Transatlantic Weapons Development: How Much? How Soon?

June 1, 1981
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had serious business—British arms sales—on her mind when she called at the Defense Department last February 27.

The impression at the time was that her forceful arguments on widening the “two-way street” of armaments cooperation drew a decidedly positive response from Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger. Nothing in the months since then has seemed to alter that general interpretation, though it must be said that transatlantic, cooperation in arms development and procurement has its own rather deliberate pace.

Mrs. Thatcher already had seen President Reagan, of course, and the word had gone out that there was an instant match of views on how to approach domestic and foreign problems. Now, appropriately welcomed at the Pentagon and comfortably seated in Mr. Weinberger’s large office on that February day, Mrs. Thatcher quickly got past the pleasantries that a new American defense secretary may have expected to occupy most of their first meeting. The opening exchange itself dealt, happily enough, with an arms agreement—the new one for US purchase of British Rapier missiles to defend USAF bases in England—and thus formed a proper lead-in to the Prime Minister’s main purpose.

As the leader of a country with a comprehensive defense industrial base and firm convictions about its competitiveness in price and performance, Mrs. Thatcher tabled an extensive list of military items that she thought the United States would do well to consider acquiring for its forces.

Britain, after all, had determined to modernize its nuclear deterrent with the American Trident missile, and it had the dollar costs of that submarine-based weapon to think about. The AV-8B Harrier V/STOL aircraft, to be sure, looked like becoming a major US-British cooperative program. The Rapier agreement, signed last February 13, with America buying the defense systems and Britain operating them, could become a precedent for host-nation manning of air defense at US facilities.

But Mrs. Thatcher wanted the British lane of the two-way street to be much more crowded, and she was driving home the point early for the new Administration in Washington. In greater or lesser degree, a succession of other Western officials made similar representations.

While the Reagan Administration is still formulating its policies for armaments cooperation, as it is for many other aspects of national security, the positive response of Mr. Weinberger to his visitors is taken as a good omen. Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig, Jr., is a natural ally of cooperative enterprises; as the Supreme Allied Commander Europe during much of the 1970s. General Haig was intimately associated with those undertakings that came to be known by the mouth-filling expression Rationalization, Standardization, and Interoperability (RSI). He regarded NATO’s Long-Term Defense Program and aim of increasing defense outlays by three percent annually in real terms as moving up to three percent annually in real terms as moving up to “the bottom edge of prudence.”

The early evidence indicates that the new Administration will continue the fairly broad range of cooperative programs that were in effect when it took office and will pragmatically support new efforts that have a good chance of succeeding.

The most emphatic statement in this regard was made by Mr. Weinberger in the course of his budget testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 4 of this year.

The United States, he said, had gone through a period of uncertainty about its role in the world “projecting an image of weakened will and irresolution, and sowing doubt among our allies.” The Administration was “determined to demonstrate once again to our allies the reliability and value of American friendship.” The allies would be expected to pick up a fair share of an increased defense effort, and the Administration would make a major push for a “more rational division of labor” in defense. Then, on the specific issue of armaments cooperation:

“There are two broad ways of achieving greater collective defense capabilities: one is for each ally to spend more; the other is to achieve greater multinational capability in what we do spend collectively. We will propose cooperative ventures in the development and production of new weaponry and high technology equipment as a means of modernizing allied as well as US forces. The greater the efficiency in coalition defense, the less added spending will be needed. My meetings with several NATO defense and foreign ministers [and here he surely should have included Prime Minister Thatcher] lead me to be quite encouraged as to the prospects for this approach.”

Other Possibilities

Arms cooperation alone is not enough, however, and there must be intense efforts to achieve more commonality in doctrine, tactics, training, and procedures. Mr. Weinberger cited as a useful model for greater cooperative efforts a recent twelve-nation agreement for joint undergraduate jet pilot training.

Much of this sort of advocacy and reasoning has been heard before over NATO’s long life, and especially since the mid-1970s when the urgency of greater standardization and more efficient use of money began to be self-evident. It is, therefore, an open question how much the deliberate pace of a large coalition of nations can be speeded up.

“Ultimately,” Mr. Weinberger told the Senate committee, “it is the task of political leadership to reinstate, reinvigorate, and redirect a unified response by the Western Alliance to its and our vulnerability.” Unified responses already were in progress—e.g., the RSI efforts, the Long-Term Defense Program, the unique $1.8 billion NATO AWACS program—and so there was some hyperbole in the Defense Secretary’s assertion. But all the strong leadership he promised on the Reagan Administration’s behalf will be needed, certainly, to accelerate and broaden armaments cooperation.

The factors that work against, as well as those that work for, such acceleration are all still present.

