The Day After Russia Attacks
What War in Ukraine Would Look Like—and How America Should Respond
A substantial denuclearization of Europe is at hand. It takes the form of the U.S.-Soviet treaty that eliminates two entire classes of nuclear missiles (though not their warheads) now deployed in Europe and the U.S.S.R. The Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty has profound implications for conventional deterrence and defense on the Continent. It is also likely to have major repercussions for NATO’s cohesion, arms control negotiations and the future of U.S.-European relations.
Critics and skeptics, among them Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig, Congressman Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), recently retired NATO Supreme Commander General Bernard Rogers and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.), contend that any degree of denuclearization of Europe not tied in some way to a redress of the conventional military balance, which continues to favor the Soviet Union, could make Europe safe for conventional warfare on a scale not witnessed since 1945.
Even partial denuclearization, it is asserted, would work against NATO by removing many of the very weapons that the alliance for almost forty years has judged an effective and comparatively cheap means of deterring the Soviet Union’s use of its numerically superior and geographically advantaged conventional forces in Europe.
Finally, critics are concerned over the treaty’s direct and unfavorable impact on future modernization of NATO’s conventional defenses. The treaty bans deployment of all ballistic and cruise missiles—non-nuclear as well as nuclear—with ranges from 500 to 5,500 kilometers. Such a ban forecloses to NATO the preferred, long-term means of implementing its declared Follow-on Forces Attack (FOFA) strategy, which calls for deep interdiction strikes using conventional munitions on Soviet air bases, communications centers and westward-moving ground reinforcement echelons in Eastern Europe. Critics further point out that removal of theater nuclear missiles and banning of non-nuclear missiles will compel the alliance to allocate a significantly larger portion of its deployed tactical air power, already severely burdened by non-nuclear operational requirements, to theater nuclear strike missions.
Supporters insist that the treaty is a major arms control breakthrough that could help promote a comprehensive strategic arms agreement. It is further claimed that removal from Europe of U.S. Pershing 2 and Soviet SS-20 ballistic missiles, along with other ballistic and cruise missiles, will enhance conflict stability on the Continent by lowering the chances that a war in Europe, an admittedly remote possibility, would escalate to nuclear Armageddon. It is also argued that reduced reliance on NATO’s nuclear "crutch" will at long last prompt greater NATO investment in Europe’s conventional defenses, plagued for decades by deficiencies regarded as tolerable only in the presence of a robust theater nuclear deterrent.
Critics, however, manifest little confidence in NATO’s willingness and ability to offset denuclearization by improving the alliance’s conventional defenses. The history of NATO has in fact been a history of heavy reliance on nuclear weapons, driven in part by a congenital reluctance of NATO’s European members to fund anything other than the minimal conventional force improvements believed necessary to keep the Americans happy. Since the early 1960s, the United States has sought conventional defenses in Europe that would be capable, in the event of war, of shifting the onus of escalation onto Moscow, or at least raising the nuclear threshold. The Europeans, in contrast, have resisted acquiring a strong conventional defense, in part for fear that it would serve to decouple the U.S. strategic deterrent from Europe’s defense by eliminating equitable nuclear risk-sharing among alliance members.
Thus, deficiencies in the alliance’s conventional force posture continue to be tolerated, notwithstanding the loss of strategic nuclear superiority vis-à-vis the Soviet Union in the 1970s, and even the prospect of substantial theater denuclearization. General Rogers has declared that NATO’s present conventional forces probably could not mount an effective defense of the alliance’s central front for more than a few days.
How bad is the situation? Is NATO, as the standard "doom and gloom" analyses argue, actually inferior to the Warsaw Pact? Do not NATO’s numerous qualitative advantages more than offset the pact’s numerical superiority? Does it really matter how many extra divisions the pact has in its rear area, since the finite length of the inter-German border limits the number of divisions the Soviets can put forward?
In fact, recent "revisionist" literature argues that traditional "bean-counting" assessments of the NATO-Warsaw Pact military balance are either misleading or irrelevant. Its underlying premises are that numbers of troops, tanks and airplanes are not decisive indicators of military prowess and that the Warsaw Pact’s superiority in central Europe is insufficient to overwhelm NATO’s defenses, since an attacker needs something on the order of a three-to-one superiority to achieve a breakthrough.
Yet defense—even a numerically superior one—is not inherently superior to offense; if it were, the Germans would have been defeated in 1940, and the Israelis in 1956, 1967 and 1973. To be sure, a completely ready defender, with his forces fully deployed, fighting from prepared positions, and having robust operational reserves at hand, enjoys important and often decisive advantages over an attacker. But will NATO forces on D-Day be completely ready, fully deployed, ensconced in prepared positions and backed by robust operational reserves?
