likely to accept—will surely be criticized for not removing all uncertainty, they will break new ground in allowing on-site inspection and will be worthwhile, both for this agreement and for application to future arms control agreements.

The surprising flexibility of the Soviet position on INF has been a source of suspicion to arms control critics in the West, who deeply distrust this sudden Soviet generosity after years of very tight-fisted bargaining. But the critics also have an important substantive worry. For many of them, especially the conservative wing of the German Christian Democrats (which represents about a third of West German public opinion on these issues), the real problem of eliminating INFs is not so much the impact such a ban would have on the overall NATO-Warsaw Pact balance in nuclear arms. It is rather the fear that pulling American Pershing 2 and cruise missiles out of Europe could reduce the possibility that an American president would decide to use nuclear weapons in the event of conflict on the continent. More accurately, it is the fear that both Soviet and West European leaders might believe that an INF agreement would reduce the likelihood of such an American decision. For many critics, such as the much-respected SACEUR General Bernard Rogers, just retired, this risk makes concluding an INF agreement undesirable at present. They would prefer to wait at least until the U.S.S.R. first agreed to sizable reductions of its forward-deployed conventional forces.

The critics believe that, ever since the Soviets achieved parity with the United States in all classes of nuclear weapons, the crucial factor that makes the threat of American nuclear retaliation credible to the Soviet leadership—and to West Europeans as well—has been the deployment in Europe of American nuclear weapons, especially those capable of striking military targets on Soviet territory, such as the Pershing 2 ballistic missile. The use of such American weapons against targets in the U.S.S.R. would be nearly certain to unleash strategic nuclear war between the United States and the U.S.S.R., as Soviet leaders have themselves declared. Consequently, deployment of American nuclear missiles in Europe is considered to "couple," or, better, to "lock," the defense of Europe directly into the U.S. strategic nuclear deterrent, and to guarantee, more than any amount of conventional NATO forces, that Soviet leaders will decide not to attack Western Europe.

This firmly held view is based on two major assumptions. The first is that only "visible" land-based deployment of American nuclear weapons in Europe would really convince Soviet leaders that they risked strategic nuclear war if they decided to attack Western Europe. This assumption has always seemed especially tenuous. The decision of an American president as to whether to respond to an overwhelming Soviet conventional attack on Western Europe—including an attack on the more than 300,000 American troops stationed there—with nuclear weapons would not depend solely on the pattern of deployment of U.S. missiles in Europe.

Rather, such a decision would depend primarily on the president’s assessment of the overall situation at the time—especially his assessment of the strategic balance between the two countries, and of whether the Soviet attack on Europe signified an ultimate or immediate intention to attack the United States (as it probably would). The president’s decision would also depend on many other factors, including his own personality. The presence or absence of land-based American missiles deployed in continental Europe would be a secondary factor in this decision—and, for that matter, in its execution; many other American delivery systems are available for the purpose. As long as the United States maintains a large troop contingent in Europe and maintains rough parity with the Soviet Union in strategic nuclear weapons, prudent Soviet leaders would have to reckon with the possibility that conventional war in Europe could escalate to nuclear war.

The second major assumption of the INF critics is that, were Soviet leaders not deterred from attacking Western Europe by their fear of unleashing total nuclear war, they would either make such an attack as soon as they considered conditions optimal, or would, by implied threats to do so, effectively use their superior conventional strength as a source of political pressure on Western Europe. Given the clear numerical superiority of the Warsaw Pact over NATO in most classes of major conventional armaments, including heavy tanks, self-propelled artillery, attack helicopters and interceptor aircraft, the question is this: Would elimination of American INF weapons increase the possibility of a sudden Soviet attack or a more effective Soviet political intimidation of Western Europe? These possibilities clearly exist. But they require a closer look. The real question is whether the Warsaw Pact’s superiority in numbers of major weapons and troop divisions converts to superiority in actual combat.

Whatever the chances were, in NATO’s formative period in the early 1950s, of a Soviet attack on Western Europe, the passage of time has deprived the Soviet Union of some important potential assets. Moscow can no longer count on the willing assistance of West European communist parties. Strong and loyal in the 1950s, these parties are now much weakened—and, as in the case of the Italian Communist Party, disaffected from Moscow. And uncertain loyalties of the armed forces of the Eastern European states have converted them from a meager advantage into a probable hindrance in most potential situations of East-West conflict.

