To meet concerns raised by the Bonn government, the United States has pushed back by four months the target date for placing the controversial new Pershing II missiles in West Germany, according to Pentagon sources.
In addition, these sources said, Bonn wants to delay setting the date for accepting new U.S. cruise missiles.
The change in deployment dates is just one of several unpublicized moves that have been made in the face of apparently growing public opposition in all NATO countries, particularly West Germany, to the NATO decision to place new, U.S. long-range, theater nuclear missiles on West European soil.
U.S. officials fear that each change increases the chance that the entire deployment decision may come apart, leaving NATO in military disarray.
The new 1,000-mile-range Pershings were scheduled to be placed in Germany by December, 1983, at the same time American 1,500-mile-range ground-launched cruise missiles were to be deployed in England.
By delaying the deployment date to April, 1984, the government of West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt will now be able to say the Pershings will be coming into the country at the same time American cruise missiles are to be placed on Italian soil.
Schmidt has made the policy of "continental simultaneity" a hallmark of his NATO nuclear weapons policy. That is, the Bonn government will accept modernized U.S. tactical and theater weapons if they are also being accepted by another continental NATO country.
West Germany is also in line to receive cruise missiles. In fact, the largest number are scheduled to be placed there.
However, according to Pentagon sources, the deployment date for those missiles has been put off because Bonn will not allow them until a second NATO power, in addition to Italy, accepts them.
Both Belgium and The Netherlands agreed in the 1979 NATO meeting to accept cruise missiles. But since then, both governments have been forced by public opposition to put off at least until 1982, any final deployment decisions.
Thus, according to Pentagon sources, it could be a year or more before the date and location for deployment of U.S. cruise missiles in West Germany is set.
There have been several other signs of military changes in response to the opposition to the new missiles.
Once the Pershing deployment date was changed, the West Germans and the Italians were supposed to announce simultaneously the bases in their countries where the Pershings and cruise missiles would be placed.
The Italians last month named a military air base in Sicily. But the Germans, who according to informed sources had picked out an air base for the Pershings late last year, have yet to disclose it publicly.
Again, to meet the desires of the Bonn government, the United States from the start of negotiations agreed that the missiles would be manned solely by Americans and would be considered U.S. units attached to NATO. Thus, there never was consideration of any "two-key" approach, where the host country controlled the launcher and American troops controlled only the nuclear warhead.
The Germans are particularly sensitive to control over these weapons since their range permits them to reach the Soviet Union. It would, for example, take only four to six minutes for a Pershing II ballistic missile to reach Russia from West Germany.
A cruise missile, which travels more slowly, could take about 30 minutes.
The longest range NATO missile now is the 400-mile Pershing Ia, whose warhead can reach only into Poland, East Germany and other Eastern European countries, but not Russia. The West German air force controls Pershing Ia missiles, although the U.S. military holds the warheads.
That ability to reach Moscow has made the Pershing II and cruise missiles the focus of an intense propaganda campaign by the Soviet Union. In fact American critics of the European antinuclear movement say Moscow is fanning if not specifically directing the missile opposition.