In reality, NATO’s ground forces are maldeployed and dangerously short of operational reserves (all but one of the Bundeswehr’s 12 divisions are committed to the initial defense of the German border). Moreover, NATO’s doctrine of forward defense commits those forces to a more or less rigid linear defense unaided by adequate fortifications or other physical barriers. The Federal Republic of Germany rejects any defense doctrine that would trade space for time in order to achieve greater operational flexibility, and Bonn continues to refuse to permit the erection of suitable barrier defenses along the inter-German border for fear of encouraging Germany’s permanent political division. Thus, even if NATO had adequate warning of an impending attack and acted on that warning in a timely manner, it could still easily find itself in a position worse than the French faced in 1940.
NATO’s problems are further compounded by an inability to find a satisfactory response to the Soviet operational method, which has been specifically tailored to exploit NATO’s mobilization and deployment problems, inadequate operational reserves and lack of barrier defenses. The Soviets long ago discarded their traditionally rigid steamroller approach to ground warfare in favor of a flexible, fluid, infiltrative method of detecting and exploiting weaknesses in NATO’s defenses. Once a suitable gap has been found, it becomes the schwerpunkt (strong point) through which the Soviets pour available operational maneuver groups and reinforcements. NATO’s ability to hold the line is further degraded by the lack of an effective response to the emerging Soviet capabilities to attack NATO air bases and other key military installations with conventionally armed missiles and aircraft.
But these and other conventional force deficiencies have been present since NATO’s inception; given that thousands of nuclear weapons remain in Europe, does the INF treaty really lower the quality of NATO’s deterrent? Here, much depends on what happens next.
Unfortunately, there is reason to believe that Europe’s denuclearization will not stop with the treaty. The antinuclear rhetoric of the Reagan Administration, reinforced by the Reykjavik summit, a partial "demobilization" of the Soviet threat in the eyes of the West European public and the signing of the INF treaty, has set in motion a potentially irresistible process of denuclearization. As this process evolves, nuclear weapons will be devalued from the standpoint of both reassurance and deterrence, and resort to nuclear fire will be considered less and less thinkable by both our allies and our adversaries. One American strategist, Edward Luttwak, has already proclaimed a "post-nuclear era." He contends that, as far as deterrence is concerned, it really does not matter how far along the denuclearization continuum we have progressed: what is significant are the perceived trends, which may well cause decay in the quality of nuclear deterrence irrespective of actual changes in force structures and nuclear employment policies.
Some analysts believe that adverse trends bearing on nuclear deterrence can be partially offset or even neutralized by the projected growth in British and French nuclear forces. This argument, however, fails to take Soviet perceptions into account. While concerned about the British and French nuclear modernization, Moscow has always assigned far less value to European nuclear weapons than to the U.S. nuclear forces in Europe. The former were always perceived as weapons of last resort, incapable of substituting for any diminution in the credibility of American nuclear deterrence.
Concerns about the looming denuclearization of NATO’s defenses should not be overblown. Nuclear deterrence, even in a weakened state, will endure as long as nuclear weapons exist. However, it is foolish to believe that nothing has changed and that we can proceed with business as usual.
Present West German attitudes suggest that denuclearization is not just a remote prospect. Long before the signing of the INF treaty, Bonn repeatedly warned the United States that inclusion of the "second zero" (i.e., elimination of shorter-range missiles with ranges of 500-1,000 kilometers) in the INF deal would jeopardize the 1983 Montebello decision of NATO ministers to modernize NATO’s tactical nuclear weapons. This, indeed, is what has happened. The West German government’s present position is that modernization of tactical nuclear weapons is undesirable and would spark a replay of antinuclear demonstrations. Accordingly, the stated German preference is for, first, reducing NATO and Warsaw Pact tactical weapons to equal levels and, then, eventually eliminating them altogether. Given strong Soviet (and East German) pressure for the "third zero," Bonn’s position is particularly troublesome for NATO, especially since it pits the Federal Republic against the United States, France and Great Britain.
In sum, the INF treaty does indeed mark a watershed for NATO’s nuclear deterrent: the long-standing deficiencies in NATO’s conventional force posture are no longer tolerable.
The INF treaty places a premium not only on invigorating NATO’s conventional forces but also on the need to give greater attention to actual warfighting capabilities as opposed to deterrence. This, in turn, suggests the need for both higher conventional force levels (Congressman Les Aspin has concluded that ten additional ground force divisions will be required) and resolution of NATO’s major problems with its non-nuclear force posture.
But herein lies the rub: it is highly likely, for reasons mostly having little to do with the INF treaty, that the non-nuclear military balance in Europe in the post-treaty era will be even more unfavorable to NATO than it is today. National force contributions, including those of the U.S. Army Europe, to the defense of the critical central front are far more likely to shrink (and shrink substantially) than to grow during the next ten years. There are, moreover, few grounds for believing that qualitative conventional force improvements will exceed the characteristically minimal and routine.
