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SOVIET CUTBACKS CONTAIN BIG `IF’

SHARE SOVIET CUTBACKS CONTAIN BIG `IF’

Moscow will be incapable of a surprise attack against western Europe using conventional military forces if the cuts promised by Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev are made.

That's the heartening conclusion of the well-respected International Institute of Strategic Studies in its annual survey of global forces, "The Military Balance 1989-90."The key word here is "if." And that's a big IF.

Gorbachev has announced Moscow's intent to make unilateral cuts in conventional Soviet forces by 1991. For NATO planners, who have long feared that allied troops are ill-prepared to face a Soviet onslaught, that is good news. Especially since NATO is not being asked to make similar cuts in its existing conventional forces.

There are other factors that must be considered before NATO allies breathe a collective sigh of relief, however, not the least of which is the continued presence of nuclear weapons which are not affected by the announced cuts and which pose a very real threat to western Europe's security.

The good news is further tempered by the institute's findings that the Soviets will remain in a position to mount "sustained offensive operations" against the West even when the announced cuts are complete.

Verifying Soviet actions is another critical factor. Since the actual number of Soviet troops and support equipment is unknown, evaluating the impact of the cuts is difficult.

Military planners rely on a variety of sources to develop estimates. But estimates are just educated guesses. This was dramatically demonstrated recently when the Kremlin revealed the number of Soviet battle tanks in its conventional forces. The number was some 6,700 more than previously thought by NATO analysts.

Anything that will reduce the threat of war is welcome news. But NATO allies must continue to exercise caution while working with the Soviet Union towards a verifiable reduction in weapons and manpower.