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NATO sees need to beef up forces. But funding for conventional upgrade will be hard to come by

An imminent deal on eliminating nuclear Euromissiles means that NATO must beef up its conventional forces. But with economic sluggishness, austere budgets, and diminishing numbers of draft-age men, none of the NATO allies is ready to pledge concrete steps to improve conventional defense.

In more euphemistic language, this was the gist of the communiqu'e issued yesterday at the end of the spring meeting of all alliance defense ministers, except the French, at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

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A decision by Belgium not to buy the Patriot air defense system was seen as a blow to the integrated air defense that NATO has been striving to establish in the 1980s to fill one of the most glaring defense gaps. It follows closely on the British defense minister's announcement that military spending in the United Kingdom is set to decline.

Under the circumstances, the Defense Planning Committee, as the ministers' meeting is called, had to settle for ``reaffirming'' the need for better conventional defense and repeating the ``goal'' of 3 percent increases in allied defense budgets.

Lord Carrington, NATO secretary-general, noted that, given the financial problems, the allies must focus on getting ``maximum benefit from the limited resources.''

In this regard Lord Carrington, US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, and chairman of NATO's Military Committee Gen. Wolfgang Altenburg all stressed the importance of increasing NATO's ``sustainability.''

As defined by General Altenburg in his press conference, this means the ability to fight off any Soviet attack long enough with conventional forces so that any NATO decision to escalate to theater nuclear weapons would be made ``deliberately'' and not ``because we are running out of munition in the battlefield.''

Over the more than three decades of its existence, NATO has never matched Soviet-bloc conventional capability and has always offset its conventional inferiority with cheaper nuclear forces.

This disparity is more worrying for NATO now that its most capable nuclear weapons - the Pershing 2 and cruise missiles - will probably be traded away in superpower arms control against the Soviet SS-20s.

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Besides stockpiling sufficient ammunition to fight for 30 days with conventional weapons, Altenburg identified other needs in offsetting Soviet superiority: improving NATO surveillance and target acquisition, establishing survivable communications, exploiting the Western advantage in modern technology to hold second-echelon Soviet-bloc forces at risk, acquiring more sophisticated ammunition, and expanding the structure of reinforcement troops.

Lord Carrington's added improvements included: better cooperation in arms production, better coordination of long-term planning, priorities in addressing ``critical deficiencies'' in conventional defense.

Mr. Weinberger, asserting that ``we all need to do more'' and ``everyone'' recognizes this, suggested: prepositioning of equipment for reinforcements, and improved readiness ``to receive reinforcements, including protection of sea and air routes'' for these reinforcements.

Weinberger spent most of the time at his press conferences deflecting questions about American requests for more allied assistance in patrolling the Persian Gulf. He refused to be drawn out on what he has asked allies to do beyond saying that ``additional navy units,'' air cover, and help in ``infrastructure and basic resources'' would be useful.

He made a point of saying, however, that the defense ministers had discussed the Gulf in their restricted session. (Lord Carrington had downplayed the topic as an issue that is ``out of area'' for NATO and therefore less appropriate for formal NATO discussions than for Weinberger's bilateral talks with other defense ministers on the fringes of the NATO meeting.)

Weinberger stressed that Gulf oil is much more important for Europe and Japan than for the US. He welcomed the presence of British and French ships already there and unspecified contributions by Bahrain. He did say it ``may be necessary'' to get assistance from coastal states like ``Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and others'' in terms of ``access to airbases.''

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