U.S. Tactical Nuclear Weapons Aim at the Heart of NATO Security

Christopher Layne is an attorney with the firm of Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler in Los Angeles and a foreign policy scholar at the Cato Institute in Washington.

The Bush Administration has adduced a laundry list of reasons to support its stand in favor of modernizing Lance missiles in West Germany and opposing early talks with the Soviet Union to reduce--or eliminate--both superpowers' short-range nuclear forces in Europe.

They are not good reasons, however. In fact, short-range nuclear forces pose unacceptable strategic risks to both West Germany and the United States. And, although these weapons are virtually useless militarily, their presence in Europe exacts a high toll politically--as the bitter dispute between Washington and Bonn illustrates.

Washington's notion that Western Europe would be denuclearized if U.S. tactical nuclear weapons were withdrawn is a canard. The United States has always firmly insisted that France's and Britain's national nuclear forces be excluded from U.S.-Soviet arms talks. No doubt, removal of U.S. short-range nuclear weapons would entail a significant de-Americanization of European deterrence. But rather than leading to denuclearization, it would provide a strong incentive for Western Europe to build its own independent nuclear force.

U.S. battlefield nuclear weapons contribute almost nothing to deterrence; removing them will not increase the remote possibility of a Soviet "bolt from the blue" strike at Western Europe. Moscow is constrained by a number of factors including a global balance of power that includes such potential Soviet adversaries as China and Japan. Furthermore, the critical military balance (NATO forces in West Germany versus Warsaw Pact forces in East Germany and Czechoslovakia) is quite stable and makes highly doubtful the possibility of a successful Soviet surprise offensive. Moreover, the Soviets have little to gain by attacking because the very prize they might attempt to seize--Western Europe's industrial and technological resources--almost certainly would be destroyed.

Finally, the risk/benefit calculus is tilted against Moscow; the Soviets must assume that Washington has a greater interest in protecting Western Europe than they do in overrunning it. In this respect, the presence of even a reduced number of American troops in Germany--backed up by capable, effective U.S. strategic nuclear forces--would remind Moscow that the United States is deeply concerned about Europe's fate. Even without U.S. tactical nuclear weapons on the ground, the Soviets would know that an attack would lead to a direct superpower showdown, the consequences of which are incalculable. That is the real basis of deterrence.

Because NATO's strategy is a house of cards, U.S. battlefield nuclear weapons in Europe have a destabilizing potential. Their peacetime concentration in a small number of storage sites invites Soviet preemptive strikes should a crisis break out. Any attempt to disperse these weapons might fracture the alliance. Because dispersal has fearsome implications for them, there are strong reasons to believe at least some Western European nations would use force to prevent it. And, although tactical nuclear weapons have no war-fighting utility, if they were dispersed, the chaos, confusion and breakdown of communications that are the hallmarks of a battlefield environment would place American field commanders under overwhelming pressure to use them before losing them to advancing Soviet troops. Such use, however, would touch off an uncontrollable cycle of escalation that soon would engulf the United States itself in nuclear war.

If American citizens understood the hair-trigger function that U.S. tactical nuclear weapons play in NATO strategy, they would join West Germans in demanding that Washington begin negotiating with Moscow to remove both superpowers' battlefield nuclear weapons from Europe.

The traditional rationale for keeping short-range nuclear forces in Europe is to symbolize the U.S. commitment to Western Europe's security. However, public and elite views in West Germany have shifted dramatically during the 1980s. U.S. short-range nuclear weapons that once reassured West Germans now frighten them and poison the transatlantic relationship. The Lance dispute is symbolic of a much deeper problem: On a number of critical issues, America and Western Europe are divided by fundamental differences of interest and outlook. The Bush Administration has focused so narrowly on the military dimension of European security that it has failed to recognize that the real challenge to transatlantic relations is political. Postwar Europe is being transformed by three factors: the emergence of an increasingly unified Western Europe, the re-emergence of West Germany as Central Europe's dominant regional power and Mikhail Gorbachev's diplomacy, which has rekindled hopes on both sides of the globe that Europe's division can be replaced by a new all-European security order. These trends raise important questions that Washington is only beginning to address. Instead of modernizing Lance, the Bush Administration should be devoting its energies to modernizing East-West relations.

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