Soviet Missile Cuts Could Upset NATO Modernization

Times Staff Writer

Although North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials publicly welcomed the Soviet plan to reduce short-range nuclear missiles in Europe, they said privately Friday that the move could upset NATO plans to modernize its own tactical missile force.

The announcement Thursday by Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze that Moscow would cut back its short-range nuclear weapons in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary was viewed here and in Brussels as a way of making it politically difficult for the West German government to accept NATO’s proposals to modernize its own short-range nuclear missiles.

Clever Soviet Ploy

“It is a very clever ploy by the Soviets,” said a senior NATO official in Brussels on Friday. “They get rid of old tactical nukes that they don’t need anyway, and this puts heavy political pressure on Bonn.”


And a senior defense analyst in Bonn declared: “It is going to be much harder to push a nuclear modernization program through the Bundestag (West German parliament). And I think that was the real purpose of the Soviet announcement.”

NATO experts estimate that the Soviet army has about 1,300 to 1,400 short-range nuclear launchers--short-range is defined as less than 300 miles--with its forces in Eastern Europe, while NATO has only 88 aging U.S. Lance missiles, with a range of 70 miles.

In order to maintain a credible deterrent, NATO commanders, backed by governments in Washington, London, Paris and elsewhere, have called for the modernization or replacement of Lance missiles before they become obsolete in 1995.

West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl also has expressed support for the NATO decision to upgrade the Lance. But leaders of the opposition Social Democratic Party reject the modernization proposal, in part because public opinion polls show that West Germans are increasingly hostile to the basing of nuclear weapons in their country.

The issue of whether to modernize the short-range NATO missiles, all of which would be based in or near West Germany and designed to be used there, has become a serious political issue, which Kohl would like postponed until after the national elections late next year.

Already a continuing source of friction between West Germany and its NATO allies, the issue could split the governing Bonn coalition between Kohl’s Christian Democrats, Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich-Genscher’s Free Democrats and the Christian Socialists.

The upgrading proposal has not received full endorsement from Genscher, who has been a leader in seeking East-West arms reductions in Europe.

Taking Their Weapons

Shevardnadze indicated Thursday that Soviet troops that President Mikhail S. Gorbachev promised last month would be withdrawn from Eastern Europe would be taking their weapons systems with them. NATO officials note that the short-range missiles mentioned by Shevardnadze are probably assigned to the six army divisions that Gorbachev referred to when he made his announcement of a troop cut to the U.N. General Assembly on Dec. 7. Gorbachev offered more details about those cuts Wednesday.

“That comes to about 24 launchers but means they would still have an overwhelming number left,” said a NATO official. “And where would they remove the missiles to? Could they be quickly moved back?”

Western alliance members say that NATO has voluntarily reduced its own short-range nuclear stockpile, mostly artillery shells, by 2,400 warheads since 1979.

But public attention has been focused on Soviet arms-reduction overtures. The West Germans are preparing for a Gorbachev visit sometime this spring, and as a West German strategist put it Friday:

“Washington and London won’t like it, but I would expect another dramatic offer by Gorbachev to reduce his short-range missiles--making it even more difficult for the West German government to vote for nuclear modernization.”