The West’s main concern remains the possibility of surprise attack by Soviet forces—or, more precisely, of attack with minimum preparation. Yet Soviet capacity for such an attack may not be as great as feared. NATO’s expenditures on defense have exceeded those of the Warsaw Pact for more than two decades. While not all these funds have been spent in an optimal way, they have not been wasted, and NATO has made many useful improvements in its forces. In the region from the Atlantic to the Urals, active-duty personnel of NATO ground and air forces are just as numerous as those of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. Exercise after exercise has demonstrated that the Warsaw Pact air forces are incapable of gaining control of NATO airspace against qualitatively superior NATO air forces; this would be essential for successful attack.

The contingency which continues to cause the greatest concern to NATO leaders is that the Soviets, in the hope of securing their objectives before the United States could become fully involved in conventional battle or decide to use nuclear weapons, would launch a minimum-preparation attack against NATO’s central front in Germany. The Soviet Union has increased the firepower and mobility of its ground forces in the last two decades. But at least half of the Pact’s numerical superiority in units and major armaments is in reserve divisions which take a month or more to ready for combat. There are too few combat-ready Soviet divisions to permit the U.S.S.R. to launch, with any confidence, the feared minimum-preparation attack.

Only 30 combat-ready Soviet divisions in Eastern Europe are positioned for such an attack; probably a third of these would have other essential missions during the initial phases of a minimum-preparation attack against NATO’s vital central front. Even if augmented by over half of the East German, Polish and Czechoslovak first-category forces (of uncertain quality and loyalty), the resulting force of some thirty-odd divisions would be no larger in divisional manpower than the U.S., U.K. and West German ground forces in the area.

The Soviet second echelon in the western U.S.S.R. capable of reinforcing a minimum-preparation attack within the first two weeks is also surprisingly small—fewer than ten ground force divisions. Soviet tanks in active-duty forces in central Europe number only about 8,000, not many more than those of active-duty NATO forces, which would moreover have the advantage of defensive positions. The recent landing of a small West German private plane in Red Square, flying unscathed through dense Soviet air defenses, once again raises well-documented doubts about the quality of Soviet forces, less well trained and led than those of the West German Bundeswehr and of U.S. and U.K. forces in Europe. The chances of success of a sudden attack would be slight.

Other contingencies, such as that of a slow, full mobilization of East and West, are possible. But the outcome of these is also uncertain, in part because the dimensions of the resulting conflict, including the participation of ten or more additional U.S. divisions, would ensure that the engagement would be worldwide in scope and make it all the more likely that it would escalate to nuclear war. Soviet leaders fully realize this.

Finally, it is argued that there may be increased Soviet political pressures on Western Europe in the event of the elimination of some categories of U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons. In fact, all past Soviet efforts at political intimidation, which have been numerous, have failed because of close cooperation and understanding between the United States and its European allies. Continued maintenance of close political understanding between European and American leaders and of rough U.S. equality with the U.S.S.R. in strategic nuclear weapons, hopefully at reduced levels, remains the essential component for future success in this regard. Soviet leaders appear to have realized that their major squeezes on Berlin in the late 1940s and the late 1950s only added to NATO political cohesion and to a determination to strengthen NATO forces.


Most NATO commanders agree that a Soviet attack on Western Europe is improbable. But it cannot be demonstrated that all possibility of a Soviet attack is excluded. Conflict could be ignited by contingencies other than a deliberate attack motivated by a desire for conquest. There is no guarantee that the decisions of Soviet leaders—or of Western leaders—will always be rational.

A still greater assurance against war in Europe would be provided by gradually building down the military confrontation. To be effective in reducing the Warsaw Pact’s potential to attack with minimum warning, however, force reductions must also be accompanied by "constraints"; that is, agreed measures that restrict the deployment and activities of military forces—for example, by limiting the size of out-of-garrison force concentrations. Reductions need to be accompanied by intrusive mutual verification. Neither constraints that leave combat capability untouched, nor reductions without constraints, would be adequate in themselves. War could still occur between the rival alliances even if active-duty forces were small and equal, and even if their organized reserves were reduced or eliminated. But there would be an important difference in risk and cost between today’s military confrontation in Europe and even a modestly reduced and constrained confrontation.

