THE DAILY practice of low-flying techniques by NATO jets over Western Europe is reducing public support for military preparedness. Last August, 70 civilians were killed when three Italian aerobatic planes plunged into the crowd at a U.S. air base in Germany. This disaster, plus numerous crashes by low flying jets in residential areas, killing civilians, have created a political storm which threatens NATO's defence strategy. The noise and safety hazards of low flying are coming to be seen as an unacceptable price to pay for peace. Some NATO countries - notably West Germany, Britain, and the Netherlands - try to evade public opposition to low level training by exporting it to Labrador and eastern Quebec.
Later this year, NATO will almost certainly decide to locate a new multi-million dollar Tactical Fighter and Weapons Training Centre at Goose Bay. But, given the arms control talks and the dramatic unilateral cuts in Warsaw Pact forces, does NATO still need this form of training?
NATO claims that the training over Quebec and Labrador is required because the Warsaw Pact's military forces outnumber NATO's and are geared for attack, not defence. The Alliance's strategy is to strike deep behind the battlefield, destroying airfields, bridges, supply and command centres. In this way NATO might prevent the Warsaw Pact from sustaining an attack.
Low-flying planes are the key to this strategy, since by flying in, low and fast, NATO aircraft can avoid detection by Warsaw Pact radar stations and antiaircraft missiles. NATO air forces have become highly skilled at low-level attack. The Tornado and F-16 can fly as low as 100 feet for hundreds of miles through enemy territory, even in bad weather and at night Goose Bay is one of the few places they can train this low without disturbing thousands of people who have political clout.
Warsaw Pact military planners do fear NATO's low-flying attack aircraft, just as NATO worries about the Warsaw Pact offensive capabilities. But we must doubt whether the Soviets have any interest in attacking the West. If the risk has decreased, shouldn't NATO be willing to reduce its preparedness?
Here's where Canada comes in. The Goose Bay centre is crucial to NATO's offensive air power. If NATO wants to attack deep inside Eastern Europe with both conventional and nuclear weapons, then pilots must train for that role.
BUT THE COMING cuts in Warsaw Pact forces will reduce the risk of surprise attack. Tanks in Eastern Europe and the western USSR will be cut by some 20 percent' combat aircraft by more than 11 percent. This comes on top of a unilateral and unremarked cut in 1987 in the Warsaw Pact's dual-capable (nuclear and conventional) air-craft by more than 15 per cent, according to the British Ministry of Defence.
NATO can afford to reduce its readiness for war as it verifies that the Warsaw Pact is actually shifting from offensive to defensive military doctrines. Compared to the Warsaw Pact, NATO air forces have a high level of readiness. The NATO pilots have the capacity to go to war tomorrow if they had to. But nobody believes they'll have to. The Warsaw Pact could not conceivably attack by surprise. NATO would have months of warning time.
Reducing low-flying training could build confidence. There is a thin line between being highly prepared for war and being seen by the other side as actually preparing for a war. Canada's delay of its decision on the new NATO Tactical Fighter Training Centre, pending verification that the Warsaw Pact is shifting to a defensive posture, could boost the conventional forces talks.
Canada could also propose that NATO switch its emphasis from strike aircraft to air defence aircraft. This could be linked to verification that Soviet changes are indeed being implemented. The result would be reductions in offensive capabilities on both sides.
IF SHIFTS to genuinely defensive postures on both sides can be achieved, the question will have to be asked: If the other side has no offensive capability what are we defending against?
By refusing to sign any more agreements for low-level training in Labrador and Quebec and by proposing a delay in construction of the proposed training centre, Canada can take an innovative step toward East-West confidence.
Malcolm Spaven is a defence analyst at the University of Edinburgh.