The History of the Euromissiles

Posted in NATO | 25-Mar-04 | Author: H. H. Gaffney

In a message to Lucio Martino, Centro Militare di Studi Strategici, September 2003.

Just to expand on what I was saying about the "Euromissile" controversy. My basic point was that the outcome was not driven by the West Germans. They were under-represented in the discussions of the High-Level Group and were not the primary drivers of the consensus. Later on, they insisted that they not be the only country to have the missiles on their territory. They might have been strongly behind "the dual track" missile deployment plans plus arms control negotiations, but I myself was not particularly involved on the arms control side.

I was involved in NATO theater nuclear forces (the Germans taught me not to use the word "tactical," because any use for them would have been "strategic") from mid-1966 to the end of 1978, including three years at the U.S. Mission to NATO in Brussels, where I was the U.S. representative on the NPG Staff Group. I was a staff officer in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, and worked closely with our State Department.

When I got into the business in 1966, the U.S. had just about completed deploying the 7200 nuclear warheads to storage locations in Europe (including the UK). Most of the warheads among the 7200 had been developed in the 1950s—like Honest John missiles (the Jupiter missiles had been removed from Italy and Turkey in the early 1960s), 203mm and 155mm artillery rounds, atomic demolition munitions, B-57 bombs, B-57 depth charges, Pershing IA, and Nike Hercules air defense warheads. Only in the 1970s were some new warheads added—Lance missile warheads and B-61 bombs. The U.S. had no other theater nuclear weapons under development.

When James Schlesinger took over as Secretary of Defense in 1973, he was concerned about the theater nuclear stockpile. Some of the weapons, like Nike Hercules and Honest John, he considered to be junk----obsolescent and ineffective. Based on a big study done between the US Army and the Office of Systems Analysis in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, in which I had participated, Schlesinger knew that the conventional balance between NATO and the Warsaw Pact was much better than most people thought. A particular NATO strength was in its tactical aircraft----yet too many of them, and the best aircraft to boot, were on Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) for a nuclear war, thus to be withheld from a conventional battle. He was determined that fewer aircraft be reserved for the nuclear role. Moreover, the US Navy was converting its submarine-launched ballistic missiles to the MIRVed Poseidon, and so the US was deploying many more warheads at sea. Schlesinger committed 400 of those warheads to SACEUR's theater strike plans (of course, SACEUR never had release authority—that was always reserved to the US President). We prepared reports to the US Congress on all this, per requests from Senator Nunn.

The 203mm artillery round was a very clumsy affair—it had to be assembled on the battlefield. It needed to be replaced. But our Congress complained that the new design didn't seem to be much different from the old design. So Secretary of Defense Schlesinger said that the Defense Department and the Atomic Energy Commission would dust off a previously rejected design—the Enhanced Radiation (ER) weapon, which instead of relying just on blast, also had a neutron flux that extended further than the blast—hence the appellation "neutron bomb" (yet it was an artillery round and had a basic blast of one kiloton, or 1,000 tons of TNT equivalent—1,000 tons would knock down the center of any city, so the suggestion that it would leave property standing was complete and utter nonsense).

In 1976, we briefed the NATO ambassadors in Brussels on this new round—referring to it as "ER." But those old men who served as ambassadors didn't really know what we were talking about, raised no sensitivities, and reported nothing special to their capitals. Later, Defense Minster Leber of West Germany said he had never heard of it. When news of this development came out in the summer of 1977, there was a brief controversy in the U.S. (about two weeks), but the whole myth of "neutron bomb" became a big political issue in Europe, as you know. President Carter in the U.S. decided not to deploy this 203mm ER round in Europe, but even this caused political controversy. This trouble was an important precursor for the later Euromissile decision because it left Carter receptive to the much more strategically important and controversial Euromissiles. He had no trouble approving it when we proposed it to him before reaching the final consensus in the High Level Group in March 1978.

