In 1983, "the year of the missile," the European members of NATO were preoccupied successfully with facing down the nuclear blackmail of Soviet SS20 missiles. Too little noticed, this past year, 1984, has turned out to be "the year of conventional forces."

The new attention to conventional capabilities is directly related to fear of nuclear war. Some of this fear finds expression -- wrongly, I believe -- in calls for nuclear freezes or unilateral nuclear disarmament. Some of it is rooted -- rightly -- in anxieties that our deterrent depends more on nuclear weapons than it should.

NATO was clearly shaken by the dramatic Senate debate last June over whether the United States should try to force greater defense contributions from its European allies by threatening to withdraw some troops from the continent if the allies did not shore up the conventional aspect of NATO's strategy of flexible response.

The debate was sparked by an amendment offered by Sen. Sam Nunn, and jolted existing NATO efforts that had already placed conventional improvements squarely on the front burner. Earlier this month in Brussels, NATO defense ministers took major steps to improve the reinforcement and sustainability of NATO forces. They approved a budget of $7.8 billion for an infrastructure program that builds airfields, depots, pipelines, communications satellites and so on. This figure means that spending on these facilities will more than double in the next six years.

In a particularly important part of the agreement, funds were pledged to receive and protect reinforcing aircraft sent from the United States in a crisis. This will provide 70 percent of the support requirements for NATO's tactical air reinforcements. The ministers also agreed to expand critical ammunition stocks -- a perennial NATO shortcoming.

The West German defense minister was able to report his country had extended its term of national conscription by three months -- hardly a popular decision, but a courageous one. For the first time, moreover, the alliance adopted a set of force goals meant to provide compensation by the other allies for possible U.S. deployments outside the NATO area.

Defense ministers heard that by NATO definition the United States, Canada and seven or eight European members this year would increase real defense expenditures by at least 3 percent.

For the longer run, the new NATO secretary general, Lord Carrington, is to organize an effort for improving the alliance conventional deterrent. As part of this effort, the Germans pushed for integrating the new military doctrines, equipment programs and technology initiatives into a framework allowing better planning and procurement policies. An urgent need was recognized to improve transatlantic collaboration in developing and acquiring new arms.

U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger has established a Pentagon committee to foster executive branch coordination in this area, and European defense ministers are supporting the Independent European Program Group, formed to help the allies better coordinate their defense industrial efforts.

Alliance policy makers are aware that these are only the first steps in a long and difficult process. A wide gap remains between the American economic recovery and economic performance in Europe, and between their "high-tech" bases. Resource constraints, contending priorities and political pressures will conspire against NATO's conventional force improvements.

My confidence is strengthened, however, by the quality of the men at the top of NATO. Lord Carrington has provided splendid leadership in his first six months on the job. The defense ministers acclaimed the extension of Gen. Rogers' tour of duty for another two years.

NATO obviously wants to face the facts. It is moving. It has the leadership. It needs the support of the American people and Congress.