Significantly, defense budgets have not kept pace with inflation in many NATO countries, and for some countries budgets have declined in real terms. Of NATO’s 16 nations, only Italy, Luxembourg, Norway and Turkey plan to increase real defense spending in 1988. Given the well-entrenched demands of West European welfare states and the projected sluggish growth of Western economies, sizable increases in NATO defense budgets are most unlikely.
These budgetary trends are reinforced by diminished perceptions of the threat. The new Soviet leadership has succeeded in greatly changing the Western public’s assessments of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev has manifested both a keen appreciation of the importance of Western public opinion and an ability to manipulate it. Thus, for example, a recent Pravda article proudly noted that a growing number of West Europeans view the U.S.S.R. more positively than they view the United States, and predicted that this trend is likely to endure.
Demographic trends throughout NATO are also adverse. The most unsettling are in the Federal Republic of Germany, which has the lowest fertility rates in the world and whose 495,000 men under arms form the core of the alliance’s forward defenses. There is virtually no possibility that the Bundeswehr can maintain its present strength beyond the early 1990s. The size of Germany’s male population of military age (women are barred by law from bearing arms) has been dropping sharply for years and will continue to do so for the remainder of the century. The German army requires an annual replenishment pool of 225,000 new conscripts. Only 125,000 will be available by the early 1990s, however. This means that by 1995 the Bundeswehr could shrivel to a force two-thirds its present strength (i.e., to 335,000).
Though the present German government has mandated a number of remedial measures, including an extension of the first term of service from 15 to 18 months, Ministry of Defense officials privately concede that these measures offer no long-term solution to the manpower crunch. Within the next decade, they say, the Bundeswehr is almost certain to decline to a force of 400,000-450,000 men. A smaller Bundeswehr will weaken the defense of the central front, and could provide a perverse excuse for other NATO countries to cut their own forces. Certainly, unilateral German force cuts would provide powerful political ammunition to those in the U.S. Congress who have long favored U.S. troop withdrawals from Europe.
There may be reductions in other national force contributions. There are no prospects for Belgian or Dutch force expansion; indeed, Belgium, which in 1986 met only 38 percent of the key force goals NATO annually establishes for each member, is considering a reduction in the poorly equipped 30,000-man force it deploys in Germany. French defense nuclear programs, which have long starved French conventional forces of timely modernization, are likely to account for an even larger share of the defense budget than they have in the past.
Nor can a robust British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) any longer be taken for granted. British defense expenditure is declining in real terms, and for the first time in decades defense expenditure as a percentage of gross national product is headed downward. These trends, coupled with the Thatcher government’s determination to modernize Britain’s nuclear deterrent by acquiring the costly Trident, could make a reduction in the 56,000-man BAOR unavoidable. Some German Ministry of Defense officials believe that at least one of the BAOR’s three divisions will be withdrawn from Germany within the next ten years.
Even the future of U.S. forces in Europe is in doubt. A number of factors seem to be converging on behalf of a sizable reduction in the American force presence in Europe by the end of the century. These factors include: (1) mounting political pressures on the U.S. defense budget, which has been declining in real terms since the Reagan Administration’s first term; (2) growing demands on U.S. armed forces in the Persian Gulf and other places outside the NATO area; (3) adverse demographic trends that call into question the all-volunteer force’s ability to recruit and retain sufficient numbers of qualified people over the next decade; (4) rising public and congressional anger over what is perceived to be Europe’s continued unwillingness to bear its fair share of the common defense burden; (5) continuation of a comparative disinvestment in conventional force modernization and expansion; and (6) the possibility that a new American president would consider a strategic reallocation of U.S. forces overseas.
There is also the unpleasant fact that some of our NATO allies are no longer prepared to tolerate a significant U.S. force presence on their soil. Spanish expulsion of U.S. F-16 squadrons and the probable loss of U.S. bases in Greece will both degrade the southern flank’s already porous defenses and fuel arguments in the U.S. Congress for U.S. troop withdrawals elsewhere in Europe.
Moreover, within the traditionally Eurocentric American foreign policy establishment there is growing division over the strategic wisdom and moral validity of continuing to maintain a large force presence in Europe which, together with forces withheld in the United States for Europe’s reinforcement, consumes about one-half of all U.S. defense expenditure.
Until the 1980s, calls for pulling some or all U.S. troops out of Europe came almost exclusively from liberals, libertarians, and Midwestern and Rocky Mountain isolationists, some of whom opposed U.S. admission to NATO in 1949 as an unwise entry into the very kind of entangling alliance against which George Washington cautioned. The Mansfield resolutions and amendments of the 1960s and 1970s drew upon this sentiment.
