West Germany's defense minister, in a quiet yet unprecedented move for a Bonn defense chief, has called on the leaders of the North Atlantic Alliance to review "the political effect" of holding massive manuevers stretching across Europe from Norway to Turkey ever autumns.
The remarks by Hans Apel have provoked interest and some concern within NATO because, in effect, they amount to a polite yet clear questioning of the strategy developed primarily by the supreme allied commander in Europe, Gen., Alexander Haig, over the past four years.
That strategy involves pulling together sometimes as many as 30 individual national or joint military maneuvers into a more massive exercise with the aim of improving realistic training and coordination and demonstrating preparedness.
Apel's remarks are the latest in a series of public and private expressions of unhappiness about the massive size of NATO wargames. Some Germans have argued that it creates adverse paychological effects in the Third World when compared to smaller though more frequent Soviet bloc exercises. Others see threats to detente or argue that the sheer size precludes such exercises from being properly coordinated. Finally, some say such demonstrations of NATO might give military commanders on both sides arguments for higher budgets.
This fall, some 323,000 allied troops from a dozen countries are taking part in various aspects of what NATO calls its "Autumn Forge" exercises, the bulk of which are centered along the main East-West front in Germany.
What makes Apel's remarks doubly interesting, however, is that they come about two weeks after one of his top civilian deputies - State Secretary Andreas von Buelow - touched off a political row here and in NATO circles with the first public questioning of the wisdom of holding maneuvers on such a large scale.
Specifically, Von Buelow - a Social Democratic Party member - questioned whether such a big maneuvers might cause a negative reaction in Eastern Europe, jeopardize detente and unnecessarily strain Bonn's relations with its neighbors to the East.
His remarks were quickly disavowed by the Social Democrat-led government of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, which has been the target of recent charges by the conservative opposition and newspapers that the left-wing of Schmidt's party has been advocating naive ideas that would weaken Bonn's attachment to NATO and be more accommodating toward the Soviets.
Schmidt's chancellory, backed Haig, and Apel also made clear that he favored and understood the need for training.
Now, however, without endorsing what von Buelow said about provoking the East, Apel has said in a radio interview that "I have suggested to our friends in Brussels" at NATO headquarters "that we should get together after the maneuvers are over and discuss the military value, the military results and the political effect and presentation of these exercises."
"I'm not aware of any kind of tension" between Bonn and Brussels on this issue, Apel told his questioner. "I find it quite normal" to request such a discussion, he said.
"After all, it applies to NATO as well as to individual nations that politicians decide how, what and why something is done." The inference is that it is not military men who should decide. While Haig is probably the most respected commander the alliance has had in many years, his critics argue that these exercises have grown to a point where they are personal advertisements for Haig and NATO.
At NATO, headquarters, there is some evidence of uncertainty over what Apel is up to.
"Haig was given authority by the civilian leadership of the alliance to draw together various NATO maneuvers into a coherent pattern," one official points out.
Sources in Bonn's chancellory, however, tend to confirm that officials here, despite their disavowal of Von Buelow's initial remarks, do think that a fresh look is needed.
Von Buelow argues that such largescale maneuvers allow analyst on both sides to feed material to politicians that can cause an upward spiral in the arms race. He also points out that the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact actually holds three times as many maneuvers as NATO but they are smaller, usually with fewer than 25,000 men each, and thus attract less attention.
A Bonn chancellory official privately puts it this way!
"NATO maneuvers are more easily sold to the Third World as a probe for war, while it is difficult to show that for Warsaw Pact maneuvers. So maybe we are passing up a psychological warface victory. The Soviets have many more soldiers in maneuvers than NATO, but if you live in Zambia you are apt to feel NATO is the more aggressive."
A U.S. official says Apel's call for a review call may be healthy in that East-West manuevers now are open to observers from other countries. The 35-nation Helsinki conference agreed on such confidence building measures three years ago.
"So you've got to think a little harder now about what the impact is on the other side, whether we are sending the signals we want to send. Maybe we want to signal preparedness but at the same time it comes across as confrontation."
Apel's latest comments, however, drew sharp fire from opposition. Christian Democrat parliamentarian Willi Welskirch, who called the defense minister's remarks "irresponsible."
The dispute here between the government and opposition added a measure of doubt and frustration in many allied capitals, not about West Germany's allegiance to NATO, but about what it is specifically that this increasing powerful country really wants.
Schmidt and Apel recently have been appealing to United States to protest European interest against new Soviet medium-range missiles and bombers pointed at Western Europe. Yet Bonn has not been able to sell Washington or NATO specific suggestions. In part, this is because of years of pressure from the Social Democrats' left-wing if there is any new arms build-up in West Germany.
A year gao a report by U.S. columnists that one option in the event of a Soviet attack was to withdraw from one-third of West Germany caused great consternation in Bonn and resulted in requests for reassurrance from Washington.
Now, as one U.S. official points out, one of the clearest demonstrations of the commitment to defend the West Germanys - the large-scale manuevers - seems to be bothering them.