President Plans to Put Emphasis on Air Weapons NATO Welcomes US Plan to Stop Upgrading Short-Range Nuclear Forces in Europe; Now Alliance Must Decide What Weapons to Retain

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MOST NATO allies are mopping their brows in relief that President Bush has recognized the inevitable and agreed to scale back US plans for modernizing short-range nuclear forces in Europe.

The demise of the updated Lance battlefield nuclear missile, in particular, will be mourned by few on either side of the Atlantic. The West Germans did not want to host it; the United States Congress did not want to pay for it. Only the Pentagon kept promoting it to the bitter end.

So when NATO defense ministers meet this week in Calgary, Canada, for a nuclear planning group session, everything should be sweetness and light, right? Not exactly. The NATO consensus is that some short-range nuclear weapons should be retained. But it is not yet decided how many there should be, or where.

NATO needs to settle its position on the issue as talks with the Soviets on short-range weapons are coming quickly. Bush said last week that the short-range question would be high on the agenda of a NATO summit in June, along with a wide-ranging review of the alliance's future mission.

"We need to develop a new strategy for the period ahead," Mr. Bush said.

Bush's announcement that he was killing an updated version of the Lance land-based nuclear missile and ending modernization of the estimated 2,000 155mm nuclear artillery shells in Europe was something less than a surprise. The Lance's potential targets, Eastern European nations, have been rapidly democratizing, and West German officials have been saying that deploying the new missile on their soil in these circumstances would be ludicrous. Members of Congress have been no less dismissive.

"The follow-on to Lance was in fact already dead. The president only performed the last rites," said Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

But the move did not represent the end of modernization for the US short-range nuclear arsenal. In essence, Bush announced that the US was switching its short-range emphasis from land-based systems to weapons carried on airplanes.

The US at present has an estimated 1,400 free-fall nuclear bombs for tactical aircraft in Europe. In addition, the US is developing a new tactical air-to-surface nuclear missile (TASM), with a range of 400 km, for deployment on F/B-111 medium bombers, new F-15E strike fighters, and other planes. …