The first and unsuccessful effort to negotiate reductions in NATO and Warsaw Pact forces, the negotiations for Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions, began in Vienna 14 years ago. These talks are now winding down without prospect of success. Soon after the MBFR talks began in late 1973, the Warsaw Pact proposed an across-the-board 15-percent reduction of ground force manpower and major equipment by both alliances. Under circumstances of a perceived equality in manpower and armaments between the forces of the two alliances in central Europe, the Warsaw Pact’s reduction approach would have been the logical one. Instead, the negotiations soon became stalemated over the NATO claim that the Soviet bloc had a considerable manpower superiority which should be reduced to an equal ceiling between the two alliances, and the Warsaw Pact’s contentions that the ground force manpower of the two alliances was already roughly equal. This is where the talks stand today.

In the last officially exchanged figures, those of 1980, which remain generally valid, NATO counted its ground force manpower in the area of central Europe at just over 744,000, (including 210,000 troops of the U.S. Army), and its air force manpower at just over 198,000. (50,000 French troops deployed in West Germany are not included in official NATO figures.) It counted Warsaw Pact ground force personnel in central Europe at just over 956,000 (including 475,000 Soviet ground force personnel), and Warsaw Pact air force personnel at just over 224,000. But the Pact claimed it had only slightly more than 815,000 ground force personnel, including 423,000 Soviet ground force personnel, and 182,000 air force personnel.

The discrepancy between the NATO and Warsaw Pact figures on Pact forces in Eastern Europe may be caused in part by the deliberate omission by the Pact of certain categories of active-duty personnel from their count. This has already been established through discussion at the negotiating table: some categories of Polish personnel, mainly general-purpose construction units, are excluded. It is also possible that Western figures themselves may not be fully accurate, given that they must be compiled from fragmentary evidence in the face of largely effective Pact efforts over the years to maintain tight secrecy about all aspects of their military forces. In particular, it is possible that first-line active-duty Soviet and other Warsaw Pact units in central Europe are manned at lower levels than the 90 percent of full wartime strength with which Western intelligence experts have credited them.

In December 1985 NATO radically changed its approach to the numbers problem in MBFR: instead of insisting on prereduction agreement on the starting level of Warsaw Pact military personnel in the central European reduction area, NATO proposed that a small reduction (5,000 U.S. and 11,500 Soviet ground personnel) take place first. After that, the data dispute would be resolved on the basis of on-site inspections of the forces of both alliances.

Soviet negotiators failed to show much interest in this new Western proposal, even to the extent of suggesting fewer on-site inspections than NATO’s rather high total of 90—enough to inspect each Soviet division in central Europe three times in the proposed three-year period. Six months later, however, the U.S.S.R. did agree in the Stockholm CDE talks to a far smaller quota of three less stringent on-site inspections per year.

Meanwhile the new Gorbachev leadership was turning its thoughts away from MBFR and toward another and different force reduction conference. Among possible reasons for this Soviet shift were Gorbachev’s "new broom" approach to Soviet arms control positions—the Vienna MBFR talks were too moribund to provide new interest for the West European public, which was a major target of the Soviet disarmament campaign. France, which had declined to participate in MBFR—ostensibly because the area of coverage was too small—had proposed that force reductions be negotiated in the CDE context and in the wider Atlantic-to-the-Urals area to include French territory, an area of coverage which the Soviets had already conceded for the CDE agreement. In earlier decades, West Germany and other NATO allies had repeatedly criticized the refusal of the Brezhnev leadership to include the western U.S.S.R., with its large contingent of air force units and reserve ground force units, in the more limited area of coverage of the MBFR talks. Now it was Gorbachev’s policy to recognize such criticisms when formulating new Soviet positions.

Let us look more closely at the current Soviet position on force reductions in Europe. In a speech in East Berlin in April 1986, Gorbachev proposed new negotiations for substantial reductions in all components of ground and tactical air forces. These include all the Soviet conventional and tactical nuclear armaments stationed in the entire area from the Atlantic to the Urals, more than a thousand kilometers into Soviet territory. Initially reductions would be made in the forces of the NATO and Warsaw Pact alliances. Subsequently the forces of the neutral and non-aligned European states would be covered in reductions. As amplified by the Warsaw Pact Political Consultative Committee at Budapest in June 1986, this proposal foresees that all components of ground forces, conventional armaments, "tactical strike aviation" and tactical nuclear armaments should be covered in agreed reductions. Reductions would be by units, together with their weapons (that is, reductions would focus on combat units), and would be phased on the basis of agreed timetables, to "maintain the present military balance."

