Like the German V-1 buzz bomb of World War II, a modern-day offspring known as the cruise missile is shaking up old and comfortable European ideas about how best to preserve their safety.
The reason European military planners are taking a new interest in the old concept of pilotless jet aircraft is that the small cruise missiles now under development by the United States are technologically years ahead - some say generations ahead - of anything within the grasp of American's NATO allies.
The U.S. cruise missile's big advantage lies in its sophisticated guidance system - if it works as advertised - would enable it to carry a nuclear or conventional bomb up to 2,000 miles and strike within yards of its target.
This new weapon - which can be mass-produced and is relatively inexpensive - is of considerable interest to U.S. NATO allies on several counts.
Militarily, it might help offset the big numerical advantage in tanks, armor and infantry of Soviet-led Warsaw Pact forces, and provided balance against hundred of Soviet intermediate-range missiles and bombers also targeted against Western Europe. Based in West Europe or at sea, medium-range version scould reach targets in Eastern Europe or even in the Soviet Union.
But the most important thing about the cruise missile is that, as a prospective long-range strategic weapon deployed on American bombers and aimed at the Soviet Union, it has entered the world of bi-laterial U.S.-Soviet negotiations on limiting strategic nuclear arms.
Thus, for the first time since the end of World War II and since the SALT talks began in 1969, the United States is in the business of making potential agreements and concessions with the Soviets on weapons that are not only of potentially great importance to the defense of Europe - as opposed to the U.S. or Soviet mainlands - but weapons that the NATO European allies want for themselves.
The ramifications of this situation are extraordinary. Though cruise misstill development money has been in the Pentagon budget for several years, the Europeans are only now beginning to grasp its significance.
This new weapon which is still some three years away from being ready - has become a focal point not only for hard-to-answer military questions but for far deeper probing of the U.S. strategic nuclear commitment to defend Europe over the long haul and Europe's ability to prepare eventually for its own defense.
Though no major news appeared to come out of the just-concluded NATO ministers meeting in Brussels, it was in fact the scene of the first quiet but concerted push by the European allies to demand that Washington protect European interests in the current round of SALT talks with the Soviets.
The Europeans want not only to be consulted, but to formalize a voice in preparation of position on such things as the cruise missile and perhaps another controversial U.S.-developed would-be-weapon - the neutron warhead.
The European allies, however, face a serious dilemma.While they want this voice, they are afraid of "decoupling" or pushing Europe out from under the protective American nuclear unbrella.
In other words, they don't want the United States to bargain away weapons of the future with which they can defend themselves. They also, however, don't want to provoke ideas of an independent European nuclear force.
While the West Germans argue forcefully against such independence, the French are whispering in the ears of the many members that to allow the American to negotiate them out of this potentially vital future technology will be signing away their ability to protect themselves in case the U.S. guarantee of nuclear protection ever does falter in a crunch - something which the French have always believed could happen.
The stakes for the major West European military powers are very high.
For example, France and England both now have small numbers of long-range nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles based on submarines and on land.
As these weapons age, it is possible that both countries might chose to replace them, and keep their own nuclear deterrent force alive, with less expensive and more numerous cruise missiles that could fly perhaps 1,500 miles and be based on land, on ships and on submarines that are less expensive than the U.S. polaris-variety used by Britain.
The West German interest is more in short-range, conventionally armed, land-based versions.
Under the proposed new SALT agreement being negotiated between Washington and Moscow, the United States claims it will not agreet o remlin demands forebiding transferring cruise missile technology to other countries during a three year-protocol to a new treaty.
This, however, does not mean the United States will give such technology to its allies if they want it. Thus, Europeans remain suspicious of whether the Carter administration would take the risk of annoying the Soviets though such a tactic would not be specifically banned.
The proposed three-year protocol would also ban deployment of cruise missiles with more than a 360-mile range during this period. While the administration has sought to assure Europeans that after three years it will keep the option open to deploy cruise missiles if necessary, the NATO allies fear that temporary bans tend to become permanent. For NATO needs, the 360-mile range is too short for most missions.
The other side of the dilemma is equally unsettling for NATO.
If the Europeans develop and deploy longer-range cruise missiles, it is almost certain to either tip over the SALT negotiations or bring into them all the things that the United Stats and NATO have been fighting to keep out of the arms talks for years - namely the hundreds of nuclear-equpped U.S. tactical war-planes and medium-range missiles based around the Soviet periphery and the nuclear arms of the French and British.
If long range land-and sea-based cruise missiles are banned in a permanent agreement, it could conceivably face Britain, for example, with a question of whether to breach in spirit a Washington-Moscow accord, to which it was not a party but which might otherwise be good for better East-West relations.
The Soviet anxiety over cruise missiles grows in part out of keeping such weapons out of Western Europe - and West Germany in particular - and in part out of an American technological lead estimated at some five years.
Most NATO allies, at least publicly, draw considerable comfort out of American technological supremacy over the Soviets in many weapons areas. But here too there is confusion and uncertainty over the difference between being ahead in the laboratory but behind in deployment.
Thus, when the White House decided against production of the new B-1 bomber, West German Defense Minister Georg Leber was known to be aghast that it was dropped unilaterally and without extracting any Soviet concession.
The same factors are operating in the case of the politically controversial neutron bomb, which many Europeans believe has been carelessly handled and explained by the Carter administration with the result that - good or bad - it will be lost to the arsenal, either by unwillingness or Washington or Europe to make a decision, without any Soviet concessions.
Similar uncertainties surround the question of whether the cruise missile will ever make it to the production line.
Recently, a noted British aviation authority, W. R. Tayler, editor of "Jane's all the World's Aircraft," challenged whether the United States was placing too much reliance on the relatively limited flexibility of cruise robots instead of manned-bombers whose crews can penetrate Soviet defenses, adjust to changing battle conditions, hit targets of opportunity and come back if plans change.
Collectively, the uncertain future of these weapons reflects in part continuing allied uncertainty over President Carter and where his real instincts lie in the field of defense.
The Europeans, however, despite their concerns, admit they are late-comers in thinking their own plans through and in a weak position to influence things at least at this point.
Furthermore, they are not entirely sure that they really want to do so.