Today, however, prominent members of America’s foreign policy elite have joined the ranks of those who favor a reduction in America’s present investment in Europe’s defenses. Henry Kissinger, condemning Europe’s excessive reliance on nuclear deterrence at the expense of needed improvements in conventional defenses, has talked of "a gradual withdrawal of a substantial portion, perhaps up to one-half, of our present ground forces" in Europe. Zbigniew Brzezinski, bemoaning Europe’s continuing status as "an American military protectorate some thirty years after Western Europe’s economic recovery" from World War II, and wishing to build up U.S. military strength for Persian Gulf contingencies, has called for a withdrawal of up to 100,000 U.S. troops from Europe. Neoconservative commentator Irving Kristol, arguing that "NATO subverts Western Europe’s will to resist and interferes with America’s responsibilities as a global power," has proposed a U.S. "withdrawal from that commitment and the reconstitution of NATO as an all-European organization that would boost the morale of West European nations by affirming their independence and national identity."
Indeed, the view that Europe’s defense should be de-emphasized in American military planning and resource allocation in favor of other contingencies seems to have gained widespread support among American strategic cognoscenti. A 1988 report prepared for President Reagan by The Commission On Integrated Long-Term Strategy is highly illustrative in that regard. The commission, whose members included Albert Wohlstetter, Fred Iklé, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, concluded that the possibility of a large-scale Soviet attack in central Europe was becoming increasingly remote, and therefore should no longer dominate U.S. strategic planning. The report called instead for increased attention to meeting threats posed by low-intensity conflicts and regional instabilities outside Europe, along with appropriate reallocations of U.S. defense budgetary resources.
More than a few Europeans also regard an open-ended major U.S. force presence in Europe as undesirable, politically unsustainable or both. Political opposition parties in Germany, Britain and other key NATO countries have declared themselves against a continued U.S. nuclear presence of any kind on their national territory, and have made it abundantly clear that they would shed no tears over a smaller U.S. ground force presence in Europe. Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, a stalwart of the transatlantic military partnership during the 1960s and 1970s, has now concluded that:
Dependency corrupts and corrupts not only the dependent partners, but also the oversized partner who is making decisions almost single-handedly. Most of the European governments rely too much on American nuclear weapons and most of them neglect their own conventional defense. An improved military equilibrium requires that the military equipment of the French reserve troops be increased. It also requires more British reserve troops. We need to strengthen the conventional usable German air force and to provide more conventional munitions for the German army. Under such qualitatively and quantitatively improved conditions, a partial withdrawal of American troops would not necessarily be a misfortune. The Europeans would be playing a role of their own.
An alternative to needed conventional defense reform would, of course, be a program to restore NATO’s theater nuclear forces to a pre-INF treaty level of prowess and credibility. This is probably an impossible order to fill, however, given the treaty’s elimination of NATO’s most deterring theater weapons.
The alliance’s declared strategy of flexible response, which some observers including Schmidt contend "has long been obsolete," has traditionally rested upon strategic nuclear, theater nuclear and conventional forces—the so-called NATO triad. To be sure, INF aside, NATO still has some 4,600 nuclear weapons in Europe. The vast majority of them, however, are specialized or short-range weapons, including maritime nuclear depth charges, atomic demolition munitions, artillery shells with ranges of only a few miles, and aircraft-deliverable weapons. The longest-range ground-launched missile system remaining in NATO’s inventory is the aging Lance (of which there are but 88 in Germany) with a range of less than 70 miles. Nuclear-armed aircraft, of course, are theoretically capable of striking deep into Eastern Europe and even western Russia. But their ability to penetrate formidable Soviet air defenses is far from certain and, in case of war, NATO’s tactical air power would be overwhelmed by conventional mission demands. Overall, then, the INF treaty, by eliminating those theater nuclear weapons having the most deterrent value, moves the alliance far down the road to a diad.
There are nevertheless some conceivable additions to NATO’s nuclear stockpile that might serve as powerful nuclear force multipliers. Some American force planners, for example, have long argued that NATO should develop a genuine warfighting capability in Europe based on tactical nuclear weapons. This could force the Soviets to disperse their forces and greatly slow down the tempo of offensive operations. This solution, however, whatever its military merits, has never been politically plausible (witness the fate of enhanced-radiation weapons), and is certain to be rejected by allied governments.
Given current sentiments about nuclear weapons among allied publics, the most that NATO probably can hope to do with regard to nuclear forces in Europe is to avoid a further slide toward denuclearization. Yet, even that objective may be difficult to attain. The alliance is deeply split over the issue of what to do with NATO’s remaining nuclear forces, and Moscow can be expected to prey on these differences.