National economic and political influences operate to retard the development of an open market in arms and cooperative arrangements for research, development, and production of new military equipment. In times of economic distress, such as NATO nations now are enduring, there is pressure to do the work at home, whatever the greater efficiencies of shared enterprise maybe. Endorsement of RSI in principle does not encompass voluntary sacrifice of income in practice.

Military requirements are set nationally, and new NATO bureaucracies have a distance to go before they resolve such problems as differing national modernization schedules and procurement methods.

In the United States itself, it is not easy to tell when surprises may develop in Congress with new impact on long-range cooperative efforts.

It has been congressional policy for seven years (beginning with the 1974 Nunn amendment) to foster commonality and standardization in NATO military equipment, not just for economy’s sake but to enhance conventional defense and raise the nuclear threshold.

If the Secretary of Defense starts procurement action on a new major weapon system that is not interoperable with equipment of other NATO members, he must explain why in an annual report to Congress. It by no means follows, however, that Congress will automatically endorse development or procurement of a standardized system. Multiyear programs undertaken with one or more NATO countries are subject to the annual congressional budget review process, just as any other arms projects are. The results sometimes cause considerable heartburn for US and allied officials. Programs can be wiped out, cut back, or reduced to lower priority. The Roland air defense system, to be produced here under license from France and West Germany, has had its ups and downs in this regard.

“Our internal budgetary process suffers from disconnects between long-range arms cooperation and the annual review process,” an internal Pentagon memorandum laments.

A key current example of such difficulties is a program with the unprepossessing designation JP-233. This is a joint United States-British effort to develop a low-altitude airfield attack weapon, but deletion of funds from the Fiscal ’81 budget leaves America’s continued fifty percent participation very much in doubt. The situation was described in the latest annual defense posture report, submitted to Congress by former Defense Secretary Harold Brown just before he left office:

“When costs are measured against performance capabilities, no other available alternative has been found to be as cost-effective as JP-233. The program was in full-scale engineering development, with completion expected on schedule in mid-1984.

“This is a significant RSI cooperative program, not only because of its military potential but also because it is the only cooperative project in which an allied nation is performing all of the development work. The United Kingdom views US participation in this program as an important demonstration of US commitment to cooperative development programs with Alliance partners. Unfortunately, the Congress deleted the appropriation for JP-233 from the 1981 DoD budget; unless reversed, that decision will force us to terminate our participation in the program in spring 1981.”

In short, while countries increasingly recognize a need for arms cooperation and some strong roots have been put down, centrifugal forces—political, economic, military, and legislative—continuously burden efforts to make swifter progress.

Rationale for Cooperation

The factors arguing for, and indeed compelling, cooperation are well known and documented in the record since 1974 when Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), the then-Defense Secretary, James R. Schlesinger, and others of like mind began to press the case for greater collective conventional military capabilities.

US strategic nuclear superiority had given way to (at best) a condition of strategic parity with the Soviet Union. The Soviet threat in theater nuclear forces (SS-20 missile, Tu-26 Backfire bomber) and conventional forces was increasing. The alliance came alive to the need, at least, for balancing the theater nuclear threat and giving urgent attention to upgrading its general-purpose formations. In this context, the groundwork for expanding armaments cooperation was laid. This was imperative, given the rising costs and demands on national treasuries for weapons to mount a credible conventional deterrent.

The roles of nuclear and conventional forces were changing—the former still underlying the American committee to the alliance but not carrying the full weight they once did, the latter of increasing importance.

“Thus a strong conventional capability is more than ever necessary,” Mr. Schlesinger said in his 1974 defense posture report, “not because we wish to wage conventional war but because we do not wish to wage any war.”

Seven years later, Mr. Weinberger was telling Congress that the nation could not “temporize any longer . . . refusal to respond to a major challenge, by preparing for conflict, has invited conflict.” It was then that he gave his prescription for bolstering multinational capabilities.

The record over those years, whether one of temporizing or not, has surely been spotty and no great testament to NATO alacrity in meeting needs the alliance itself continually recognized in its formal statements.

After long study, the alliance adopted in 1978 its Long-Term Defense Program, emphasizing readiness, strengthened air, land, and sea conventional capabilities, arms collaboration, and modernized theater nuclear forces. It agreed on the three percent rule for annual real increases in spending—a sort of point of departure for greater increases as far as the Reagan Administration is concerned.

For all that, Gen. Bernard W. Rogers, the commander of NATO’s military forces, told Congress earlier this year that there had been a “continuous relative decline” in the alliance’s capabilities, with too many commitments turned into “overdue promissory notes.”

Arms collaboration lies near the center of NATO’s efforts to reverse the adverse trends and logically should be of increasing importance.

