About to turn forty, the Atlantic Alliance is laboring to preserve what its creation so vividly dramatized: unity against Soviet power.
A review of the forces that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is now facing points to a troubling conclusion.
The conclusion is that America and its West European partners confront an unprecedented challenge to the integrity of the military alliance.
On one crucial issue after another, the US is plunging into contentious debate with its allies—on building up conventional forces, bolstering nuclear deterrence, and reshaping NATO’s power structure.
While disagreement has ever been NATO’s fate, the discord today is viewed as different from any since its founding in 1949.
It reflects fundamental shifts in the strategic bedrock. The perception—not the reality—of the severity of the Soviet threat is waning at the same time that Europe’s political weight relative to that of the US has soared.
Thus Europe is less convinced of a need to come to terms with its security guarantor and demands a larger voice in NATO policymaking.
What’s more, the discord involves an issue that goes to the core of NATO—countering Soviet power. Western nations increasingly disagree about how, where, and even with what weapons this must be done.
Many officers express worry about what these underlying currents might produce. In the words of Gen. William Kirk, head of US Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) and wartime air commander in NATO’s Central Region, “I think that we are at a crossroads. I think we are in very critical times in NATO. And I think we need to be very careful with the next few steps that we take to shape the direction we go.”
If NATO takes a wrong turn, he adds, “then we’ll see the Alliance start to break up”—not right away, but eventually.
Neither General Kirk nor many others write off NATO. Far from it. The consensus holds that the allies have strong incentives to try to stick together in light of Europe’s reliance on Washington for its ultimate security and in light of the vast US economic stake in the continent.
Whatever the long-term outcome, Allied Command Europe is sure to remain unsettled until NATO forges a new political consensus.
What is forcing Alliance troubles out into the open is a combination of glaring conventional force weakness relative to the Warsaw Pact and an onrushing obsolescence of its nuclear deterrent, plus fear of a breakdown in Affiance management.
In the cold light of the US-Soviet Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement, which will strip Western Europe of America’s prime theater nuclear forces by 1991, military men discern an urgent need for a compensating buildup of conventional power (see “Why NATO Needs a Conventional Defense,” by John T. Correll, August ’87 issue, p. 38).
Differences on Defense Policy
The need to plug the conventional gaps, far from unifying the Alliance, has revealed sharp differences on defense policy.
The allies exhibit a marked reluctance to support the Reagan Administration’s proposition to embark on significant, immediate strengthening of NATO’s force of fighters, missiles, tanks, and other nonnuclear arms. Most West European allies agree in principle with the plan, but they manifest scant inclination or ability to execute it.
Three major factors are cited by experts to explain the lack of a major European response so far to the US effort.
One is the startling success of a Soviet peace offensive aimed at recasting Russia’s image from menace to benign neighbor.
NATO officials report that, without reversing or even slowing force deployments against NATO Europe, the Kremlin under Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev has succeeded in convincing large segments of public opinion that the danger of Soviet power is remote.
In fact, maintains General Kirk, the most remarkable feature of the political landscape in Western Europe today is the “growing perception by the average citizen on the street” of a declining Soviet threat.
“Gorbachev has made many, many inroads in the public affairs business this last year;” he reports, “and he has endeared himself [to the West] considerably. You see that bubbling up here in Europe.”
While the authenticity of the new Soviet image is open to dispute, the reality of its anesthetizing effect is not.
“In the face of a sophisticated Soviet peace offensive,” warns Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci, it is now that much harder for NATO’s governments “to overcome the natural reluctance of its constituent democracies to devote increased resources to defense.”
The second factor causing European unease about conventional force proposals centers on pivotal domestic economic and political factors.
Alliance officials report that European nations are loath to embrace the financial and social burdens of fielding conventional forces on a larger scale.
They note that entrenched demands of European welfare programs, coupled with slack economic growth and high joblessness, make diversion of more economic resources to defense politically difficult.
In addition, NATO experts say that demographic patterns on the continent foreshadow a steep decline in numbers of draft-age males—in West Germany, especially. The imputed “social costs” of expanding or extending the draft to alleviate this are seen as considerable.
As a consequence, experts conclude that the commitment of economic or human resources to a significant buildup is probably not in the cards.