The Warsaw Pact proposes that the first reductions should take place within one to two years and should consist of 100,000 to 150,000 men from the forces of each of the two opposing alliances, a reduction roughly corresponding in size to those foreseen in the MBFR negotiations. The second step, to be taken in the early 1990s, would be a further reduction in the forces of both alliances of 25 percent, or a total, according to the Warsaw Pact, of 500,000 men from each alliance. Further reductions of NATO and Warsaw Pact forces would take place later, and this stage would include forces of neutral and nonaligned European countries.

The Warsaw Pact proposal foresees "reliable and effective" verification, to include national technical means and on-site inspections, exchange of data, and an international consultative commission including all participating states. The commission could carry out on-site inspection of reductions and supervise destruction or storage of armaments, and could staff checkpoints at railway junctions, airfields and ports.

This new proposal has proven attractive to influential members of NATO. It addresses the French interest in discussing reduction of armed forces in the second phase of the CDE talks, of which France was an originator. West German officials were especially attracted by the idea of broadening the central European zone of reductions used in the stalemated MBFR talks, to bring France into force reduction negotiations and to extend the area of coverage into the U.S.S.R. The NATO Council signaled its interest in the Pact proposals in the communiqués of its spring and fall 1986 ministerial meetings. In early 1987 preparatory discussion between representatives of NATO and the Warsaw Pact began on the margins of the Vienna Helsinki accords review conference. Within a few months of the conclusion of the conference, which may come by the end of 1987, a new East-West force reduction negotiation is likely to begin.

There has been controversy within NATO about the forum for this new negotiation, over the role of the neutrals and over the linkage between the force reduction negotiations and the recurrent Helsinki accords review conferences. Ultimately, East-West agreement will probably be reached to hold the talks between the two alliances, with some method of informing the neutrals and reporting to the review conferences.

As part of the agreement to proceed with new negotiations, the MBFR talks are likely to be closed down by mutual agreement, without recrimination. It would be in the interest of the new negotiations if, in the concluding phase of MBFR, the participants could reach agreement on the troop count issue, perhaps through a more detailed comparison of figures on Warsaw Pact manpower and a limited number of on-site inspections. The MBFR forum could have further value for stabilizing the NATO-Warsaw Pact confrontation if it were converted to an East-West forum with two purposes: reducing risks (dealing, for example, with the numerous border-crossing incidents by aircraft and also by missiles, preventing them from provoking serious miscalculations), and conducting a dialogue on the defense strategies and deployments of both alliances, such as was proposed by the Warsaw Pact in June 1987. If not in MBFR, these functions should be carried out in the framework of the new Atlantic-to-the-Urals negotiations.


What can be expected from these new negotiations? Will their course provide some clear answer to the question of Soviet willingness to make significant force reductions?

Most of the underlying problems that caused the failure of the existing Vienna force reduction talks will also plague future negotiations. The greatest of these difficulties is the reluctance of military commanders and defense officials of both alliances to reduce their forces.

Today there is even more reluctance in NATO governments to contemplate force reductions than there was at the outset of the MBFR talks. Significantly, the possibility of reducing NATO forces is not mentioned in NATO’s December 1986 interim reply to the Budapest proposals, which speaks only of eliminating Warsaw Pact superiorities in individual force components and thus stabilizing the East-West confrontation.

Most NATO governments, especially those with forces in the area of the most intense East-West confrontation, central Europe, do not think they can afford to reduce their forces, which are already spread very thinly over a fixed geographic defense line. Given the understandable worst-case assumption of most senior NATO officers that the NATO-Warsaw Pact military confrontation will continue indefinitely with only minor changes, they want to improve these forces, not reduce them—particularly now, given intensified worries over the post-INF future of American extended deterrence. In the United States, the Joint Chiefs of Staff fear that negotiated American withdrawals from Europe would lead Congress to mandate a reduced personnel ceiling for the entire U.S. Army.

