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NATO's southen 'sideshow' due for center ring?

A time of dramatic change may have moved NATO's southern "sideshow" into the center ring of European security. At a minimum, the nations of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) should be carefully examining this possibility to ensure that their strategic thinking is keeping pace with the changes rapidly taking place.

Allied Forces Southern Europe is the largest command in NATO, extending from the eastern border of Turkey to the Straits of Gibraltar. Its three countries -- Italy, Greece, and Turkey -- embrace 42 percent of the land area and over 32 percent of the population of NATO Europe. Yet the southern region historically has been considered a secondary or "very peripheral" area. While this attitude represents the thinking of many people on both sides of the Atlantic, in today's world there are profound reasons to question it.

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It is trude that in the late 1940s the Kremlin's formidable armies and its political designs on Western Europe were the principal inspirations for creating the North Atlantic Alliance. Thus, the bulk of NATO's military effort has been directed toward securing the West German frontier and deterring the Warsaw Pact forces massed in Central Europe.

Greece and Turkey were an important political addition to NATO but considered peripheral to the main military theater. They were expected to add to NATO's total troop count, complicate Soviet calculations, and above all relieve pressure on the central front. Their military deficiencies would be compensated for by NATO's maritime strength. The alliance had undisputed control of the Mediterranean; there was no credible opposition at sea. Hence communications and reinforcement lines to Italy, Turkey, and Greece were secure.

Moreover, the US Navy's considerable air power could be brought to bear on the land battle with little fear of diversion or retaliation. In essence, predominant sea power was to anchor the southern flank and permit NATO to concentrate elsewhere.

In the intervening years, however, this rather tidy concept has slowly come unraveled. The West's emerging reliance on Middle East oil has directed attention to the Mediterranean. The Persian Gufl furnishes over 60 percent of Western Europe's petroleum. North Africa provides some 20 percent. About 30 percent of the Continent's oil moves through the Mediterranean -- 6.5 million barrels per day. By mid-1981 all tankers except the very largest will be able to transit the Suez, and these figures will rise accordingly.

Despite the reluctance of some to acknowledge the fact, Middle East oil may well be the Achilles' heel of NATO. Like it or not, NATO now has "vital" interests at stake in the Middle East which, in turn, have reaffirmed and Mediterranean's strategic prominence.

From a military perspective, these developments have dramatically increased the importance of Turkey. It sits on the flank of any Soviet thrust into Iran or the Persian Gulf and is the only alliance nation which is Muslim and geographically located in the Middle East. For instance, it is the only NATO member which borders the two currently warring countries -- Iran and Iraq. In fact, no Western or Soviet planner can address the Middle East challenge without considering Turkey's orientation, terrain, airspace, forces, and bases.

Complicating the equation is the unsettled character of the Mediterranean littoral. The Lebanese tragedy, the Syrian-Libyan union, the Arab-Israeli problem, the Egyptian-Libyan dispute, all involve Western interests in varying degrees and serve as possible sources of conflict which could easily threaten NATO's interests in the middle East and/or escalate into the NATO arena. It is impossible to contemplate a NATO-Soviet confrontation in the Mediterranean without taking into account Moscow's relationship to these trouble spots.

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Meanwhile, the Warsaw Pact ground and air forces have been steadily increased and modernized. For a variety of reasons the southern region has not been able to match this investment, and the gap between the threat and land defenses has gradually widened.

More alarming, the Soviets in the short space of two decades have created a sophisticated and powerful "blue water" fleet. Alliance control of the Mediterranean is no longer undisputed. Combined with land-based airpower operating out of the Crimea, the Soviet Navy poses a grave threat to NATO's communication lines. Because the Soviet ships come primarily from the Black Sea , control of the Bosphorus, Dardanelles, and Aegean has taken on a heightened significance.

Moreover, the seaborne aircraft that were initially dedicated to the land battle must now also deal with the maritime threat. Unfortunately, these developments have been accompanied by a steady decrease in the size of the US Navy and recently the redeployment of one of the Sixth Fleet's two carriers to the Indian Ocean. Today the sea power margin which originally underwrote the southern flank's security has been eroded alarmingly.

To repeat, the complexion of the southern flank not only has changed dramatically but may have moved the region out of the sideshow tent and into the center ring. If the center of gravity is indeed shifting southward, the many political, economic, and military problems of the region deserve greater attention and a vigorous collective effort to solve them.

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