Finally, the possible strategic implication of conventional force expansion is a third factor and one that is giving European governments great pause.
All too apparent in Europe is the widespread concern that embracing strong conventional military forces may suggest unwillingness to use nuclear weapons—thus calling into doubt the heart of Alliance deterrent strategy and increasing the risk of Soviet aggression.
Aggravating the problem is Pentagon emphasis on weapons of obvious “warfighting” rather than “deterrent” value.
Not Up to the Task
Against this backdrop, Western Europe in word and deed conveys the impression that it may not be up to the task of putting its part of the NATO conventional house in order.
Experts note that the allies are making slow progress toward meeting goals for individual nations set forth in the 1985 NATO Conventional Defense Improvements Program, which proposes solutions to critical NATO gaps in air defense, mobilization, reinforcement, and other areas.
The problem is evident in plans for countering future Soviet air operations, viewed by NATO as one of its highest priorities.
Expansion of West European air defense is not likely. One recent NATO counterair force-structure study, for example, notes that the Alliance—for a “reasonable” three percent annual increase for five years in national air force budgets—could realize an increase of twenty-five percent in air-to-ground and multirole fighter capability, seventy percent in air-to-air capability, and seventy-three percent in electronic warfare capability.
What is the likelihood that the European nations will pursue a program such as this? The answer, says a seasoned Alliance observer, is “no chance” at all. “The one thing we’re sure about is that there won’t be any money for anything other than a bare minimum of modernization.”
In virtually every major defense area, the story is much the same, from armor forces to artillery to naval units.
Even some approved plans are being scaled back. Economically strapped Belgium, for example, is at pains to abandon its plan to buy and deploy advanced Patriot surface-to-air missile units and will even dismantle existing Nike Hercules units by 1990—two years early—to save money.
Result: Critical gaps in air defense of English Channel ports.
Similar forces are threatening to undermine NATO’s high-profile plan to develop the NATO Identification System, a technical scheme that aims for a common identification, friend-or-foe capability on its warplanes.
The system would be critical to helping Western pilots sort things out in the confused early days of war when as many as 8,000 combat aircraft would be in action. The danger of “fratricide” among allies is high.
All is not bleak. NATO officers point to an Alliance-wide move to upgrade its eighteen E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) planes. Britain and France also are buying AWACS from the US. There are other gains.
But in most areas—for example, production of the airborne weapons and missiles to underpin NATO’s innovative Follow-On Forces Attack concept—only the most modest progress can be discerned.
To put the matter in proper context, however, NATO officers—Americans included—hasten to make this point: The United States itself is not immune to forces working against a conventional buildup. They note that, after suffering a $33 billion reduction in its proposed 1989 budget, and with more austerity ahead, the Pentagon will be hard-pressed to hold on to its own programs.
At risk for the Air Force may be the proposed scale and pace of production of the F-15E fighter, AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles, and E-8 Joint STARS targeting aircraft, to name but a few items critical for European defense.
Tinkering at the Margins
Nor are there plans to increase the 93,600 USAF personnel now in the European theater or to do much more than tinker at the margins of the Air Force’s 700 in-place aircraft and thirty-seven tactical squadrons.
That, however, may only serve to aggravate US perceptions of European foot-dragging. The assessment of strategic-affairs analysts is that differences over how to proceed on the conventional front has the makings of a serious dispute.
A senior allied military officer in Europe concludes: “Post-INF, [there is a need for] a transition to [a situation] where conventional weapons become dominant. Are we really willing to step up to that bigger conventional weapon capability? I don’t know. Not doing so could lead, in my view, to a fracturing of the Alliance.”
Just as conventional force weakness has exposed major strains between the United States and Western Europe, decline in NATO’s theater nuclear deterrent poses a similar long-term challenge to unity.
Washington and its allies are increasingly at odds over this fundamental problem for Alliance defense. At issue is how to update and modify the stockpile of nuclear arms in Europe to enable it to continue serving as the backbone of deterrence.
Today, Western Europe is home to 4,600 nuclear weapons—missile warheads, bombs, artillery shells, and special types.
Some 400 of NATO’s premier arms—all US Pershing II ballistic and BGM-109 Ground-Launched Cruise Missiles—are headed for the scrap heap under INF Treaty provisions. The nuclear remnant, moreover, is showing its age.