For its part, the willingness of the Soviet Union to reduce will be strongly influenced by the fact that none of the communist governments of Eastern Europe can sustain themselves without the prop of Soviet military forces inside their countries or on their borders. Consequently, Soviet and Warsaw Pact political and military leaders are highly apprehensive about the political effects of large-scale Soviet troop withdrawals—especially from East Germany—on political stability in Eastern Europe. The Soviet system is very far from making the radical changes that would be necessary before Soviet leaders could seriously contemplate relinquishing their control over Eastern Europe.

While U.S.-Soviet negotiations on reduction of strategic armaments start from a basis of rough equality between the two countries, the second basic problem of the new talks, as it was of MBFR, will be that negotiations on NATO-Warsaw Pact force reductions start from a basis of large Warsaw Pact numerical superiorities over NATO in organized combat units and major armaments. When these Eastern bloc superiorities, somewhat exaggerated in their military significance, are taken literally, gun for gun, for negotiating purposes, they lead NATO to urge Warsaw Pact reductions that are much larger than NATO reductions. Whatever else may be said about it, this approach does not conform to customary traditions of equity and quid pro quo in negotiation.

On the other side, the Soviet and Warsaw Pact reduction approaches reflect the Soviet contention that, when all forces are included and qualitative factors taken into account, there is rough equality between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Consequently, the Pact reduction approach uses the present force balance as the basis for equal-number or equal-percentage reductions, as it did in the MBFR talks.

Thus, there is a very wide gap between NATO’s insistence on proportionally larger Warsaw Pact reductions and the Pact’s equal-number or equal-percentage reduction approach. In fact, NATO participants will be asking for concessions from the Soviet Union while offering little in return, at least in the military sense. Several important aspects of reductions—the amount and nature of the reductions, the manner of disposal of reduced NATO and Soviet arms, the setting of individual national residual ceilings on Soviet but not on West German forces—will require probable Soviet concessions.

Nevertheless, NATO has learned much from a decade of MBFR disputes with the Warsaw Pact over the number of Soviet bloc forces in Eastern Europe. It seems likely to follow its December 1985 approach of forgoing a prior agreement on starting figures, focusing instead on agreed post-reduction levels of forces and arms. However, continued East-West disputes over numbers seem likely, and there will be a need for data agreement of some kind for most types of stringent constraints. There will also be a requirement for intrusive verification. But if there is an INF agreement, its stringent verification requirements should open the way for measures to verify reduction of conventional forces.


NATO’s stated objective for the new talks, reflected in its December 1986 communiqué, is to "stabilize" the East-West military confrontation. Given that the force confrontation in Europe is already rather stable, what should this mean in more specific terms? Reasonable general objectives for the new talks would be: (1) to decrease the potential of the Warsaw Pact—and of NATO—for attack with minimum warning; and (2) to reduce the possibility of involuntary, uncontrolled escalation to conflict in the event of political crises or East-West confrontations in non-European areas.

What type of forces should be covered by reductions in a new negotiation covering Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals? In particular, what about nuclear armaments? Given worries over the possible effects of an INF agreement, most NATO countries strongly prefer to await Soviet agreement to significant reductions of the U.S.S.R.’s conventional forces before reducing or eliminating yet another category of nuclear weapons from Europe. This is especially true of France, which is apprehensive that any discussion of reducing tactical nuclear weapons would unavoidably draw in French nuclear forces.

On the other hand, West Germany provides an important exception to this reluctance to reduce tactical nuclear weapons. German public opinion is sensitive as always to the enormous civilian casualties that would result if nuclear weapons were used on the country’s densely populated territory and, after disagreements over INF, both the political right and left are pressing for reduction of tactical nuclear weapons. Despite NATO’s hesitations, it would be desirable at some point in the new talks to negotiate such a reduction, using some version of the old NATO "mixed package" trade (say, reductions in tactical American nuclear warheads for Soviet tank withdrawals). Though not successful in MBFR, trading off different armaments is one way to bridge the gap caused by NATO’s insistence on larger Warsaw Pact reductions and Pact insistence on equal treatment.

In its June 1986 proposals the Warsaw Pact emphasized reduction of "tactical strike aviation," or fighter-bombers. NATO representatives have long argued in MBFR that aircraft are too mobile for mere withdrawal; in the event of conflict, they can return rapidly to their original bases, although less rapidly if entire units are removed. The U.S. Air Force continues to oppose aircraft reductions and nearly all European NATO air forces appear likely to do so as well, both because of the importance of tactical air forces at the outset of a possible East-West conflict and for institutional reasons: some West European air forces are already so small that reductions could imperil their institutional existence as a separate branch of national armed services. So it seems possible that, at least initially, NATO will argue against inclusion of aircraft in reductions.