We also had trouble deciding what to do with cruise missiles in the U.S. We had developed both air-launched and sea-launched (Tomahawk) cruise missiles. We would continue to equip our strategic bombers with them, but we were undecided about putting Tomahawk land-attack missiles on submarines, that is, the non-strategic submarines. Ford and Kissinger almost agreed to ban them in their discussion with Brezhnev at Vladivostok in 1976, but they ran into controversy with the Europeans, especially because the Soviet intermediate range missiles and Backfire bombers would still have been unrestricted. Indeed, this was one reason that Helmut Schmidt made his speech in November 1977 asking the U.S. not to give up any of its strategic systems given the imbalance in these theater systems. (The Schmidt speech was in no way a stimulus for the US to think about Euromissiles—the speech was only about strategic systems.)

In the meantime, the Soviets had developed the SS-20. It was a long- delayed replacement for the clumsy SS-4 and SS-5 missiles, but the Soviets overdid this replacement, designing it to carry three massive warheads per missile. It was also mobile, unlike the static SS-4 and SS-5, so it could not be targeted once it moved out of its garages. It had greater range than the SS-4 and SS-5, but that range only gained them coverage of Portugal (plus a large piece of the Atlantic Ocean). I put together the first briefing on the SS-20 for the NPG in November 1975, while it was still in development.

When the Carter Administration came into office in 1977, the US set up a whole new set of NATO initiatives—nine task forces, in fact, all concerned with the conventional forces. But the Administration realized that they could not neglect the theater nuclear side of things, and set up a tenth task force for that purpose, noting that the Nuclear Planning Group was a committee in-being to address the question. I got to do the staff papers in support of that effort. The question we faced was how to bring up the question of modernization of theater nuclear forces with the allies, especially as the US had not really let them in on decisions for new systems before—only questions of deployment. I wanted to avoid the fiasco of the neutron bomb, so I proposed a High Level Group from capitals to consider the issue (of the overall modernization of the theater nuclear forces—there was no hint at that time that it might lead to long-range missiles). It would be composed of senior representatives from the capitals who were close to their Defense Ministers----so those Ministers could never say that had not been informed of the discussions of the group. It worked later—the Dutch Defense Minister and the German Chancellor (Schmidt) both threatened to resign if the deployment was not carried out. The high-level representatives—including Johan Holst of Norway and Michael Quinlan of UK—also had broader responsibilities than nuclear weapons, and so they were not nuclear crazies.

We had hoped to include Walther Stuetzle, the political advisor to the German Minister of Defense, who had written the Schmidt speech, but instead only Brig. Gen. Altenberg represented the FRG at the first meeting of the High Level Group. We also included all the countries that had participated in the NPG—not just those who were rotating on at the moment. The Ministers at the NPG meeting in Bari in October 1977 approved this High Level Group.

We had no specific proposals for the first meeting of the High Level Group, in December 1977. My boss, David McGiffert, chaired the meeting—we did not let the International Staff chair it. We presented two briefings—one on NATO's theater nuclear forces and the other on Soviet forces. Then McGiffert asked the forbidden question: what did the other countries think of the SS-20. It turned out that they were very alarmed by it. There were hints in the discussion, notably by Michael Quinlan, that maybe the US should field longer-range missiles itself in Europe (the SS-20s were, of course, deployed only within the Soviet Union; some articles these days suggest they were deployed in East Europe, but they are wrong).

We held the second meeting of the High Level Group in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in February 1978. This was another meeting at which the Germans were under-represented: the NATO desk officer from the Foreign Ministry, accompanied by an Army colonel named Hansen (who nonetheless rose to be Inspector General of German forces 10 years later). I prepared and the US circulated beforehand a paper that had four options in it:
  1. Do no modernization of the theater nuclear forces in Europe; let the current weapons just decay away;

  2. Reemphasize, with new weapons and greater numbers, the shorter-range battlefield nuclear weapons (artillery and missiles);

  3. Put new emphasis on longer-range missiles that could fly into the Warsaw Pact countries, but still short of the Soviet Union; and

  4. Deploy missiles that could fly into the Soviet Union.
The U.S. expressed no preference for any of these options.
  • Option (1) was a non-starter.

  • Option (2) was a throw-away to the nuclear crazies in the US; I knew the Europeans would reject it.

