11. Telegram From the Mission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to the Departments of State and Defense1

4449. Subj: Soviet Presence in the Mediterranean.

During my recent trip through the NATO southern region, which included extensive conversations with CINCSOUTH, COMSTRIKEFORSOUTH, COMLANDSOUTHEAST plus our Embassies, MAAG staffs and local officials in Ankara and Athens, I gained the strong impression that we need to take a much closer look at the significance of the improved Soviet force posture in the Mediterranean. As Washington is aware, the present NATO assessment, dating from June 1968, is that Soviet objectives in the Med are primarily political and psychological. While this may still be true, I believe we need to have another look at the politico-military implications for the Mediterranean area, which to my mind are disturbing.
While it is true that Soviet naval units in the Med lack air support and do not constitute a balanced force, the recent addition of helo carriers, more submarines and the nucleus of an amphibious capability add up to a naval force of important dimensions. The Sixth Fleet would have to deal with this force initially in the event of hostilities and this would clearly distract from its primary mission of supporting the land war on the Mediterranean littoral. The delay might well be critical, given the lack of operating terrain on the southern flank, particularly Greek and Turkish Thrace. And the imperative need for timely [omission in the original].
Moreover, while the Soviets have not yet sought to develop an air support capability in the Med, this is not necessarily precluded for the future. Also, given political trends in Egypt, Algeria and Libya, it is not impossible to imagine the Soviets being given turn-around or recovery base rights in those countries which would permit land based air strikes from Bulgaria or the southwestern USSR against NATO forces in the Med.
Secondly not since 1944 have US naval forces had to operate in a situation like the one presently prevailing in the Med where its units must operate alongside a potentially hostile naval force of some size. Among other things, this constitutes an inhibition on the Sixth Fleet’s capacity to intervene in situations where it may be in our interest to [Page 41] intervene. Conversely, greater Soviet capability would enable them to intervene if a situation arose in which they regarded it as safe and expedient to do so. Moreover, while the Soviets might have been able to adduce lack of military wherewithal as a reason for inaction during the 1967 War, they could not do so as credibly now and would therefore lose considerable political mileage with dissatisfied local clients.
In sum, it seems to me that the Mediterranean constitutes the area of greatest relative change in recent years in the NATO–Warsaw Pact military balance. This is certainly where the current action is as far as the Soviets are concerned, and I believe some shift of our attention from the relatively more stable center region of ACE would be desirable. The problem of Italian-Greek-Turkish relations as it affects NATO strength in this key area needs particular attention in Washington.
Our immediate objective should be to focus attention of NATO delegations on this general problem and fortunately the Libyan coup2 has already generated considerable local interest. I intend to explore the matter with Brosio and individually with PermReps from the countries most directly concerned, i.e. Italy, France, UK, Greece, Turkey. I would brief them on my impressions, suggest that they themselves visit NATO commands in the area, utilizing roughly the same sources I talked to and solicit their opinions on what NATO might do in response to the whole spectrum of changing military and political factors in the Mediterranean.
I think it essential that these countries themselves take the lead in addressing the problem, hopefully looking toward a reassessment we could support either at Ministerial or PermRep level.
Where NATO might go after such a reassessment is of course an open question and one the USG should address before proceeding as in para 7. USNATO has various options under consideration, both political and military, open to NATO countries, which may be useful in a possible next round of measures to cope with the Mediterranean situation. In the meantime, we would welcome any addressee comments on this telegram and suggestions for any measures that might be taken.
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 275, Agency Files, President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, Vol. II. Secret; Limdis; Noforn. It was repeated to USDOCOSOUTH, USNMR SHAPE, CINCEUR, Ankara, Athens, Rome, Paris, London, the White House, COMSIXTHFLT for Vice Admiral Richardson, and USDOCOLANDSOUTHEAST for General Harrel.
  2. The Free Officers Movement overthrew Libyan King Idris on September 1. As a result, Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi became Commander-in-Chief of the Libyan Armed Forces and de facto head of state.