Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Soviet threat looms: U.S. missiles for W. Europe touch off security debate

First Published: Unity, Vol. 2, No. 23, November 16-29, 1979.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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One of the most heated debates over European defense policy in several decades is now taking place in Western Europe. The controversy – over whether to deploy new U.S.-made nuclear missiles – revolves around many vital concerns of the Western European countries, including their desire to avoid war and defend their national security. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. are each trying actively to influence this debate, and the outcome will affect Europe for years to come.

The debate is over a U.S. proposal to NATO to base 572 new medium-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe starting in the mid-1980’s. These would include advanced Pershing II missiles with a 1,000-mile range and the new U.S. cruise missiles with an even longer range.

NATO military leaders tentatively agreed to the plan at a September 28 nuclear planning meeting, but final agreement hinges on approval by the governments of the individual NATO member countries. A final decision is slated to be made this December at a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels.

Current military balance

The issue goes to the heart of the problem of how best to defend the region’s security. Highly industrialized Europe is a key area of confrontation between the two superpowers, and is the part of the world which each would most like to control. Due to each superpower’s attempts to gain a military edge over the other, the continent has become a virtual armed camp, bristling with the heaviest concentration of military hardware anywhere in the world.

In recent years the military balance between the two sides in Europe has been changing. After a decade of substantially higher military expenditures, the Warsaw Pact has outpaced NATO in most areas of conventional and nuclear weapons (see accompanying chart) and in weapons quality.

The most glaring area of disparity between Eastern and Western Europe is in medium-range or tactical missiles, the type that would be used in a so-called “theater” or “tactical” war in Europe. The Warsaw Pact has 710 of these missiles targeted on Western Europe while Western Europe has only 18 aimed at the East. The Soviets have recently begun to modernize their medium-range missile force with the new SS-20 mobile three-warhead missile, while the West has nothing comparable currently deployed.

Aware of this disparity, Western Europe’s military planning has for some time been based on protection by the American “nuclear umbrella” of long-range missiles stationed in the U.S., capable of hitting targets in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Doubts in Western Europe

But there is doubt in Western European countries over the continued advisability of relying on U.S.-based and U.S.-controlled missiles as the ultimate line of defense for their own security. Western European military planners are not sure whether the U.S. would in fact use its own strategic missiles in defense of Europe, when this would likely lead to a Soviet nuclear attack on the U.S. itself.

These security concerns are the context of the current debate, and there are some major differences of opinion.

Some governments, including Britain and others, feel the best course is to decide to deploy the new missiles, then try to negotiate a mutual arms reduction with the Warsaw Pact. Others are leaning toward negotiating first.

There is also controversy over which countries the missiles would be based in. The U.S. wants to station them in West Germany, Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands, but the latter two have serious reservations, and West Germany is reluctant to accept the missiles unless at least one other continental country also accepts. Some European analysts don’t want the new missiles stationed in Europe at all, fearing they will only provoke the Soviet Union and increase tensions.

Brezhnev’s “offer”

Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev made a widely publicized speech on October 9 that was clearly intended to influence the outcome of the debate. He warned strongly against deployment of the new missiles, threatening that they “would radically alter the strategic situation on the continent and poison the international atmosphere,” and would lead the Soviet Union to “strengthen its own security.”

Using the carrot and the slick, Brezhnev combined his threat with an offer that the Soviets might reduce their own medium-range nuclear missiles, but only if no new missiles were based in Western Europe. He said the Soviets would not use nuclear weapons against any Western European country that did not possess nuclear weapons, and also announced the withdrawal of “up to” 20,000 Soviet troops and 1,000 tanks from East Germany over the next year.

But Brezhnev’s arms reduction offer was only meant to create an illusion that the Soviets are interested in peace. Even if the Soviets pull back the full number of troops and tanks mentioned, the Warsaw Pact would still outnumber NATO by 2 1/2-to-l in tanks and 3-to-l in troops.

By appealing to each individual West European country not to deploy the new missiles and threatening those who do, Brezhnev hoped to create divisions. He knows that the greater the coordination of Western Europe’s defense plans, the more difficult it is for the Soviets to take over the region.

Pressures on Western Europe

Brezhnev’s speech has inevitably had some effect in Western Europe, as he is playing on the genuine sentiments of the people for peace and an easing of tensions. Yet there is also a great deal of mistrust of the Soviets’ intentions.

Another weighty factor is the relationship between Western Europe and the U.S. Many Western European officials are uneasy about the U.S. government’s intense pressure to gain approval for the new missiles. There are also hesitations because current plans give the U.S. the final say over whether and when the missiles would be fired in a wartime situation.

Western European government leaders are also wary of spending months campaigning for popular support for these costly new weapons, only to have the U.S. later drop the whole idea, as happened with the neutron bomb last year. New considerations will likely arise in the course of the discussion.

The threat from the East and the military disparity in Europe are real and serious problems for the Western European countries. Furthermore, neither superpowers’ interest in Europe is in the peace and security of the continent, but rather how best to further their own imperialist interests. They see Europe as their game board, and each has its own game plan.

Looking to the future, the Western European countries must take steps soon to improve their own national defense forces. They must further develop their cooperation and coordination, and must be particularly vigilant against the Soviets’ attempts to weaken their unity and play one country off against another. They must also remain on guard against efforts by the U.S. to dictate defense policy and strategic planning to Western Europe.

With the clouds of war gathering on the horizon, Western Europe has little choice.