From the viewpoint of reducing the potential of the opposing forces for attack, this is unfortunate. Moreover, fighter-bombers are expensive, at $40 million apiece in the West, and neither alliance, especially NATO, will be able to maintain present levels indefinitely. In the West, the money and personnel saved from air force reductions or, rather, from cutting back purchases of still more expensive upgraded aircraft as replacements, could be used to strengthen ground forces in a defensive mode through building reserves. Therefore, NATO should give serious study to including reduction of aircraft in the new negotiations, in the context of a trade-off of some NATO aircraft for a larger number of Warsaw Pact tanks and armored vehicles.

Another possible way for the West to use its superior military technology to gain negotiating leverage would be to agree to limit deployment of the modernized, improved version of the Lance missile to a low ceiling, equal with Warsaw Pact nuclear-tipped missiles of the under-500 kilometer range; the Pact now has numerical advantage of four or five to one in this category. A further trade-off might be NATO willingness to limit deployment of the new ATACOMS, accurate conventional-warhead missiles of approximately 200-kilometer range scheduled for deployment in the early 1990s, in return for large-scale withdrawals of Soviet tanks, attack helicopters and self-propelled artillery, and a ceiling on Soviet deployment of conventional-warhead missiles of this range.

The priority for ground force reductions in the new talks should be on the combat-ready, active-duty ground forces of both alliances, and should be aimed at reducing the capability for forward-moving attack with the objective of taking and holding terrain. To increase the military effect of reductions and to aid in verification, reductions should be in terms of complete units, with the focus primarily on units equipped with those ground force weapons used to move forward and take ground in an attack—tanks, attack helicopters, and self-propelled artillery.

By way of illustration, one possible reduction approach that seeks to take account of these factors would be reducing heavy armaments assigned to active-duty ground force combat units—say, attack helicopters and main battle tanks—to a lower and equal level in both alliances, with parity in central Europe as a sub-goal. Reductions would be in the form of complete units, which could be as small as battalions. If both alliances reduced the number of their tanks to an equal ceiling level of 20,000, the Pact would have to dispose of some 25,000 tanks, whereas NATO would have to remove only 5,000. In such a case, a reduction of NATO high-tech armaments could be helpful as additional leverage.

There might be other benefits from this approach, assuming Warsaw Pact leaders would be nervous over the impact of large manpower reductions in Eastern Europe. Under one version, there would be no obligatory reduction of less verifiable military manpower. Each participant would be left to decide what to do with the manpower of those heavy armament units that had been reduced; personnel might be reassigned to newly created, less heavily armed, less mobile infantry units—whose establishment would have to be reported to the opposing alliance—or units could be disbanded or reduced to reserve status. This approach could result in some useful restructuring of Soviet forces. An agreement could allow the United States to store its reduced tanks and helicopters in Germany. The agreement should require the Soviets to store their reduced arms beyond the Urals or in the western Soviet Union. However, if it were agreed that there would be equipment storage inside the Atlantic-to-the-Urals reductions area, there could be provision for on-site inspection of such storage sites, or preferably, for their permanent supervision by personnel of the other alliance.

An additional, somewhat different approach, less disproportionate in terms of Warsaw Pact reductions, might involve mutual reduction of those types of units—armored reconnaissance units and mobile antiaircraft units—without whose support heavy armored forces cannot move forward in attack. These units could be replaced on both sides by less mobile infantry and static antiaircraft units, which would effectively replace the reduced units by forces that could be used for defense, but not for attack.


The conclusion of an INF agreement will probably give the proposed force reduction negotiations a new impetus. It is doubtful, nevertheless, that these new talks will make rapid progress. With all their complexity, the negotiations could barely get under way in the closing months of the Reagan presidency and would have to be resumed after review in the next administration. At least at the outset, it is unlikely that the Soviet Union will be prepared to make reduction concessions sufficiently far-reaching to meet probable NATO terms. The experience of the MBFR talks indicates that Soviet leaders and military commanders are too conservative in their assessments to allow potential outside benefits to move them from their habitual insistence on making an equal deal, even when they start with more forces and equipment.