Mechanisms for Cooperation

Three basic vehicles are used by the United States and its allies to deepen and broaden the cooperative undertaking:

  • Memorandums of Understanding. These are bilateral and multilateral agreements, designed to clear away “buy national” obstacles and tariff penalties, and promote competition in arms procurement in a common market. The first was signed with Britain in 1975. The results from Britain’s (and probably other European countries’) standpoint are seen thus far as modest but encouraging. The British, as Mrs. Thatcher made plain to Mr. Weinberger, now are pressing such programs as “Search water” radar for over-the-horizon targeting for naval aircraft, the Hawk naval training aircraft (in heavy competition with American proposals), and a light man-portable antiarmor weapon represented as able to knock out a Soviet T-72 tank at 300 meters.
  • Dual Production. This is described by the Defense Department as a main means of avoiding proliferation of “noninteroperable identical systems” and of saving development money. In many cases, weapons will be produced in both the United States and Europe, but with success in standardization two lines likely would be needed anyway for timely equipping of forces. The department says “many new systems are or will soon be produced under license in Europe and the US.”

At present the United States is producing the Italian OTO MELARA Mk. 75 gun mount for Navy frigates, a Belgian machine gun for armored vehicles, the French-German Roland surface-to-air missile system, and the German 120-mm smoothbore tank gun, and may produce a Belgian squad automatic weapon for the Army.

Dual production on the part of Europeans includes the F-16 fighter (by far the largest such coproduction program), the AIM-9L Sidewinder air-to-air missile, the Stinger man-portable air defense weapon, forward-looking infrared common modules, improved conventional artillery munitions, and armored personnel carriers.

  • Families of Weapons. This is the latest innovation in arms cooperation and is intended to facilitate standardization by identifying requirements early and dividing the research and development tasks between the United States and Europe. The Defense Department says the potential for savings is “enormous.”

The first such weapons family is to be a new generation of air-to-air missiles, developed under a Memorandum of Understanding signed last August by the United States, Britain, Germany, and France. The US is to develop an Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile, and the European signers are to develop an Advanced Short Range Air-to-Air Missile. These missiles would replace the many types now in use in Europe. Once developed, they probably will be produced on both sides of the Atlantic, the Defense Department believes. It expects the savings for the US and Europe to total $500 million that can be used in other research and development areas. A family of antitank missiles is likely to be the next project.

The outstanding example of alliance cooperation in defense systems (along with the F-16 coproduction program) probably is the NATO AWACS enterprise. This is the largest single commonly-funded project NATO has undertaken, as the Defense Department notes, and involves the operation of eighteen E-3A aircraft by multinational crews under a NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Command, headquartered at SHAPE in Belgium. The procurement program is scheduled for completion in 1985.

While the Reagan Administration has not yet added specific initiatives to the dozens now on the table, it has indicted its commitment to arms collaboration by steeply increasing requested appropriations for cooperative projects in Fiscal ’81 and ’82.

These increases were proposed to Congress:

AV-8B Harrier—$656 million. F-16—$416 million. Reengining KC-135 tankers under a joint US-French program—$187 million. Roland—$524 million. Rapier—$47 million. Division air defense gun (DIVAD)—$282 million.

At a time of American defense expansion, the Pentagon’s research and engineering office is engaged in an evaluation of many European weapons and technologies with an eye, the department says, “toward whether they could satisfy existing operational needs in the US, meet a current US inventory deficiency, or contribute to the US technology base.”

The possibility of second-source procurement in Europe, especially for US forces based there, is under investigation.

Studies of the effects of standardization and interoperability on combat readiness and effectiveness—which is what the whole exercise is all about—are said to have produced wholly favorable results.

It might be easy, on the basis of some assessments, to become overenthusiastic about the progress of cooperation in the alliance and overlook and mountainous problems ahead.

There is a sobering caveat in the Pentagon’s latest Rationalization-Standardization report to Congress. Despite vigorous effects over seven years, it says, “allied forces have only a limited ability to rearm, repair, reinforce, support, supply, or even communicate with one another.”

That report’s general conclusion is probably the right one:

“If one looks back to 1974 when all this began, it is clear that great progress has been made. If one looks ahead to the day when NATO’s conventional forces are collectively, credibly and defensively equivalent to those of the Warsaw Pact, then much more needs to be done.”

Charles W. Corddry is the Pentagon correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, and dean of the Pentagon press corps. His articles for AIR FORCE Magazine have included visits to Thule, Greenland, and to the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line. He has the longest tenure among Washington correspondents on the Public Broadcasting Service program “Washington Week in Review.” He wrote this article after a wide-ranging swing through European capitals and interviews with US government officials upon is return.