NATO's American commander is pushing European armies to devote more of their budgets to a buildup in conventional arms that some alliance officials say could lessen the West's dependence on nuclear weapons and help defuse expected protests against new U.S. atomic missiles in Europe.
Promoted by U.S. Gen. Bernard W. Rogers, the supreme allied commander in Europe, this focus on accepting the higher costs of a stronger conventional arsenal is running into opposition from those already concerned over bigger defense budgets during a protracted recession.
West Germany and other European allies bridled at the prospect of new hikes in defense spending and fear that stressing new conventional arms could in fact undermine public support for the deployment in Europe next year of Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles.
The call for a conventional force buildup coincides with efforts here at allied command headquarters to revise NATO battle plans and incorporate a new generation of conventional missiles capable of massive strikes deep within Warsaw Pact territory.
Designed to cut off front-line Soviet attack forces from reinforcements and support troops, the new long-range missiles have compounded apprehensions of Western European governments not accustomed to plotting extensive cross-border warfare and massive ground, as well as air, penetrations into Eastern European territory.
Another source of potential political friction involves France, which is not a member of NATO's military structure. The Paris government intends to invest heavily in a new generation of tactical nuclear weapons for the 1990s, a policy that runs counter to NATO thinking that advanced, costly conventional armaments will dominate future battlefields.
Rogers stirred public criticism in Europe recently by giving interviews and speeches initially interpreted as a possible shift in NATO strategy by stressing conventional deep strikes and playing down nuclear warfare.
The NATO command made it clear that Rogers was not proposing any new doctrine. But his staff has spent the past three years developing a new concept of operations called "attack on follow-on forces," which foresees significant changes in how NATO expects to answer a Soviet attack.
Keys to the new approach are the application of electronic warfare equipment to jam enemy communications and the development of precision-guided missiles and pilotless aircraft that can home in on targets behind Soviet lines. In the event of a Soviet assault, these weapons could be launched almost simultaneously with front-line NATO defenses striking at second echelon Warsaw Pact troops and installations.
The aim would be to break up the mass wave formations that the Soviets are expected to throw against Western Europe's outnumbered ground forces in a war.
Rogers has been urging Western European governments to meet the NATO "force goals" pledged for the 1983-88 period. He estimates this would cost member states an average 4 percent annual increase in defense spending.
This increase, however, is 1 percent more than the 3 percent target that most NATO countries are already having trouble meeting.
"I maintain the cost is affordable and reasonable," Rogers told a group of Dutch journalists recently.
A buildup of conventional forces would enable NATO to absorb a Soviet attack for much longer than it probably could now. In effect, this would move the alliance toward a doctrine of "no early use" of nuclear weapons that approaches the "no first use" declaration sought by some leading Western defense experts and disarmament groups.
Rogers opposes the "no first use" call, saying NATO must retain the first-use option to keep the Soviets guessing. But he clearly favors anything that would delay the nuclear trigger. He also holds out the possibility of removing at least some of the 6,000 nuclear warheads currently stored in Europe.
These arms were shipped here two or three decades ago to offset the tremendous advantage in conventional forces the Soviets maintain in Europe. But many of the weapons, including hundreds of nuclear mines and artillery shells, have long been obsolete.
"We have mortgaged our defense to the nuclear response," Rogers declared. "What I'm trying to do is build sufficient conventional forces."
By implying a lessened dependence on nuclear weapons, Rogers apparently is hoping that European governments will welcome the new, though more expensive, conventional arms concept to diminish the appeal of antinuclear movements.
A few allies have reacted positively, particularly Dutch officials, who have been looking for possible defense tradeoffs against nuclear weapons stored on their territory. A number of European defense specialists, too, have applauded Rogers' efforts.
But others, notably the West German government, have privately attacked Rogers' approach with unusual harshness. One exceptionally stinging article in the conservative daily Die Welt reported that the commander's remarks had stirred what "almost could be called a miniwar" in NATO circles.
West German officials say they would prefer to see less emphasis put on new conventional arms and tactics and more discussion about how conventional defense options are simply an element of overall NATO strategy. They fear that underscoring the conventional deterrent will result in public misconceptions and could weaken backing for NATO's nuclear modernization program.
"A conventional force deterrent is not sufficient," said a senior German diplomat. "It would be better to talk in terms of a balance of forces necessary."
Several other factors have been mentioned by Western European officials raising concern about the effectiveness of a new conventional attack concept within NATO.
First, for second echelon interdiction to succeed, it may require the firing of missiles simultaneously with the start of a Soviet offensive. Such a hair-trigger response would appear to blur NATO's rule of engagement for deep strikes, raising questions about time for political consultations.
Second, the firing of a cruise missile armed with a conventional warhead may send an ambiguous signal to the Soviets. Though intended to postpone a nuclear engagement, the missile could be mistaken by the Soviets for one carrying a nuclear warhead, which could result in the nuclear escalation that NATO had intended to avoid.
Third, the new operations concept would appear to mark a shift away from a basically static NATO defense, focused on holding the line along the East-West border, to a major emphasis on counterattack and deep penetration.