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Military Pacts: Nato Goes on a Diet

5 minute read
George J. Church

What does St. George do if the dragon runs away? Something like that question confronts the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Since its founding 42 years ago, NATO has built a mighty military machine to deter a massive Soviet-led invasion of Western Europe. But the dragon that breathed genuine fire for so many years is slinking back into its cave. As many as a million troops that were once available — at least on paper — to mount a communist blitzkrieg are melting away. The dissolution of the Warsaw Pact two months ago removed some 500,000 soldiers of Moscow’s former allies in Eastern Europe from even theoretical Kremlin control. Another 500,000 Soviet troops are being pulled back within the borders of the U.S.S.R.

In another reminder of how the great confrontation has mellowed, Washington and Moscow announced last weekend that they had finally settled their differences over an agreement to slash conventional forces in Europe. That resolution cleared the way for progress toward a treaty limiting nuclear arms and thereby made a long-discussed Bush-Gorbachev summit in June more likely.

Yet the principle of an integrated multinational military force, and especially of one that binds the U.S. inextricably to the defense of close allies, is far too valuable to be allowed to erode. Moreover, if the heart of Europe seems secure for the moment, there are still potential threats out on the flanks — from a Yugoslav civil war next door to NATO member Italy, for example.

So NATO defense ministers, meeting last week in Brussels, approved a drastic overhaul of the alliance’s military structure. They will deploy only about half as many troops as the 1.5 million now stationed in Central Europe; the U.S. specifically will be able to bring home at least half, and possibly as many as two-thirds, of the 320,000 people it keeps on guard on the Continent. Essentially, NATO is giving up its old “forward defense” strategy of massing forces in Germany and is reorganizing its central region into three main groups:

— A Rapid Reaction Corps capable of moving anyplace within NATO’s borders within seven days. (It would not include an already existing mobile unit of 5,000 troops that can hustle to a trouble spot within 72 hours.) The corps would comprise up to 70,000 soldiers in four divisions, two British, two mixed European. The U.S. might contribute some additional troops; in any case, it would supply most of the planes, helicopters and airlift capacity. The Rapid Reaction Corps will be commanded by a British general and have headquarters in the U.K.

— A Main Defense Force of seven heavily armored corps totaling 400,000 to 500,000 troops. Six of the corps would be multinational and would be based in % Western and Central Europe. The seventh corps would be stationed in what used to be East Germany and be composed exclusively of German soldiers.

— An auxiliary force of unspecified size that could reinforce the main force during a prolonged crisis. It might be exclusively American, made up of troops stationed outside Europe, or it might include some Canadian and Spanish units and some European reservists. The idea is that even if the Soviet Union should turn aggressive again, preparations for an assault — which might have to begin with a reconquest of Eastern Europe — would take months. NATO should have ample time to call up reserves and bring in forces from the U.S.

Although an American general will continue to be NATO’s supreme commander, the overall effect of the redesign will be to diminish U.S. domination of the alliance. While American forces assigned to NATO will be reduced 50% or more, according to British estimates the overall cut in NATO’s total force of 2.8 million would be only about 22%. Thus a larger percentage of the remaining forces would be European. That should please congressional critics who have long complained that the allies ought to shoulder more of the burden of defending themselves.

There is, however, one huge hole in NATO’s new plans: what if the next menace arises outside NATO’s borders — in the form, say, of a new Middle East war that would threaten the member nations’ oil supplies but not their territory? The structure of the Rapid Reaction Corps implies that it could be sent to trouble spots anywhere. But under the NATO treaty the corps could not be deployed “out of area.” Had it existed during the gulf war, it could have been rushed to member Turkey’s border with Iraq, but no farther.

France, which is a NATO member but pulled out of the alliance’s military structure in 1966, made moves to fill this gap in such a manner as to revive old suspicions that it was out to diminish the U.S. role in Europe. Paris would have preferred a strictly European rapid-reaction force that would not be part of NATO and could be sent anywhere in the world. Washington opposed the idea as a potential first stage in the creation of a European force in which it would have no role. French officials immediately began soft-pedaling their idea.

The issue, however, is not going to go away until NATO leaders decide on some legal mechanism that would permit out-of-area deployment of its forces. That might happen at a NATO summit next fall in Rome. The alliance will not & complete its adjustment to a new era until it prepares to engage not only the Soviet dragon but also the pit bulls snarling around NATO’s flanks.




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