The British government (if not the average Briton) remains strongly committed to the implementation of the 1983 Montebello decision. Mrs. Thatcher has declared that London’s support of the "double zero" deal is predicated upon a continuation of the NATO nuclear force modernization. Both France and the United States also strongly support this course of action. In the wake of the INF treaty, however, West Germany and some of the smaller NATO members, including Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands, are strongly opposed to the implementation of the Montebello decision.
The two focal points of post-INF nuclear force modernization that have sparked controversy are tactical missiles and nuclear artillery shells. As far as the former are concerned, NATO has been considering replacing its aging Lance tactical missiles in West Germany with a force of several hundred longer-range missiles. There are also some 2,000 nuclear shells for 155-millimeter and 8-inch artillery tubes that need to be replaced. Less politically contentious are potential improvements in NATO’s long-range nuclear delivery systems not covered by the INF treaty.
Toward that end, a range of possible force modernization packages is being discussed. One option is to deploy additional F-111 or even B-52 bombers armed with air-launched cruise missiles in Britain. A more modest alternative is to bolster the survivability of NATO’s already forward-deployed dual-capable aircraft by equipping them with better electronic countermeasures gear and dispersing these aircraft among a large number of NATO bases. Also being considered is deployment of additional U.S. sea-launched cruise missiles, either on surface ships or on submarines. The ships themselves could be based in Great Britain—something to which the Thatcher government has already agreed. Because none of these options runs afoul of the INF treaty, and none involves systems based on German territory, Bonn has argued that NATO’s nuclear security needs can be adequately served through their implementation, thereby avoiding the need to modernize tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Germany.
The German position on tactical weapons must be taken into account, since provoking a major fight with Germany is highly injurious to the long-term health of the alliance. Yet, Bonn’s apparent yearning for the "third zero" cannot be allowed to become the fulcrum for Germany’s eventual denuclearization via the old idea of a nuclear-free zone in central Europe.
Any major weakening of NATO’s tactical nuclear forces—as a result of negotiated reduction or German refusal to permit modernization of weapons deployed in Germany—would also complicate conventional defense. Tactical nuclear weapons compel the Soviets to operate with tactically dispersed forces, thus facilitating conventional defense. This effect of tactical nuclear weapons cannot be fully duplicated by NATO’s long-range nuclear forces.
To resolve this dilemma, NATO might consider offering a compromise to Bonn. Specifically, NATO could offer to drop plans for the full modernization of all tactical nuclear weapons in Germany in exchange for agreement to modernize a limited number of tactical missiles and artillery shells. To further ease German concerns, the new missiles could be deployed only with U.S. units, and the new nuclear shells could be stored outside of Germany as long as agreed procedures were developed for redeploying them to Germany in case of an emergency. It is important, however, that the United States not offer any new concessions prematurely; instead, we should strike a package deal with the Germans.
NATO’s overall focus in the years ahead should be on maintaining a smaller, modernized force of tactical nuclear weapons and on bolstering its long-range nuclear systems which are not covered by the INF treaty. Such a program, if successfully implemented, would not restore theater nuclear deterrence to a quality now conveyed by the Pershing 2 and ground-launched cruise missiles; nor would it excuse conventional defense improvements. It would, however, stop any slide toward further denuclearization.
As for strengthening NATO’s conventional defenses, the option of active-duty force expansion would seem out of the question for the reasons already discussed. There has nevertheless been a proliferation of suggestions on how to finesse the problem. While most of these ideas are not new, the INF treaty has prompted renewed interest in bold and innovative solutions to the alliance’s old defense problems. The starting point for most reform proposals is the claim that NATO spends more on defense than the Warsaw Pact, but ends up with less to show for it because of inefficient resource allocation. This places a premium, it is argued, on greater national force specialization within NATO, with some allies concentrating on developing air and naval power, and others furnishing the bulk of the ground forces. In addition, it is claimed, greater investment ought to be made in mobilization infrastructure and reserve forces to generate an ability to mobilize rapidly ten to 15 more divisions, which could serve as operational reserves.
Often accompanying these proposals are calls for relaxation of the present doctrine of forward defense so as to permit greater operational flexibility. This would mean reducing forces committed to the initial defense of the inter-German border in favor of larger forces withheld farther back for purposes of counterattack.
Another set of proposed solutions would alter NATO strategy and doctrine more deliberately to capitalize on NATO strengths by pitting them against specific Warsaw Pact weaknesses. Samuel Huntington has recommended, for example, that NATO develop a retaliatory offensive strategy to send forces deep into the heart of Eastern Europe. He contends that NATO’s current lack of large-scale offensive capabilities has enabled the Soviets to concentrate all of their own resources on offensive operations.