In the face of this, however, NATO’s Western European members display sharp doubts about Washington’s promotion of a two-pronged plan aimed at revitalizing the armory. There is no official opposition to either of the tracks—on the one hand, modernization of older systems and, on the other, redeployment of some. In practice, however, there is great agonizing about how quickly to follow through on either thrust.
The sources of the European divergence from the Washington line on this matter are many and varied, but a handful are viewed as basic.
NATO experts point first to the persistence of a social phenomenon termed “nuclear neuralgia”—fear of and contempt for all things nuclear. While America itself is not immune, the strongest and most virulent form of antinuclear sentiment exists in Europe.
European politicians thus are acting with great caution for fear of revitalizing the continent’s fearsome antinuclear protests.
European critics raise a strategic question—the utility of nuclear “warfighting” capability in NATO strategy. The relatively short range of the weapons, they assert, makes US plans smack more of a preparation for nuclear combat than of deterrence, with Europe as battleground.
Finally, there is the arms-control factor. West Europeans, analysts report, see greater benefit in the arms-control process than does Washington. They are loath to risk future talks by appearing to circumvent INF Treaty provisions.
Taken together, these factors are setting the stage for a multiplicity of irritations, large and small, about the pace and scope of nuclear cooperation.
Evidence of Friction
The most worrisome evidence of friction is to be found in Washington’s nuclear relationship with Germany—more so given Bonn’s preeminent position in US strategic calculations.
The conservative West German coalition, under Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl, is taking what is widely viewed as a standoffish position on US calls for nuclear modernization, despite Washington’s vigorous drive to implement the so-called “Montebello decisions.”
At Montebello, Canada, in 1983, defense ministers concluded that NATO could take the popular step of eliminating 1,400 nuclear weapons if—and only if—it kept the remainder modern. The 1,400 nuclear weapons are long gone, but the other side of the agreement is increasingly up for grabs.
The issue of Lance missile modernization lies at the heart of the West German standoff with Washington.
Bonn has been wavering. It argues that the basis of its agreement to allow introduction of a replacement for Lance—a shorter-range missile found mostly in Germany—has changed in light of the 1987 INF Treaty.
It notes that, well before the treaty was hammered out, it put Washington on notice not to go beyond the “first zero”—the elimination of longer-range theater missiles—and include a “second zero” aimed at taking out missiles of a medium, 500- to 1,000-kilometer range.
Bonn’s point was that eliminating all but the shortest-range missiles, usable only on German soil, would be politically intolerable and spark German political calls for a “third zero,” abolition of Lance as well.
Now, in the wake of US acceptance of the second “zero” as well as the first, German warnings are starting to look uncomfortably acute.
All signs are that Chancellor Kohl is under domestic political pressure to back down on the Lance upgrade. At the high-level “Wehrkunde”
(“Defense Information”) Conference of NATO experts last March and in the interim, the German leader advanced the idea that Lance modernization should be linked to new talks on reducing their numbers.
NATO officials insist that German fear of “singularization” is farfetched, given the presence in Germany of troops from seven allies and the existence of atomic weapons elsewhere on the continent.
But they recognize that West Germany’s proximity to Soviet power infuses it with a special anxiety deserving of great patience.
The case is succinctly put by Gen. Eberhard Eimler, a senior German Air Force officer and a Deputy Supreme Allied Commander of NATO forces: “We should be fair enough to try to understand the man down at the corner in Frankfurt, and how he feels when he says, ‘The threat is only 150 kilometers away, and it will all be on my head.”
However justifiable, West Germany’s stance is troublesome—not only for the US, but for other NATO nations. Great Britain and France, in particular, back Washington’s position that NATO at present has no need of more nuclear “zeros” and that talks on short-range nuclear missiles should be shelved until progress is made in talks aimed at reducing Warsaw Pact conventional forces.
Coming to a Head
The issue appears to be coming rapidly to a head. The Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Gen. John Galvin, USA, has nearly completed a Nuclear Weapons Requirement Study critical to the outcome.
In the study, which is dubbed “NWRS-88,” General Galvin will set forth his military judgment on the number of weapons he requires for the next ten years, plus specific recommendations on modernization.
