Next Steps: Updating the CFE (Conventional Armed Force) Treaty

By Klein, Johanna | Harvard International Review, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Next Steps: Updating the CFE (Conventional Armed Force) Treaty


Klein, Johanna, Harvard International Review


THE CONVENTIONAL ARMED FORCE in Europe Treaty (CFE), which went into effect in 1992, has resulted in deep cuts in the number of conventional weapons held by the nations of NATO and the former Warsaw Pact. Described by some as the cornerstone of European security, the CFE Treaty is a rare example of a successful arms control accord that minimizes potential dangers while building confidence. The CFE's accomplishments to date are impressive. All signatory countries have disposed of the weapons stipulated by the Treaty, and all of the other mandates of the CFE had been met by November 1995. In addition, support for the Treaty appears high. Many nations especially praise the way that the CFE helps maintain security by limiting the total force levels in the former Soviet Union to two-thirds the strength of NATO's and by preventing local concentration of forces. Despite these accomplishments, the changes that have shaken Europe during the last decade have created problems for the CFE, bringing to light a number of critical faults and loopholes in the structure of the Treaty.

These structural flaws are artifacts of the Treaty's history. The CFE Treaty was negotiated in the final years of the Cold War, and it was designed primarily to prevent confrontation between the superpowers and end the threat of surprise attacks through central Europe. Many of the problems currently facing the Treaty are the direct result of its Cold War origin. While the CFE Treaty accomplished its Cold War goals of stability and equity, it must be revised if it is to deal successfully with the problems of a changing Europe.

Adjusting Troop Limits

The CFE has two primary objectives: a reduction of the level of forces in Europe and the prevention of troop movements that may cause conflict. The CFE addressed the former objective by setting quotas for the number of troops that the NATO countries and the Warsaw Pact can have active in Europe at any given time. The Treaty placed ceilings on five categories of conventional weapons: battle tanks, artillery pieces, armored combat vehicles, combat aircraft, and attack helicopters, assigning the same limit on the units of each category to each of the two blocs. This total limit of troops in each bloc was further subdivided into individual limits for each nation in NATO or the Warsaw Pact.

The second objective of the CFE--the prevention of troop concentrations in central locations which could pose a threat to the inner regions of Europe--was accomplished by forming "zones," each of which is a geographic area with a particular troop limit. In addition, zones are nested inside each other. For example, the first zone might include a small region in the center of Europe while the second zone would contain not only a larger geographic area, but also all of the first zone. Zones are allotted increasing numbers of troops as their size expands; as one zone subsumes the next, it is entitled to additional forces. The arrangement of the zones allows troops to be moved from central regions outward, but not inward from outlying regions, preventing potentially threatening troop concentrations in central locations.

The way the CFE carries out both of its objectives has recently come under attack. Perhaps the most contentious of the debates over modification of the CFE concerns the relevance of a two-bloc system of weapons ceilings in a post-Cold War world. Some nations are pushing to replace old concepts of force ceilings for NATO and the Warsaw Pact as a whole with limits assigned to each individual nation. France and Russia in particular claim that this would better reflect the complexities and alliances of the new Europe.

One advantage of assigning ceilings on a per-country basis is that it would allow the Treaty to be more easily expanded. In the current arrangement, the 30 signatories have assigned percentages of the predetermined total armaments level for their bloc. The overall ceiling for NATO and the Warsaw Pact are first set, and then discussions take place within the bloc on how best to divide these troop allocations among member nations. …

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Next Steps: Updating the CFE (Conventional Armed Force) Treaty
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