Tribune, 29 June 1990

Paul Anderson looks at next week’s Nato summit in London and predicts public unity and private discord

The summit meeting of Nato heads of government in London next week will doubtless end with an anodyne communiqué declaring the unity of the alliance and its confidence in the future. Not for the first time, Nato’s rhetoric will be a lie, concealing deep divisions and uncertainties.

Of course, there is a minimal consensus among the alliance’s member governments. They agree that Nato should continue to exist, that a united Germany should be a member, that American and other allied forces should be stationed in Germany and that a “sensible mix of nuclear and conventional forces” should be deployed in Europe (as the British foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, put it so elegantly earlier this month).

They also agree that Nato should somehow become more of a “political” alliance, negotiating arms reductions and building security, and that its military strategy needs to be adapted to the new conditions in Europe.

Beyond this thin gruel, however, the alliance is in some disarray, particularly over the security implications of German unity.

Here, the problem is not so much that the Soviet Union is still insisting that a united Germany cannot join Nato unless it also joins the Warsaw Pact: it is accepted, even in the Kremlin, that Moscow will have to make concessions. But the Soviet Union is not in such a weak position that it cannot extract a good price for unification, especially given the anti-militarism of the German public.

Nato could yet find that the only way to secure united-German membership involves substantial steps towards the demilitarisation of Germany, including, critically, withdrawal of nuclear weapons from German territory.

This would make a mockery of Nato’s current military strategy of “flexible response”, according to which forward European deployments of “sub-strategic” American nuclear weapons deter attack from the Warsaw Pact by ensuring that any east-west war would be a step on a “ladder of escalation” ending in all-out assault by America’s strategic nuclear weapons.

Nato’s planners know that flexible response is threatened, and they have spent the past few months trying to cobble together an alternative — dubbed by its proponents “minimum deterrence” — which would preserve the essentials of Nato’s strategic doctrine at the same time as satisfying demands for change.

At the core of this alternative is a restructuring of Nato forces in Germany into multinational units, with “purely defensive” forces stationed in what is now East Germany and along the Czechoslovak border. Behind these “defensive” deployments would be a corridor of bases for “quick reaction” forces, possibly with an “out-of-area” role (perhaps against Libya, Iraq or other Middle East “maverick” states), and behind these, in what is now western West Germany, “heavy manoeuvre” forces, including assault tank divisions. In short, the current East-West border moves 80 kilometres east for some purposes and 40 kilometres west for others.

Precisely what nuclear component there would be in this restructuring is unclear. At present, America’s Nato nuclear deployments in West Germany consist of nuclear artillery, short-range Lance missiles, intermediate-range cruise and Pershing missiles, and aircraft armed with nuclear bombs.

But cruise and Pershing are being removed and destroyed under the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty, while Lance and the artillery are both approaching obsolescence and will not be replaced by more modern systems. Short-range ground-launched nuclear weapons are considered useless even by Nato planners these days. Their range is sufficient only to reach East German, Czechoslovak or Polish soil.

Nato’s hopes for maintaining up-to-date nuclear forces in Germany thus rest on plans for replacing existing American nuclear bombs with American nuclear tactical air-to-surface missiles (TASMs).

The problem is that deployment of TASMs is opposed by the majority of West Germans (including the foreign minister, Hans Dietrich Genscher, and his Free Democrat Party).

One way out for Nato might be to base the TASMs elsewhere and fly them into Germany only for exercises or in times of crisis. But the options are limited. Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands have made it clear that they do not want them. At present, only the British government has shown any enthusiasm for taking the missiles and even Margaret Thatcher has added the rider that Britain must not be “singularised”.

Of course, Thatcher’s qualification does not necessarily amount to much. She might be prepared to take TASMs if Turkey did so too, for example, or if their homes bases were only in Britain but they were flown by a multinational. airforce (although what the British public would think of the Luftwaffe flying from Bentwaters or Upper Heyford, 50 years after the Battle of Britain, is a moot point).

Nevertheless, the controversy on TASM looks likely to provide some serious fireworks. Without the new missile, Nato’s ability to adapt its traditional stance to the new Europe is seriously compromised. With it, its rhetoric of change is exposed as a fraud. In Britain, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has made opposition to TASMs a political priority. Meanwhile, the Labour Party keeps mum.

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