It is possible that, at some point, Gorbachev may adopt a parallel track to his important concessions on INF and strategic reductions and show similar flexibility on conventional reductions. The prospect of reducing huge Soviet expenditures on conventional forces in order to divert resources to the civilian sector, and of improving Soviet access to the economic, technological and managerial resources of Western Europe by assuaging West European fears of Soviet conventional forces, should be attractive to Gorbachev and his advisers. But this reasoning provides no certainty. Soviet leaders have long been unable or unwilling to take actions that undermine well-entrenched Soviet military interests. The Soviet ground forces are the senior and most important branch of the Soviet armed services. Khrushchev’s drastic reduction of Soviet ground forces to the benefit of the country’s strategic nuclear forces ultimately contributed to his own downfall. And, for Soviet leaders, there remains the problem of political stability in Eastern Europe.

Given the known difficulties on both sides, the prospects for early agreement on large reductions from the Atlantic to the Urals appear limited. A conclusive reply to the question of Soviet willingness to make large-scale reductions in their conventional forces may not be forthcoming anytime soon.

Instead the new force reduction negotiations may result in initial agreement for a program of constraints on military activities. Possible measures include withdrawing major ammunition stocks, attack helicopter units or long-range antiaircraft missiles to a specified distance from the dividing line between the two alliances; restricting the size of out-of-garrison force activities; or restricting the amount of ammunition which can be loaded for pre-announced military maneuvers to a small percentage of the combat level. Each agreed measure would be backed by observers and verification. Faced by the need to choose between force reductions and such constraints, military commanders in both alliances might reluctantly accept the constraints in order to keep their forces intact. Their political leaders, under pressure to achieve some outcome from the negotiations, are likely to accept their advice.

Constraints will not reduce military force levels or budgets. But, if well articulated, they will justifiably contribute to increased confidence and decreased apprehension on both sides and could lead to subsequent, more successful efforts at negotiated reduction. Perhaps the new talks will shake down after a few years and both sides will become more interested in trying reduction approaches hitherto passed over. Moreover, outside the framework of negotiations, there is room for informal East-West trade-offs of Western economic credits and managerial skills for large-scale Soviet force reductions.

In the longer run, the military confrontation in Europe seems as likely to shrink through independent actions on both sides (including abstention from possible force improvements) taken to rationalize forces and to cope with economic stringencies as it is through agreed reductions. Not only the political confrontation in Europe, but the military confrontation, too, appears to have peaked.

Nonetheless, NATO governments need to make a serious effort to achieve agreement with the Warsaw Pact on negotiated force reductions. An overly cautious NATO negotiating effort based on the minimum terms agreed upon among Western governments will not be a valid test of Soviet willingness to make serious force reductions. And a minimalist NATO approach will not long have the support of the already large segment of European public opinion which holds that the threat of Warsaw Pact aggression against Western Europe has sharply decreased and that large NATO forces have become less necessary. Groups holding this view will become still more powerful if peace in Europe continues. Public opinion pressures on NATO governments, especially in Western Europe, and economic pressures on the Soviet Union have both increased since the beginning of the MBFR effort 14 years ago.

The Western coalition now appears to be reeling backward under the impact of each new Soviet arms control proposal, seeking to cope with Gorbachev’s peace campaign defensively by making minimum adjustments in the NATO position and by faulting the Soviets as propagandists. Instead, NATO should develop a plan for exploiting fully the potential entailed in current Soviet proposals for lowering, in an orderly and verifiable way, the level of the NATO-Warsaw Pact confrontation in Europe. If this potential cannot be realized, then the responsibility must be shown to rest as clearly as possible on the U.S.S.R., not on the timidity or reluctance of Western governments; any other outcome would have seriously negative effects for Western cohesion. If the potential contained in the Soviet position can be realized, then some further, gradual build-down of the military confrontation in Europe could take place.

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  • Jonathan Dean, Arms Control Adviser of the Union of Concerned Scientists, is the author of Watershed in Europe (1987), a book on the future of the NATO-Warsaw Pact military confrontation. From 1973 to 1981, he was Deputy U.S. Representative and then U.S. Representative to the NATO-Warsaw Pact Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions talks.
  • More By Jonathan Dean