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Gorbachev Finally Serves Up the Beef in Perestroika; Now West Must Chew on It

<i> Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.) is the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. </i>

On the subject of Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s perestroika in the Soviet military, the West has had one central question: “Where’s the beef?”

The Soviet president talked about restructuring his enormous military establishment with a new guiding principle--that of reasonably sufficient forces organized for defense rather than offense. Authorities in the West, quite correctly, wanted evidence.

On Wednesday Gorbachev dramatically furnished it. In his speech to the United Nations he said that he was making unilateral cuts of a kind not seen since the 1960s, when Nikita S. Khrushchev bucked his generals (and got himself booted out of office).

Certainly we must carefully monitor the progress of Gorbachev’s military reductions. But if he can deliver, he has altered the political as well as the military landscape in Europe.

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Gorbachev said that he would cut 500,000 men from the Soviet military, about 10%, and retire the associated equipment. Ten percent is a significant figure, but with more than 5 million men under arms it still leaves a military establishment more than twice the size of the 2.2-million force that we have.

Some of his more detailed plans are more promising. For one thing, his equipment-reduction plans represent even larger cuts. Overall, Gorbachev said, he will remove 10,000 tanks, 8,500 artillery pieces and 800 combat aircraft from Soviet inventories. That’s 18% of his tanks, 27% of his artillery and 18% of his total aircraft. Such cuts would be militarily significant.

His specific points about Eastern Europe may be more telling yet. He promised to remove--and disband--six Soviet tank divisions now stationed in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. That’s one-third of the total forces that would spearhead any attack. Beyond that, however, Gorbachev said that half his tank reductions--5,000--would come from Eastern Europe, making Warsaw Pact inventories roughly equivalent to North Atlantic Treaty Organization inventories in Central Europe.

This supports another promise that the Soviet president made--that he will restructure his forces in Eastern Europe to be “clearly defensive.” Removal of tanks from divisions left behind in Eastern Europe could reduce the offensive capability of those units. He also said that he would remove what he called assault landing troops and assault crossing units. Western experts translate that to mean the kind of troops necessary to seize key points deep in NATO territory and establish bridgeheads across Western Europe’s many rivers. These are the kinds of units essential to a blitzkrieg offensive.

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That’s the military story of Gorbachev’s speech. I want to emphasize again that none of it has happened yet. We’ll have to confirm each element before we can safely incorporate it into our planning. But, for the moment, Gorbachev has stolen the march on NATO politically.

Eastern and Western blocs are about to enter conventional arms-control talks. NATO’s position had been that the Warsaw Pact had to reduce its large edge in men and weapons before talks could get serious.

By no means did the Soviet president go as far as NATO deems necessary in reducing the Warsaw Pact’s edge in military forces. But if NATO merely demands more, it runs a political risk. If the alliance doesn’t come up with something constructive of its own, and soon, the West will be politically vulnerable to the next Gorbachev negotiating position.

NATO needs to step back and define a safer, more stable European military balance for the next generation. Then the alliance should formulate an arms-control strategy that pursues it. It isn’t enough to stand around waiting to see what the new man in the Kremlin will do next, particularly since it’s very difficult to figure out what that might be.

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Gorbachev’s speech stood the conventional wisdom about the Soviet president on its head in a number of ways. First, until Wednesday, experts from Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci to Deputy CIA Director Robert M. Gates to the House Armed Services Committee to the International Institute for Strategic Studies all said that there was no evidence that Gorbachev had any effect on the military. If he pulls this off, that will change in a hurry.

For military perestroika to be taken seriously, these experts said, there should be some combination of reductions and restructuring. Bingo.

And, finally, there were those who said that Gorbachev could not do large unilateral military reductions. The military was opposed. And there was the example of Khrushchev, who was deposed in part for unilateral military cuts. Gorbachev needed the cover of arms control to bring his own military along, the experts theorized. Wrong, at least potentially.

What this tells us about Gorbachev is still in doubt. He may well be much stronger than we thought. Maybe the Soviet economy is even worse than we thought, or perhaps the new man is an even greater risk-taker than we thought.

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Whatever the final verdict on Mikhail Gorbachev, the speech tells us that we’ve got our hands full.


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