  • Option (3) seemed to me personally to be the most sensible option, consistent with the hand-in-hand concept expressed in the Provisional Political Guidelines (PPG) for the use of nuclear weapons that the NPG had devised back in 1969 ("hand-in-hand" was the essential compromise between the Germans and the U.S. in the PPG: "no intensification on the battlefield without extension geographically," i.e., to the East).

  • Option (4) was not something the US really thought about; after all, we had the 400 Poseidon warheads committed to SACEUR's plans.
To our surprise, upon discussion, the consensus formed around a shift in the composition of theater nuclear forces toward longer-range missiles that could fly into the Soviet Union----but still short of Moscow. That is, it was the Europeans—and especially the Danes, Dutch, Belgians, and Norwegians—who basically chose an option that lay between Options 3 and 4. They also insisted that the weapons should be based on land in Europe, not at sea. I asked the Belgian, Pierre Champenois, "Why into the Soviet Union?" He replied, "We considered the Poles to be victims, too." Of course! (I ran into Champenois again at a seminar in Moscow in 1996 when he was the Belgian ambassador to Russia—a nice turn of events). And the West Germans were not interested in intensified capabilities to strike into East Germany. This was a true consensus: it emerged from the discussion as the feeling of the group. The group confirmed it in language developed at a meeting in Brussels in March 1978. In June 1978, President Carter raised the subject with his fellow Prime Ministers at a meeting that I think was in the Bahamas, a meeting that was mostly focused on economic issues (the precursor of the G-7), and they agreed to go ahead.

It then remained for the details to be worked out. The U.S. decided to use the extended-range Pershing II missile and the Tomahawk cruise missile in a ground-launched form ("GLCMs"). The second, arms control, track was also devised. The last High Level Group meeting I attended, in Brussels in December 1978, discussed what countries other than Germany on the continent would also station the missiles on their soil (the Germans did not want to be the only one; UK was offshore and didn't quite count). That was when we were all surprised when the Italian Brigadier General attending the meeting said that Italy would be willing. We knew that was not his personal offer, but the decision of the Italian government.

I left after 1978 to work on Middle Eastern matters there at the Pentagon. The deployment and the negotiations over what were now known as the Euromissiles unfolded toward the planned deployment date in 1983, generating much political controversy in Europe. But the governments remained firmly behind the decision. It is of interest that the UK switched from Labor to Conservative (Callahan to Thatcher) and West Germany from Social Democrat to CDU (Schmidt to Kohl); that is, to more conservative governments, despite the public controversy over the Euromissiles. As for the negotiations, the Soviets walked out when the US proposed the zero option. They later came back and the zero option was agreed—resulting in the INF Treaty, the first treaty resulting in reductions of forces. As we now know after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Soviets knew they had made a mistake in fielding the SS-20—it had been subject to much debate in the Soviet inner circles.1 As for the U.S., we had spent $10 billion developing and fielding the missiles, probably more than was spent on any of the conventional forces improvements considered by the other task forces, and for systems that were deployed for only a couple of years.

In an interview with Esquire magazine in 1979, I said that, at the highest level of rationality, all of this Euromissile business was the Theater of the Absurd. That is, for ordinary citizens, as life goes on, all these ideas must have looked crazy. At the next level down of rationality, that of deterrence, the Euromissiles were intended to create a rough balance against the SS-20. The notion was that the Soviet Union not have an option against which the West did not have an appropriate response. But to exercise that option would have been absurd (World War III), so presumably such an option had some political value----if anyone would have noticed. (A third level down, that of actually warfighting with such missiles, takes us back to the Absurd. In fact, the discussions in the High Level Group never touched on specific targets at all—just the broad geographic areas to be threatened.)

Twenty years later, in December 1998, I got to visit the Soviet, now Russian, SS-25 missile base at Teykovo, not too far from Moscow. The SS-25 is a mobile missile that used the same sliding-roof garages and vehicles as the SS-20. From only viewing such a Soviet system from overhead photographs, I could now actually kick the tires, which I did.


1 In discussion with a retired colonel of Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces, I suggested that the SS-20 had come about as a consolation prize for the bureau that had designed the
SS-16. a three-stage mobile missile that had been banned in SALT I (the SS-20 was the two-stage version). He said no; it was simply Ustinov’s baby.

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