Still another suggestion is to implement FOFA fully and increase the overall spatial depth of the engagement with the Pact. The objective here is not just to strike at the Soviet second-echelon forces, but to coordinate deep strikes with the close-in battle so as to disrupt and slow down Soviet forces. Those who favor this approach also suggest that it be adopted throughout NATO, rather than be limited only to the U.S. forces. So far, however, the Europeans have embraced only a minimalist version of FOFA, which many allies still confuse with the U.S. Army’s AirLand Battle doctrine. To the extent they are interested in attacks beyond the battle line, their emphasis seems to be on short, limited strikes, directed primarily against Soviet forces inside NATO territory. West Germany has categorically rejected ground-based counterattacks beyond the inter-German border.
Many defense reform ideas have considerable conceptual merit. Yet, for a variety of political and bureaucratic reasons, they are unlikely to be adopted by the alliance. As John Hawes, a senior State Department official, recently observed: "There is no quick fix to NATO’s problems; if there were, NATO would have adopted it long ago. NATO, for example, is not going to replace forward defense with heavily offensive or dispersed defensive strategies. Nor is NATO going to radically change its force structure."
Prospects for greater Anglo-French and Franco-German military cooperation have also been cited as a means of strengthening both deterrence and defense in Europe. France has already proposed to Great Britain joint development of an air-launched nuclear weapon as well as a program to coordinate targeting of British and French nuclear forces. (Britain has accepted the former but rejected the latter.) France has also sought to strengthen defense ties with Germany, proposing formation of a Franco-German brigade (which, unfortunately, would not fall under the control of NATO integrated military command) and going to great lengths to assure Bonn of prompt French response to a Soviet attack on Germany.
These are welcome developments, to be sure. But prospects for truly effective European defense cooperation remain severely constrained by Germany’s singular military relationship with the United States, France’s refusal to place its forces under NATO’s integrated military command and Great Britain’s special nuclear ties to the United States. There are also the overall political constraints inherent in NATO, which make timely mobilization in response to an ambiguous strategic warning unlikely. Moreover, any attempt to bolster the European pillar of the alliance must start from a recognition that NATO’s overall conventional defense "pie" is likely to be smaller in the post-INF treaty era than it is today. European defense cooperation will have to run hard just to stay in place.
What about technological remedies? Theoretically, NATO might make do with smaller conventional forces if it could achieve a decisive technological advantage over the Warsaw Pact in conventional arms. No affordable revolutionary technological miracle appears in sight, however. Moreover, the alliance has already demonstrated an unwillingness or inability to fund fully the acquisition of even those so-called emerging technologies deemed indispensable to its declared goal of achieving a robust FOFA capability against the Warsaw Pact.
Furthermore, it must be assumed that the Soviets will undertake, as they have in the past, whatever technological and operational countermeasures they deem necessary to prevent a decisive qualitative breakthrough by NATO. During the past twenty years NATO’s technological lead over the Soviet Union in conventional weaponry has been eroding, not growing. In fact, in key categories of ground warfare technologies, such as reactive armor and mobile antitank systems, the Soviets now enjoy a decided edge over NATO. This is not to argue that NATO should cease to pursue such potential breakthrough technologies as low-observables, robotics, railguns and anti-theater ballistic missile systems; rather, it is simply to recognize that the history of NATO provides no basis for believing that technology can solve the alliance’s long-standing conventional force deficiencies.
The conclusion is that NATO is highly unlikely to make the conventional force improvements seemingly dictated by the INF treaty. This leaves open only one road to redressing the non-nuclear military balance in Europe: reduction of the Soviet threat. Such a reduction could come about via either unilateral actions by Moscow or arms control negotiations. Yet, there is little apparent prospect for unilateral Soviet action or an East-West arms control agreement that would reduce or eliminate the threat of a Warsaw Pact invasion of Europe.
Some Western analysts have argued that Gorbachev, having already taken bold steps in the nuclear arms control area, may move toward stabilizing reductions in conventional forces. The apparent assumptions behind this view are that Gorbachev wants to reduce Soviet defense spending, that he is not really concerned about the threat of war, and, hence, that he does not take Soviet warfighting requirements seriously. It also has been argued that, since the Soviets no longer believe an East-West conflict in the Third World would inevitably escalate or spill over into Europe, they are beginning to accept the desirability of a defensive posture in Eastern Europe.
There is little hard evidence to support such judgments. Soviet attitudes toward stabilization of the conventional force balance in Europe cannot be simply extrapolated from recent Soviet theater nuclear arms control decisions. It is most unlikely that Moscow, even though it decided to forgo some of its nuclear options, is now prepared to relinquish its conventional warfighting options as well. And no matter how low the probability of war in Europe may be in Soviet eyes, it is difficult to believe that Moscow would now be ready to rely indefinitely on a deterrence-only posture, with no provisions made for the failure of deterrence. It is also difficult to see what inducements there are for Moscow to give up its offensive conventional warfighting options since NATO has no offensive options of its own that it can exchange in a trade.