Reaffirmation of a need for a Lance replacement is a certainty. General Galvin adds, however, that this study will take the position that this improved weapon, if deployed, would make possible a “significant” new reduction in nuclear forces on German soil.
This, say Affiance experts, would strengthen Kohl’s hand for neutralizing Germany’s potent anti-nuclear and arms-control lobbies.
“Right now they say it is not the time to make the decision, today,” notes General Eimler. “But soon it will be; not in 1988, but next year, the decision has to come up.”
He adds: “I have no doubt that Bonn will stay with the Alliance on this.” Others, such as General Kirk, certainly hope there is no third zero in store. “I can’t imagine that we would get to that,” says he. “If we go to a third zero, then we are vastly outgunned, outmanned, outranged, out-equipped, and out-everything else.”
The political danger is even worse. The possibility—admittedly very remote—is that the US would be increasingly reluctant to maintain troops in Europe without protection of tactical nuclear missiles.
The German response on the Lance issue, while important in its own right, is also raising anxieties about its ripple effect. Outside West Germany, there is only slightly more enthusiasm for what Washington considers essential nuclear improvements. German equivocation may be stimulating antinuclear sentiment throughout Europe.
The allies also exhibit great caution in restructuring nuclear forces in light of the looming loss of American theater weapons under INF by redeploying additional US forces forward.
Currently, F-ill aircraft are deployed at two bases in Britain. Additional aircraft of this type are based in the US. These could be redeployed to Europe. Other proposals entail the reallocation of sea-based ballistic and cruise missiles or B-52 bombers.
The European allies appear to be in no rush, if the outcome of their April meeting of defense ministers in Brussels is any indication. While taking note of the various nuclear proposals, officials say, the body arrived at no specific policy decisions. It indicated that NATO should take a deliberate, step-by-step approach.
“There’s no signed blank check from NATO saying there will be deployment of this, that, or the other once the systems are developed,” comments one Alliance observer. “It is all very nebulous.”
Bonn is under Soviet—and East German—pressure to forsake the Lance. In addition, Moscow is vigorously promoting the claim—with some success—that any steps whatever to strengthen NATO nuclear forces amounts to circumvention of the INF Treaty provisions.
Thus, say NATO officials, the challenge for the Alliance comes down to this: How to counter European political forces that threaten to place NATO on a “slippery slope” toward eventual denuclearization of the continent
The Stakes Are Immense
The immense stakes for the Alliance, as it struggles to keep this problem within bounds and devise an adequate solution, are summed up bluntly by former Assistant Defense Secretary Richard Perle:
“Denuclearization would leave the Western Alliance without any plausible defense. I don’t know how we could in good conscience leave 325,000 American troops in Europe hopelessly unprotected.”
The forty-year-old political structure that is grappling with these controversies is itself increasingly controversial—and a source of transatlantic tension in its own right.
Washington’s current dominance of Alliance policymaking, born of its preeminent contribution to Western defense in the postwar era, has existed ever since NATO’s formation, even as the fourteen-member European side of NATO has grown in stature.
Now, say NATO observers, there exists a strong sense, on both sides of the Atlantic, that the old system has grown not only outdated but perilous. Even so, the need to reshape NATO has become a source of tension in the Alliance.
Western Europe is resisting the US notion that it should pay for greater policymaking influence by first shouldering a bigger share of the defense burden. The allies, while agreeing that more effort is desirable, are bent on asserting themselves in advance.
Fueling Western Europe’s sense of strong assertiveness on Alliance affairs, Western experts report, are a number of fundamental elements.
One is a far-reaching shift in the superpower strategic balance. The dramatic buildup of Soviet military power has left the US at parity in strategic arms and in an inferior position in most categories of conventional forces—particularly in the European theater.
As a consequence, the Europeans display less confidence in the credibility of the US military umbrella and more willingness to try to impose their own security views to protect European interests.
A second factor is a shift of the political center of gravity within the Alliance itself.
In military terms, Western Europe is no longer a dwarf to the American giant. In fact, notes a recent Pentagon study, Western Europe maintains 3,500,000 personnel on active duty, compared to 2,100,000 for the US. In a war, the allies would provide sixty percent of NATO ground combat power and fifty percent of NATO’s air combat power. Britain and France also maintain sizable nuclear forces.
