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European missile deployment: a tragedy of errors?

An increasing number of Western officials are becoming convinced that both the United States and the Soviet Union blundered almost unconsciously into the European missile deployments.

Setting up the missiles - especially the US Pershing IIs and Soviet SS-20s - have been one of the most divisive East-West issues for the past several years.

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In both cases, more and more US and European experts are saying, the military establishments of both countries pushed for deployments which triggered major diplomatic controversies - even though they were of limited military value.

Such attitudes are increasingly heard from US and European experts both in and out of government.

Perhaps the most visible proponent of such a position is the former chairman of the British chiefs of staff, Field Marshal Lord Carver.

Lord Carver argues that not only the Pershings and SS-20s, but also the planned US land-based cruise missiles, have little value as defensive retaliatory weapons and only marginal additional value as first-strike arms.

''They don't make much sense unless they are for first use,'' he says of all three types of missiles. He adds it is unlikely either side will resort to a first attack, despite the hesitation in renouncing first-use, because neither could survive a massive nuclear retaliation by the victim. But the suspicion engendered by these weapons has caused a destabilizing diplomatic furor since the late 1970s.

''The only reason I have heard from Soviet officials for the SS-20 deployment ,'' observed Lord Carver in Brussels last week, ''is that it replaces the old SS-4 and SS-5 that countered the American Thor and Jupiter missiles, and B-52 bombers, which are no longer a threat.''

Although the US Pershing and cruise missiles are said to be a counter to the SS-20s, Lord Carver notes that ''they can't knock out the SS-20s and no one pretends they can, but what can they do?''

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Lord Carver is not alone in holding such views. A report in the Boston Globe last month stated that Richard Perle, assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, had told journalists privately the Pershing deployment was an ''error.''

Although he said in Brussels that the report was ''misleading and out of context,'' he did not repudiate the position attributed to him, and other observers indicated that he had expressed such doubts publicly before.

Perle is said to believe the Pershing is of limited additional value and the funds could be better used for other systems. He has said the deployment has been ''difficult'' for the Western alliance.

Another Brussels defense analyst noted the ''military rationale for the Pershing has never been very clear. It does not provide any additional target coverage. It is probably redundant. It is basically a political decision meant to reassure European allies.''

He said the Pershings are primarily aimed at military targets in Warsaw Pact countries and the western Soviet Union. A number of European and American experts have also made similar criticisms of the SS-20 deployment by the Soviet Union.

''There's a split in the defense and intelligence community,'' noted one expert, ''whether the SS-20 was a conscious move to threaten the Eurasian land mass, given the rough parity that developed in strategic weapons between the superpowers as part of a grand plan, or was simply an example of the military momentum or inertia in the Soviet Union.''

He said some in the West believed Soviet military planners may have merely intended to replace aging SS-4 and SS-5 missiles with technology developed for an SS-16 weapon, which was later dropped as part of the negotiations on strategic nuclear arms.

According to this view, backed by French and British sources, the Soviets may have seen it as a natural modernization of older weapons without realizing it would be seen as a new ''anti-European'' menace.

Ironically, according to some of these experts, this questionable SS-20 deployment then served as a justification for the just as dubiously valuable US modernization and deployment plans already taking shape prior to that in the mid- and late-1970s.

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