Some Western commentators nevertheless believe that a more restrained Soviet foreign policy prompted by the "new thinking" in Moscow will sooner or later result in a scaling down of Soviet military power and aspirations. This judgment merits close scrutiny, because there is evidence of emerging changes in the Soviet military planning and force posture, especially in nuclear weapons policy.
In the early 1960s Soviet doctrine postulated prompt escalation of any direct East-West conflict into an all-out war in which nuclear weapons would be used massively and with decisive results. By the late 1960s the Soviets began to acknowledge the possibility of a conventional phase in a world war and claimed that escalation, while still likely, was not inevitable.
By the late 1970s, however, the Soviets began to discuss the possibility of keeping even a major East-West conflict entirely conventional, a development reflected in Soviet adoption of an unconditional nuclear no-first-use policy and the staging of several all-conventional military exercises. In a 1977 speech in Tula, Brezhnev publicly renounced the value of nuclear "superiority," and by the early 1980s the feasibility and the desirability of seeking victory in a nuclear war had lost official sanction.
Whether Soviet rejection of its traditional nuclear emphasis represents a genuine change has provoked a talmudic debate among Western defense experts. But it is enough to note here that even a sincere Soviet rejection of nuclear warfighting does little to alter the threat posed by Moscow’s conventional military superiority on the Eurasian landmass. Moreover, Soviet force procurement trends suggest a determination to retain the necessary flexibility to implement both nuclear and conventional options. Thus, Moscow continues to improve the accuracy of its ballistic missiles and to lower the yields of its nuclear warheads. It is already developing replacements for the SS-24 and SS-25 intercontinental ballistic missiles, even though deployment of the SS-24 and SS-25 is only now beginning, as well as replacements for the new SSN-20 and SSN-23 submarine-launched ballistic missiles. New nuclear submarines are also being built. By the mid-1990s the Soviet strategic inventory will consist almost entirely of these new weapons, of which some forty percent will be on mobile launchers. The Soviet bomber force is also undergoing rapid modernization with the deployment of new highly capable aircraft, endowing Moscow with flexible intercontinental and theater air attack capability. These activities, combined with a current Soviet development and production program for some elements of a countrywide ballistic missile defense system (the ABM-X-3), all clearly indicate Soviet willingness to invest the necessary resources in retaining some options, however imperfect, of prevailing in a nuclear conflict.
In conventional forces, the Soviet military is engaged in a major restructuring of ground and tactical air forces prompted in part by a relative de-emphasis of "divisional" level warfare. The Soviets evidently plan to give small-unit commanders greater autonomy and to develop smaller and better-trained forces. This shift may enable Moscow to cut back defense spending and is fully compatible with the concept of "reasonable sufficiency" proclaimed by the top Soviet political and military leaders. Moscow is also beginning to emphasize flexibility and opportunistic attack scenarios. Thus, newly constituted Soviet operational maneuver groups and other mobile formations are designed to flow through NATO forward defenses rapidly and disrupt the alliance’s "soft" rear area. Last but not least, the Soviets are planning to use special forces and other unconventional warfare units to destroy NATO nuclear weapons sites, command and control centers, and "smart weapons" early in the conflict. All of this amounts to further growth, not diminution, in the Soviet conventional threat to NATO.
In sum, there are no visible changes in Soviet military doctrine or force structure that offer any comfort to NATO or offset the adverse impact of the INF treaty.
What, then, of prospects for a negotiated reduction in the Soviet threat to NATO?
Once the INF treaty is ratified by the U.S. Senate, Gorbachev probably will launch a conventional arms control offensive to appeal to Western public opinion and capitalize on West Germany’s growing anxiety about its unique vulnerability in a post-INF NATO.
Some of the specifics of Moscow’s anticipated conventional arms control package are likely to reflect the substance of recent Soviet proposals. In April and June of 1986 the Soviets proposed deep reductions in military forces in Europe and replacing or supplanting the moribund Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions (MBFR) discussions with new talks on conventional arms that would cover the entire geographical area stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals. In 1987 NATO agreed to the proposed concept of new negotiations and began the so-called mandate talks to determine the parameters of these negotiations.
The specific Soviet proposals contained in the Budapest appeal of June 1986 were: reductions would apply to the ground and tactical air forces of European participants as well as to the corresponding forces of the United States and Canada stationed in Europe; initial reductions would consist of 100,000-500,000 men for each alliance; second-phase reductions would cut remaining alliance force deployments by another 25 percent. Third-phase reductions would deal not only with the members of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, but also with the European neutral states.