In economic terms, Western Europe’s combined $3 trillion output matches that of the Soviet Union and rivals the prowess of the United States itself. The spectacular long-term growth of Europe’s economic strength not only increases its sense of prestige but feeds a desire to capture a larger share of the defense market.
NATO officers say this reality became most glaringly apparent in Europe’s rejection of Pentagon calls for NATO to purchase a version of the US F/A-18 (the so-called Hornet 2000) warplane. Instead, West Germany, Britain, Italy, and Spain held firm on plans to build their four-nation Eurofighter.
Whatever the validity of the European view, Americans—especially members of Congress—appear increasingly annoyed by what they take to be blatant “free riding” on the part of the allies and the perceived unwillingness of the allies to do much about it.
US displeasure was signaled unmistakably in recent remarks from Deputy Defense Secretary William H. Taft IV. He pointed out to a European audience that “increased influence means assuming an increased share of the risks and responsibilities within the Alliance.”
Washington has long promoted more equitable burden-sharing in the Alliance. The idea has been that West Europeans should contribute more to their own defense while leaving Alliance leadership to the US.
Progress, however, is not satisfactory by American standards.
The most recent American calculation of the relative defense burden shows that, while the US continues to invest nearly six percent of its Gross National Product in defense, the comparable figure for Western Europe is far lower—about 3.7 percent.
Adding to the American sense of grievance is the fact that some allies—such as Spain and Greece—are less willing to tolerate sizable US forces on their soil, while others, such as Portugal, demand higher amounts of assistance in return for their cooperation.
There is no obvious solution to the conflict. Against the backdrop of US unhappiness, Western European nations give faint signals that they are ready to pursue an alternative to the status quo.
They are demonstrating a revival of interest in cooperation on defense and even integration of certain European defense functions.
The movement to form a “European Pillar” of NATO, comparable to the “American Pillar,” is not a new idea in the West. But the current effort may actually bring some concrete results.
The reason is that France, long the maverick of the Alliance, is finally showing a readiness to cooperate with other Western European nations.
France’s steps toward bilateral cooperation with Europe’s two key powers—Germany and Britain—have raised eyebrows.
• West Germany. Plans for an integrated French-German infantry brigade numbering 4,200 men are moving forward. It is to be operational next year and deployed in West Germany. Command of the unit will alternate between French and German generals. The brigade falls outside the NATO military structure.
Though small, the brigade carries heavy symbolic meaning for Europe. For one thing, say analysts, it will reestablish a French role in the forward defense of NATO.
Kohl speaks of the brigade as the basis for a future European Army—a statement that must be taken skeptically on the basis of the record. But it does seem likely to anchor West Germany more firmly in the Western camp.
• Britain. Over the past year, France has been holding extensive discussions with Britain on expanding bilateral defense ties. Since these nations are Western Europe’s only independent nuclear powers, cooperative ventures focus primarily on nuclear-arms issues. But the talks have covered the entire security relationship.
Paris already has proposed a plan to work jointly on a new air-launched nuclear missile. And an Anglo-French effort is under way to coordinate overhaul schedules for French and British ballistic missile submarine fleets.
In the conventional field—and despite its position outside the NATO military command—France has agreed to allow the use of its ports and roads for reinforcement of British troops in Germany in wartime.
In the cases of both Germany and Britain, analysts are quick to make this point: What is important is not the size of the French moves, which is modest, but the fact that France is moving at all.
There are, however, limits to France’s willingness to cooperate with its rivals. Paris’s eagerness to promote the “European Pillar” does not mean it will return to the NATO command structure.
The problems of building a European Pillar are sizable. Even tougher—and more dangerous—problems would come in trying to devise a true power-sharing arrangement with the US.
The major problem in the view of Alliance observers is that Washington, finding a stronger, more integrated, and more independent Western Europe, might also find the incentive or rationale for reducing, or even eliminating, its military presence in Europe.
The situation as yet is far from a crisis. But the fissures within NATO confront the Atlantic partners with a formidable foreign policy challenge: How to reverse a drift toward disunity in military affairs that could turn into a destructive midlife crisis.