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CAN A REVAMPED NATO STILL PROTECT THE WEST?

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With its approval this week of the most radical shake-up of its forces in its 42-year history, the 16-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization is taking a calculated risk.

Part of the gamble is based on the assumption that new life won't be breathed into the moribund communist Warsaw Pact and that the Soviet Union will become less of a military threat as its economic base crumbles.The assumption is shaky because the Kremlin is still building its military muscle even though the Soviet Union is faced with massive food shortages and because a major power like the USSR can still cause plenty of trouble by flailing about militarily on its sick bed.

Perhaps the biggest part of the gamble, though, is based on the assumption that a smaller and, hopefully, more mobile and flexible NATO won't lose its unity and strength once the United States withdraws many of its troops from Europe and the Europeans assume a greater leadership in NATO.

This assumption, too, is shaky in view of Europe's long history of refusing to pull its own weight in NATO and in view of France's desire to make more decisions involving mutual security in some new all-European organization outside NATO.

Still another part of the gamble is based on the assumption that a smaller, leaner NATO will automatically become tougher and more mobile.

Yet military prowess results not only from the quantity of an organization's troops and weapons, but also from the quality of its political will-power. As was demonstrated by NATO's sometimes flabby response to the recent crisis in the Persian Gulf, the spines of some European leaders are not always as stiff as they should be.

But so be it. The die seems to have been cast. Wisely, the NATO troops reductions won't begin until the end of 1994 and are not to be completed until the end of the decade. Such a slow timetable will at least permit NATO to execute an about-face in case East-West tensions start mounting again.

In essence, the new plan calls for a reduction of at least 50 percent in the number of American troops assigned to NATO and a smaller reduction in the rest of the alliance. Actually, part of the American reduction already has taken place, since some U.S. troops that were taken from Europe to fight in the Persian Gulf have returned to the United States.

Many details of the new arrangement have yet to be worked out. But in general, the new plan for NATO's ground forces centers on a multinational brigade able to respond to a crisis in western Europe within 72 hours, a much larger rapid reaction corps under British command to be sent in if the brigade fails to quell the immediate threat, plus a still larger Main Defense Force that would be the alliance's backbone.

Finally, with fewer active service units, NATO would depend more on reinforcements and reserves in an emergency. While the bulk of these would have come from the United States during the Cold War, NATO planners are now drawing up a more flexible system that will allow quick reinforcements from one part of Europe to another.

Whichever way NATO may reshape itself, some basic facts and principles remain the same. One of them is that there is still a strong link between the security of Western Europe and that of the United States. That means there is still no substitute for unity and collective planning. Though the Cold War seems to be over, NATO has not outlived its usefulness and is still the most effective method of keeping the West safe and free.