The net effect of these Soviet proposals, however, would preserve the present military balance in Europe, which favors the Warsaw Pact, albeit at lower force levels. Gorbachev might also play to the galleries of West European public opinion by some dramatic opening gambit: for example, withdrawing unilaterally a few Soviet divisions from Czechoslovakia and even East Germany, with further reductions conditional on an appropriate NATO response. Removal of, say, three or four divisions could be undertaken without significantly diminishing Soviet offensive capabilities against NATO.
The Soviets also have indicated that they are prepared, in deference to long-standing Western wishes, not just to reduce conventional forces across the board, but also to concentrate on certain "destabilizing" categories of forces; that is, reductions in aircraft and armored forces could be given particular priority. Specifically, the Soviets have tentatively proposed a scheme of reductions in European-based aircraft. Airpower, however, has been NATO’s conventional trump card, capable of neutralizing at least some of the Warsaw Pact’s superiority in ground forces. Thus, even equitable and verifiable reductions in tactical airpower would, on balance, be to NATO’s disadvantage. Finally, although Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze has recently expressed a willingness to postpone temporarily cuts in remaining nuclear forces, he also made clear that Moscow envisions an explicit link between conventional reduction and further denuclearization of Europe.
There are several fundamental reasons to doubt the chances of success in the Atlantic-to-the-Urals talks. The Warsaw Pact enjoys considerable conventional superiority in Europe, and Moscow is fully aware of the fact that NATO cannot expand its active-duty conventional forces—indeed, that those forces are likely to shrink. Robert Blackwill, the former U.S. representative to the MBFR talks, has observed that "to believe that Gorbachev will rescue the West from its conventional inferiority is to be on the lookout for Santa." Gorbachev does face considerable economic pressures, but the Soviets can unilaterally reduce their forces, cut defense spending and still retain a range of warfighting options against NATO. East European political considerations also could impose major constraints on Gorbachev’s ability to pull forces out of Europe. Thus, Soviet reductions in forward-deployed forces would have to be modest in size and gradual. In short, it is likely that the Soviets, for the foreseeable future, will merely seek to "repackage" their military superiority in Europe.
The anticipated Soviet European arms control offensive will fall upon a vulnerable and divided NATO. The alliance has yet to grapple with the INF treaty’s specific long-term implications for conventional deterrence and defense. There is general agreement within NATO that the INF treaty’s substantial denuclearization calls for a compensatory reinvigoration of conventional defenses. However, demographic, political, budgetary, and force deployment trends on both sides of the Atlantic portend a worsening of the non-nuclear military balance on the Continent. Thus, negotiations could become an alibi for not implementing conventional force improvements.
The arms control process contains additional potential pitfalls for the alliance. Attractive Soviet proposals are likely to strain the cohesion of the alliance and to heighten tensions between conservative NATO governments and opposition parties.
These issues aside, NATO appears to have trouble developing a broad conceptual vision of what kind of conventional arms control regime would be beneficial to its security. NATO has to maintain a certain force-to-space ratio along the inter-German border; it cannot afford major reductions in forward-deployed forces. Yet, as demonstrated in a recent RAND study, small reductions, even if tilted in NATO’s favor, would further worsen the conventional balance. Any reductions in U.S. forces would also entail problems. Rebasing U.S. ground forces from Europe to the United States is likely to be costly and will encourage Congress to reduce the authorized strength of the U.S. Army.
Some commentators have proposed establishing common ceilings on tanks and artillery in central Europe. Such figures as 10,000 tanks and 4,000 artillery tubes for each alliance have been discussed. This approach has the seeming advantage of sparing NATO from having to make more than nominal cuts in its force levels. Yet, it is unclear whether a mutual disengagement from central Europe would appreciably change the magnitude of the Soviet military threat. The reductions cannot change the Soviet Union’s proximity to central Europe, or deprive the Soviet military of the advantages that accrue to the attacker. Most significantly, Moscow would retain tremendous reserves in its western military districts, which could be used rapidly to reinforce remaining Soviet forces that are forward deployed in Europe. This threat could be eliminated only by stripping those western districts of most of their reserves. It is most unlikely that Moscow would agree to go that far.
All of this means that NATO will have to learn to live with a lower order of both deterrence and defense in Europe in the post-INF treaty era than that to which it has become accustomed. The alliance has painted itself into a corner, and the paint will not dry. Though willing to accept a substantial denuclearization of its European defenses, it is unwilling or unable to put its non-nuclear defenses in order. Nor can NATO expect the Soviet Union to offer a way out.
These admittedly pessimistic conclusions, however, should be placed in proper perspective. A lower quality of deterrence does not mean that chances of a future war in Europe are appreciably greater than they are today. NATO remains a remarkable alliance, and one which, despite periodic changes in both conventional and theater nuclear force balances, has managed to prevent the outbreak of war in Europe. There is no reason, barring major mistakes by Western decision-makers and force planners, to doubt that it will continue to do so.