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An ironic way to check the nuclear arms race

In the early years of the nuclear age, as American and Soviet positions were harden-ing in the chill of the cold war, it was generally taken for granted that American nuclear weapons were the indispensable offset to superior Soviet conventional strength in Europe. Neither economically nor politically could the West support the levels of manpower which would be required to match Soviet conventional forces. Americans demanded demobilization of the forces which had won World War II, and Europe lay in economic wreckage.

Nuclear weapons, then a Western monopoly, were therefore seen as a quick, easy, and cheap counterweight to the Soviet Union. This is the main reason the United States has consistently resisted proposals for a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons. Such a policy, in the view which prevailed for a long time, would simply abandon the one area in which the US was clearly ahead.

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American and NATO strategy contemplated that it would be the West which would first go nuclear in any conventional war in Europe. Conventional superiority was conceded to the Soviets. NATO commanders, beginning with General Eisenhower, worried about this, but nobody did very much.

The factual situation on which this thinking was based changed, of course, as soon as the Soviets had nuclear weapons of their own. Western thinking was slow to adjust to the change. It was not until the spring of 1982 that observers of the eminence of McGeorge Bundy (former White House national security affairs adviser), George F. Kennan (former ambassador to the Soviet Union), Robert S. McNamara (former secretary of defense), and Gerard Smith (former head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency) came around to espousing a reconsideration of no-first-use policy.

The US no longer had clear nuclear superiority. Indeed, the nature of nuclear weapons is such that it is impossible for anybody any longer to have clear superiority. Nuclear weapons were no longer a quick and easy way - and certainly they were no longer a cheap way - to offset Soviet conventional strength. But the problem of offsetting such strength remained, as stubborn as ever.

Now it appears that new Western technology in conventional weaponry may provide the answer. This is ironic, because technology has been one of the principal fuels of the arms race, and here is technology offering what seems to be a promising avenue for reversing that race.

So we are told, at least, by a prestigious commission of both Americans and Europeans including, among others, McGeorge Bundy and former NATO commander Gen. Andrew Goodpaster. The new technologies in question offer NATO the possibility of better conventional munitions, accurate means for delivering guided munitions by surface-launched or air-launched nonnuclear missiles, and the capacity for nearly instantaneous battlefield surveillance and target acquisition. They do not require the manpower of the old-fashioned infantry. Furthermore, the commission estimates the cost of developing these new weapons to be perhaps $20 billion (plus or minus 50 percent) over 10 years - approximately the cost of the B-1 or the MX. This is indeed a welcome switch.

The prospect is attractive for several reasons. One is the cost. Another is that it would raise the nuclear threshold, thereby reversing the long-term and dangerous trend. By improving NATO's conventional capabilities, it reduces the temptation (more likely, the necessity) for NATO commanders to go nuclear in a hurry. (It might correspondingly increase the pressure on the Soviets to do so.)

In using conventional weapons, field commanders would be freed of the constraints which apply to the use of nuclear weapons. These constraints are both political (elaborate procedures for the presidential decision required by law) and security (equally elaborate procedures to guard against unauthorized use). Taken together, these constraints make the whole matter so cumbersome as to lead some people to wonder if nuclear weapons could in fact be used in a timely fashion should it ever become necessary to do so.

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A reduction in NATO's reliance on nuclear weapons would actually increase the deterrent provided by such weapons. As things stand now, that reliance may well be so great as to be lacking in credibility. The Soviets may legitimately wonder (as have some people in the West) whether an American president could bring himself to order the destruction of half of Europe when he has only a few minutes to make the decision in a war only a few hours old.

Finally, an enhanced conventional capability would possibly make obsolete many of the nuclear weapons already in Europe. Some of these are probably obsolete now but have been left in place partly because of inertia and partly to avoid doing anything which might look like unilateral disarmament. If the removal of these old weapons, or a decision not to deploy new ones, were accompanied by an impressive conventional buildup, this objection would no longer apply.

And the political climate in Europe would be greatly improved.Pat M. Holt, formerly chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

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