top of page

The Non-Offensive Defense of Europe

The INF Treaty of 1987 has been widely acclaimed, not only for its intrinsic merit of banning a whole class of nuclear weapons, but also for the model it provides for further and deeper arms cuts. Nevertheless, despite all the hopes that have been aroused, some elements in the NATO leadership have expressed considerable misgivings as to how Western Europe will now defend itself against the Soviet threat that is still perceived to exist. The concern stems from the fact that the missiles that NATO is foregoing (Pershing 2 and ground-launched Cruise) had a dear-cut role in deterring even a conventional Soviet attack These were American weapons, based on West-European soil and capable of reaching the USSR, and since the Americans would presumably use them rather than let them fall into the hands of Soviet invaders, it followed that a conventional Soviet attack on Western Europe that threatened to be successful would lead to an American nuclear strike against the USSR.

Faced with a partial decoupling of the USA from the defense of Europe, the predominant response in NATO has been a re-emphasis of short-range (less than 500 km) tactical nuclear weapons that were deployed in W. Germany long before the introduction of the Cruise and Pershing 2 missiles in 1983. It was made abundantly clear that there was no question of “no first use”: these weapons were intended to be used at any stage against even a conventional Soviet thrust.

While the emphasis was always on nuclear weapons, considerable attention was also given to the possibility of defending Western Europe with conventional forces. Elaborate war plans were evolved under the names Airland Battle and FOFA (follow-on forces attack), the essential characteristic of which is the principle that “the best defense is offense”; more specifically, these plans call for deep counter attacks into Warsaw-Pact territory at a very early stage of any conflict.

Two highly undesirable features are immediately apparent in such plans. In the first place, from the perspective of the USSR it cannot be unmistakably obvious that the intent of these war plans is purely defensive, since if the NATO powers really had aggressive designs, these are the sort of plans they would draw up; the resulting loss of confidence can only stimulate the Warsaw Pact to still higher levels of military preparedness. Secondly, because the key to the success of these plans is to strike very early, before the enemy has been able to penetrate deeply into West Germany, a hair-trigger situation develops in which there is a very real danger of NATO striking first, either through a misreading of signals, or intentionally as a pre-emptive move when it is thought that war has become inevitable.

We are thus lead to ask whether there is not a third option open to the NATO planners at this time of decision, the option of re-structuring the defenses in such a way as to be able to defeat a conventional attack, while foregoing any offensive potential that would pose a threat to the USSR. This concept has become known as non-offensive defense (NOD), and is examined in some detail in a well-coordinated series of articles appearing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists for September 1988, with authors from both NATO and Warsaw-Pact countries.

Particularly noteworthy is the contribution of Anders Boserup (Denmark, a contributor to Defending Europe, Options for Security), who makes the very important point that stability has little to do with parity between the two opposing forces. Rather it depends much more on a certain kind of imbalance, in which both sides are stronger in defense than in offense He then goes on to show how the present forces of both NATO and the Soviet bloc in no way satisfy this criterion, both being adapted more to rapid and deep-thrusting offense. The numerical estimates he presents for the armed forces of each side make interesting reading: the different sources vary widely, but there is a considerable measure of agreement on the relative strength, and one is struck by the overwhelming superiority of the Soviet tank forces. This confirms the common belief in the West that the Warsaw Pact has adopted an even more aggressive posture than NATO. Boserup concludes by comparing two possible approaches to the installation of a NOD regime, unilateral action and negotiated mutual action, and shows how the one can reinforce the other once the process has started. Since the publication of the article dramatic emphasis to this thesis 1as been given by Gorbachev’s spectacular announcement to the UN in December of heavy unilateral cuts in Warsaw-Pact forces, including in particular the threatening tank forces. (Less extensively reported, but equally significant, was Gorbachev’s decision to withdraw assault-landing and river-crossing forces from the front line)

A number of articles, coming from both East and West, spell out in some detail specific proposals for a NOD regime in Europe. One such proposal (Grin and Unterseher) calls for West Germany (the land of NOD?) to be covered with a mesh of quasi-autonomous defense units. One gets the impression that the Federal Republic would take on the appearance of an armed camp even more than now, and wonders how the peace movement would react to this.

The only really negative note is struck in the article by S.J. Flanagan of the Pentagon’s National Defense University, but his misgivings are not particularly convincing. Indeed, he admits that NOD might be a valid response of the present Soviet leadership, but he fears for what might happen should the USSR revert to its old ways. This is grotesque when the Soviet leaders are wicked we plan accordingly, but when they become benign Flanagan would still have us continue as before, for fear that they turn wicked again. Such fears would surely be self-fulling if we were to follow Flanagan, and it is difficult to see how he imagines the state of conflict between East and West is ever to end. The answer to Flanagan’s fears is that once a stable NOD regime were established throughout Europe, East and West, it would surely take the USSR longer to build up its offensive potential again than it would take NATO to adjust its defenses appropriately. If these objections are the best that its opponents can raise, NOD must surely have something going for it.

The entire series is fused together in the concluding article of Randall Forsberg, who, while sympathetic to the idea of the non-offensive defense of Europe, reminds us persuasively that in the long run this issue cannot be isolated from that of global arms control The BAS has performed a most important service in presenting such a coherent and authoritative account of an issue which, while less spectacular than, say, control of strategic nuclear arms, is nevertheless of critical importance to the establishment of a stable peace.

This issue has, incidentally, a direct bearing on the current debate concerning the extent to which Canada, as part of its contribution to NATO, should maintain a military presence in Western Europe. It would seem that before responding to this question, one should first decide what kind of a defense one wants to see in Western Europe; reading this supplement of the BAS should go along way towards clarifying one’s ideas.

Recent Posts

See All

SfP Bulletin archive

SfP Bulletin February 2017 The President’s Corner: Science for Peace as a Foreign Language Metta Spencer Report of the Working Group on Global Governance Helmut Burkhardt Report of the Working Group o

Report of the Working Group on Global Governance

(2016-09-17) Members: Helmut Burkhardt (chair), Norman Dyson, Rose Dyson, Brydon Gombay, Julia Morton-Marr, Tom Simunovic, Peter Venton, Adnan Zuberi Mandate: We believe good global governance is mean


bottom of page