Heavy Conventional Weapons


Heavy Conventional Weapons



By the end of the Second World War in Europe, the Allied victors were deploying large troops and holdings of conventional weapons and equipment. The arms build-up and the concentration of armed forces and weapons in Europe continued shortly after the end of the war and continued during the Cold War. It was only at the beginning of the 1970s that the tense security relationship between the two military blocs – NATO and the Warsaw Pact – improved somewhat, allowing the start of negotiations on limitations of conventional weapons in Europe.

In 1973, the first negotiations began in Vienna – the so-called Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction Talks or MBFR negotiations. The purpose of these negotiations was initially to reduce and control conventional weapons and military forces in Central Europe, i.e., on the NATO side in the former West Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, and in the former East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Poland on the Warsaw Pact side. Due to their forces stationed in Central Europe, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the former Soviet Union also participated in the negotiations. On grounds of principle, France refused to participate in the negotiations, because it was opposed to the block-to-block approach and to regional arms control in Europe. Denmark, Greece, Italy, Norway, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary had a special status of “indirect” participants in the negotiations. From 1975 to 1979 the negotiations also included the issue of reductions of nuclear weapons and their means of delivery. Although the MBFR negotiations lasted for 15½ years, they did not lead to any concrete result in the form of an agreement on reductions to conventional forces and weapons. The main reason for this was that both sides disagreed on whether reductions of the military forces on both sides should be symmetrical, or whether larger (asymmetric) force reductions should be made by the member countries of the Warsaw Pact. The latter alternative was NATO’s negotiating proposition, which was justified by the much larger conventional forces (especially ground forces and tanks) in the Warsaw Pact countries. NATO wanted these larger forces reduced to the same level as their own. The two sides also fundamentally disagreed about the method of calculating the numbers of personnel and equipment in the armed forces of the Warsaw Pact area and about verifying compliance with any agreement. The US’s political motivation for participating in the MBFR negotiations was – in addition to seeking détente and to limiting the military confrontation in Europe through arms control – the desire to reduce the American military forces stationed in Western Europe. The Soviet Union considered the MBFR negotiations an opportunity to confirm the borders in Europe after the Second World War and at the same time reduce the US military presence in Europe. The latest negotiating proposals were submitted in 1985. The MBFR negotiations formally ended in 1989.

Despite the failure of the MBFR negotiations, they were an essential starting point and the basis for later negotiations on conventional armed forces in Europe. The background for the beginning of these new negotiations was a speech by Mikhail Gorbachev in Berlin in April 1986, in which he suggested that an agreement should be concluded to reduce all conventional land and air forces of the European countries and the American and Canadian forces stationed in Europe, with the area of the reductions covering the entire European continent from the Atlantic to the Urals. The initiative of taking new steps toward conventional disarmament and arms control was accepted and confirmed by NATO in a declaration by the North Atlantic Council in 1986. The Warsaw Pact countries collectively confirmed Gorbachev’s proposal in a declaration in 1986.

CFE Negotiations

On this basis, informal discussions were initiated in 1987 between the then-sixteen NATO countries on the one hand and the seven former member states of the Warsaw Pact (WP) on the other. In 1989, the two parties agreed on a mandate for negotiations on conventional armed forces in Europe. The main elements of the mandate for the negotiations were as follows:

The participants in the negotiations should be all twenty-three member countries of the two military alliances – NATO and WP.

The negotiations should take place within the framework of the CSCE process.

The aim of the negotiations should be to strengthen stability and security in Europe by establishing a secure and stable balance of conventional armed forces in Europe at lower levels, i.e., conventional weapon systems and equipment.

Disparities prejudicial to stability and security should be eliminated.

The capability for launching surprise attack and for initiating large-scale offensive action should be eliminated.

The agreement should apply to all land territories of the participants on the European continent from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains, and for the Soviet Union should include the entire Soviet territory west of the Ural River and the Caspian Sea.

The negotiations should not include nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, or naval forces.

Compliance with the agreement should be verified, including through the right of the participating states to on-site inspections and exchanges of sufficiently detailed information on the size of weapons holdings and geographical location.

The agreement should be legally binding under international law.

The venue for the negotiations should be in Vienna.

All decisions in the negotiations should be taken by consensus.

CFE Treaty

The negotiations on the CFE Treaty started in Vienna in March 1989 at a time of political upheaval of historic significance and with new security challenges in Europe: the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 and the unification of the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) on 3 October 1990. After the German unification, the final part of the CFE negotiations included the following twenty-two states: all the then-sixteen NATO countries: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and the six WP countries: Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and the Soviet Union.

After less than two years of intensive negotiations, agreement was reached on the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE Treaty), which was signed in Paris on 19 November 1990, immediately before the summit of heads of state and government of the CSCE countries. The CFE Treaty entered into force in November 1992.

The CFE Treaty was the first – and probably the last – comprehensive international agreement on disarmament and arms control of major conventional weapons. The CFE no longer includes Russia because Russia has suspended its participation. In light of the historic significance of the agreement for understanding the actual security situation in Europe, the main contents of the Treaty are described below.


The treaty established a limit of 20,000 battle tanks, 30,000 armoured combat vehicles, 20,000 artillery pieces, 6,800 combat aircraft, and 2,000 attack helicopters for each of the two groups of parties, i.e., NATO and WP. The weapons categories and types of weapons that are limited by the treaty are enumerated in the treaty’s Protocol on Existing Types of Conventional Armaments and Equipment. The CFE also established active unit limits for each weapon category and ceilings for the number of weapons that are allowed to be held in storage sites. Within the total group ceilings, the states in each group could decide how they would distribute the group’s total holdings among themselves in maximum permitted national holdings. The treaty contains sub-regional ceilings for the maximum holdings of the first three weapon categories that may be located within each of the four zones stipulated by the treaty. The purpose of the division into four zones was to prevent concentrations of equipment, especially in Central Europe and in the European part of the Soviet Union, and thereby ensure regional balance. The zones are concentric circles. The ceiling of the innermost zone was the lowest and the ceiling in the outer zone was the highest. The system of sub-ceilings for the zones made it possible to move equipment from the inside outward, but not in the opposite direction, toward the centre. To prevent equipment from being too concentrated in the outer zone, limitations were established for the maximum quantities of equipment that could be moved to the flank areas (in Norway and Turkey, on NATO’s side).


The ceilings were higher than the total inventories of the NATO countries, except for battle tanks and certain combat vehicles. The CFE Treaty committed the NATO