Defense ministers of 10 NATO nations signaled their support today for producing and stationing of new U.S. medium-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe despite Dutch reservations, U.S. officials disclosed.
They said the alliance was expected to make a formal decision to go ahead with the modernization plan at next month's full-scale NATO meeting of foreign and defense ministers at Brussels Dec. 11-12.
The 11-nation nuclear planning group, which began its two-day semi-annual meeting here today, is the last alliance review before the Brussels meeting on whether to begin production of new Pershing II and Tomahawk cruise missiles and eventually to deploy them in England, West Germany, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands.
The new weapons, whose deployment would begin in the fall of 1983, are designed to balance new Soviet SS20 medium-range missiles and Backfire bombers already fielded by the Kremlin.
The issue has been sensitive and divisive from the start because the new missiles could, for the first time, reach the Soviet Union from European bases. The Kremlin has aimed a massive campaign of threats and conciliatory gestures at Western Erope to try and stop the NATO plan.
The Dutch have always been at the center of the controversy because anti-nuclear sentiment, and thus resistance to the plan runs higher here than elsewhere.
Earlier today, U.S. defense officials told reporters after the opening round of discussions that "it is rather well known that the Netherlands government has positions somewhat different than those of some other governments."
These officials, however, declined to discuss the specific Dutch position publicly and showed considerable understanding of the delicacy of the political situation here.
These officials said Dutch Defense Minister Willem Scholten presented his government's case showing "that the Dutch value, and are deeply concerned for, the collective security of the alliance."
The political maneuvering in the Dutch government and parliament to find a solution has accelerated recently and some new positions have been reached which -- while still at variance with the rest of Nato -- may allow Holland to retain some of its reservations without blocking NATO or alienating itself.
Last week, Holland's Christian Democratic Appeal, the bloc within the ruling coalition government, took a position that favored production of the new weapons but insisted that no decision on actual deployment be made for two more years until it is determined if arms control negotiations with the Soviets are successful.
The Dutch government has not formally adopted this stance but presented it informally today with "considerable passion" to NATO.
The U.S. position, however, as defense officials reiterated here today, is that there must be no distinction between production and deployment as well for any negotiations to be taken seriously by the Kremlin.
A U.S. official said that "the distinction between production and deployment has not appeared to attract any significant degree of support." He said this after the British, Belgian, West German and Italian ministers had already spoken, and he later expanded it to cover all ministers.
What this means, therefore, is that there is support for deployment among these other countries. This is crucial because of the West German insistence that it not be the only non-nuclear country in Western Europe to allow stationing of these weapons. Thus Bonn now seems assured of the company at least of Belgium and Italy. The British are already a nuclear power.
Holland had been crucial because it was feared that if the issue were pressed here it could even cause the government to fall and thus perhaps weaken support as well in neighboring Belgium.
While the defense ministers did not say so publicly today, it now seems clear that NATO will go ahead with the plan to matter what the Dutch do and U.S. officials did not contradict reporters who drew that conclusion.
On the other hand it is clear that the West Europeans still badly want the Dutch, whose views carry considerable weight in some circles.
The Christian Democratic Appeal's position can be seen as a step toward Dutch endorsement of the NATO plan but it is still far from certain how things will evolve here.
If the production-only Dutch position is rejected by NATO, as it surely will be, the Dutch may fall back to the view of the smaller and more conservative Liberal Party coalition partner that supports both aspects of the NATO plan.