To quiet possible Westerns European objections to the current strategic arms limitation draft agreement, Carter administration officials want to accelerate building for NATO one or more medium-range, land-scaped nuclear missile systems whose warheads could hit the Soviet homeland, government sources said yesterday.
No land-based NATO missile can do that now.
The plan to push the new missiles is currently under study by the National Security Council and a positive decision by President Carter is expected shortly. White House aides cautioned, yesterday, that the President has yet to study the matter.
The proposal to step up development of a new medium-range missile highlights the shift in the U.S. Soviet nuclear arms race, from intercontinental strategic systems to tactical ones, those of shorter range that would be used in any European war.
The current plan is a response to NATO concern over the buildup of Soviet nuclear forces in the European theater.
It also coincides with final negotiations between the United States and Soviet Union on the SALT II agreement. In the past month, West Europeans have voiced fears that their interests are not being protected in SALT, a change that has been picked up and magnitude by opponents of the proposed treaty in the U.S. Senate.
Carter officials, with their eyes on the need for Senate ratification of SALT, see a step up in a development of a European missile as needed as much for political as military purposes.
Although the SALT II draft agreement deals primarily with long-range strategic weapons, its protocol, which would be in effect for three years, would prohbiti the United States from sending to Europe a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range above 360 miles.
U.S. negotiators accepted that provision because the GLCM is still under development and is not expected to be produced and ready to overseas deployment until 1982 - after the protocol has run out.
Under the proposal now before the President, funds for developing the extended-range Pershing II missile as a second European-based system, would be sharply increased so that it, too, would be available in 1982. Some $100 million is reportedly to be put in a fiscal 1979 supplemental appropriation bill scheduled to go to Congress in January shortly after it convenes.
Thus, with both the GLCM and Pershing II in rapid development, the United States could all but guarantee that some NATO missile would be deployed in the early 1980s.
As an adjunct to the new missile proposal, the Department of Energy last month ordered development engineering to begin on nuclear warheads for both the new Pershing II and the GLCM.
Although NATO forces can now reach the Soviet Union with both Polaris submarine missiles and European-based bombers, desire for a visible land-based missile system has developed because of Soviet deployment of the SS-20, a mobile ballistics missile system with three independently targeted warheads on each missile. The SS-20 can reach NATO countries from its bases in western Russia.
The extended range Pershing II will be a follow-on the mobile Pershing ballistic missile now in the hands of U.S. and West Germans forces. As of today these single warheads misiles have a range of 400 miles - far too short to hit the Soviet Union from West Germany.
Soviet demands that the GLCM be included in the SALT protocol also reflect sensitivity to the prospect that NATO forces, and particularly West Germany, might some day operate nuclear weapons that could hit Russia.
The current proposal to accelerate development of the extended range pershing - which is expected to travel over 800 miles - also "we'll have the Soviets screaming bloody murder," one Carter official said.
Of 180 Pershings now in Europe, 108 are in the hands of U.S. Army troops and 82 are operated by West German air force units. Although the West Germans have control over the delivery systems, the U.S. retains custody of the nuclear warheads until they are released by presidential order.