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Missiles in Europe: a former security adviser's view

From an address by a New York University professor of history and former US national security adviser at the university's recent sesquicentennial conference.

The missile systems designed for the new NATO (theater nuclear) force are now being built in the United States, but the plan has been the target of rising criticism in Europe. Moreover, still larger difficulties lie just ahead. At the end of (this) month American and Soviet negotiators will sit down in Geneva to negotiate on the question of the limitation or reduction of those systems and perhaps others that can reach Western Europe or the Soviet Union.

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Because there is indeed a substantial Soviet advantage in the special field of theater-range missiles, and because there is growing division among Europeans over the urgency and desirability of the new American weapons of this class, it will be very easy indeed for Moscow to make proposals that will be unacceptable to the American government and those who agree with it in Europe, but highly appealing to others. Secretary Brezhnev has already offered a freeze on both sides; he could go further and propose some unilateral Soviet reduction in return for cancellation of the NATO plan. So great are his current numerical advantages within this particular field that he can easily design an offer bound to look generous to many in Europe and still retain such advantages that on its present premises Washington would feel bound to reject his proposal. It is not often that the alliance has offered so obvious an invitation for Soviet troublemaking. Only the considerable likelihood of Soviet rigidity and clumsiness currently stands between NATO and a substantial self-inflicted wound.

The very best we can look for, as matters stand, is a negotiation which will only slowly erode the NATO decision.

But if we are to do better, we must understand things better. We must go back and see what it is that the proposed new American missiles are supposed to do, how the original intent of the proposal has been lost sight of, and why it is that when carefully considered the proposal is neither necessary nor desirable for the safety of the alliance, unless the nations of Western Europe themselves clearly support it.

The basic premise for the proposed new force was that without it, primarily because of the new effectiveness of the SS-20, the Soviet Union would have a new capability for nuclear attack on Europe against which the West required a new and balancing counter. Without such a new counter, it was argued, and in particular without new American weapons clearly dedicated to this task and deployed on European soil, the Soviet Union would be able to threaten Europe, at a moment of intense crisis or of calculated Soviet aggression, in a way that would be politically effective because the Europeans would feel disconnected from the American nuclear protection which has been an essential element of the alliance for 30 years.

But this basic premise was quite simply wrong. The SS-20 did not and does not give the Soviet Union any nuclear capability against Europe alone that she did not have in overflowing measure before a single SS-20 was deployed. Not only were the existing SS-4s and -5s, though old and cumbersome, entirely adequate in themselves for threatening a nuclear attack on Europe but, what is much more important, every long-range Soviet strategic missile that can reach the US can also hit Europe. There are so many of these missiles - some 2,500 - and they have so many large warheads - some 7,000 - that less than 10 percent of the force could produce all the results in Europe that could ever be feared from the SS-20. And this calculation, like the usual NATO discussion of the threat from the SS-20, leaves out of account three other new mid-range systems now entering the Soviet inventory.

If the Soviet Union should ever reach a poitical determination to strike Europe without striking the US, it would have all the weapons it needed without the SS-20. Any danger there may be of any such action is quite literally independent of the existence of the weapon that the West has spent so much time advertising.The underlying reality is that the location, the range, and even the vulnerability of particular weapons systems do not define either the capabilities or the intentions of any nation which, like the Soviet Union and the US, has built multiple long-range nuclear systems with an enormous redundance of survivable warheads. For such nations, capabilities remain varied and overwhelming even when whole systems are subtracted (which is why the notion of any early ''window of vulnerability'' related to the US Minuteman is quite simply inane).The ineluctable reality is that long-range systems can hit middle-range targets; they have that capability. Thus when you have vastly more than ''enough'' for intercontinental strategic deterrence, as both sides do today, you have more than enough for smaller assignments too. On this quite basic point the simplistic analyses of some nuclear planners, both in NATO and elsewhere, have been deeply misleading to their political superiors.Nor does the location of the weapons make any difference from the American standpoint. Whether they are based in Germany, or at sea, or in Nebraska, there will always be the same awful magnitude in any presidential decision to use these weapons against anyone, and in particular against the Soviet Union, whose leaders know as well as we whose command would send them, and where to direct the reply. Thus there can be no American interest in letting it be thought by anyone that we would ever find it easier to fire at the Soviet Union from Europe than from the US. The misperception that we may think this way is fueling much of the current opposition in Europe.There is indeed one thing some of the new missiles can do that no other weapon can do, but it is something we should not want to be able to do. The Pershing II missiles - there are 108 in the plan - can reach Russia from Germany in five minutes, thus producing a new possibility of a super-sudden first strike - even on Moscow itself. That is too fast. We would not like it if a Soviet forward deployment of submarines should create a similar standing threat to Washington. It is not for us to be the ones who first put the decapitation of the great rival government on a hair trigger. It is deeply in the general interest of all that neither side should pose such threats to the other. The 1979 decision to place the Pershing II in Germany was a serious mistake. Either its range should be so reduced that it does not threaten Moscow, or it should be cancelled.Leaving the new Pershing to one side because of this grave defect, there remains one important argument for the remainder of the new force, the ground-launched cruise missiles: our allies may in fact want them. These at least are not plausible first-strike weapons because they move at less than the speed of sound, and they can reasonably be seen as replacements for theater-based aircraft less able to reach their NATO targets than they once were. We have other systems that could do those jobs. Long-range missiles and aircraft could be assigned to NATO in wholly adequate numbers - as indeed five Poseidon submarines now are - with no harm to the basic deterrent strength of our enormous and still growing strategic triad. Still there is no decisive argument against the cruise missiles if in fact our European friends are sure they want them.We must think in terms of what Europe wants and needs, and not in those of a mechanical matching of every Soviet move. Soviet nuclear procurement policy is not so sensible that we should imitate it blindly, nor so threatening that we need to believe our own enormous forces are weak. A strategic modernization much more modest than President Reagan's recent proposals can meet the needs of both ourselves and our allies, with or without new land-based missiles in Europe.The alliance today needs economic progress and political self-confidence more than it needs weapons, and among weapons it needs conventional more than nuclear reinforcement

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