PARIS, DEC. 28 -- Spain's determination to force the United States to withdraw all 72 U.S. F16 fighter-bombers stationed in that country is creating significant problems for the European allies of both nations as well as for Washington and Madrid.
The most apparent problems are the logistical ones of finding a new European base for the aircraft, which, according to informed diplomatic sources, must leave by 1991 under the terms of a still officially unacknowledged decision conveyed by the Spanish government to the United States on Dec. 10. There is no quick alternative to Spain for the three F16 squadrons based at Torrejon, near Madrid.
European defense officials are also increasingly concerned about the spillover of the U.S.-Spanish deadlock onto separate but related discussions in Brussels over the terms of Spain's membership in the military command of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
"The question we now face is whether NATO can afford another France, another half-way member that reserves the right to make its own decisions about the use of its troops if war comes," said a senior West European defense official.
France remains a member of NATO's political alliance. But it withdrew from the alliance's integrated military command in 1966 and has refused since then to engage in NATO defense planning or maneuvers.
Spanish officials deny that they seek to follow a French model in NATO. But the unyielding refusal of Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez's Socialist government to agree to earmark Spanish troops for integration into the NATO command in peacetime or during war is for NATO officials strongly reminiscent of France's rejection of any "automaticity" in its relations with NATO.
Initially it was the Gonzalez government that introduced indirect linkage between the negotiations over the F16s and the status of four major U.S. bases in Spain and the parallel discussions about Spanish military participation in NATO.
Gonzalez, elected in 1982 soon after a center-right government brought Spain into NATO, won a referendum vote to keep Spain in NATO last year. In return for approval by Spaniards of continued NATO membership, Gonzalez promised his leftist electorate that Spain would not host nuclear weapons or fully integrate into NATO militarily. The third condition was that there would be a significant reduction in American military presence.
He has argued since the referendum that this popular endorsement of the alliance should be more than adequate compensation for the removal of the 401st Tactical Air Wing of F16s from Torrejon, which he contends stirs anti-Americanism in Spain.
Spanish officials have also hinted in the past that Gonzalez might be willing to have Spain take on a larger role in NATO than originally contemplated if a quiet compromise could be reached on the F16 issue. But they were always vague on what form that participation might take, and asserted that they could not speak for Gonzalez.
The prospects for such a trade-off would appear to have vanished with Gonzalez's decision to inform the United States on Dec. 10 that the F16 departure was now a "nonnegotiable" issue.
That impression was gained in any case by some of the European diplomats, journalists and academics who attended a seminar on defense issues held in the Spanish city of Toledo on Dec. 11, one day after the decision on the F16s had been conveyed to the U.S. Embassy in Madrid by Foreign Minister Francisco Fernandez Ordonez.
Spanish officials speaking at the seminar insisted that Spain's membership in NATO had to be "tailored" to its requirements and reiterated that Spain's military would not agree to take on alliance commitments outside Spanish territory.
The tone of the officials' remarks struck some present as unusually strident for a semipublic gathering, particularly since senior U.S. Embassy representatives were present.
Details of Spain's decision to set a unilateral timetable for the withdrawal of the F16s from Torrejon were published in The Washington Post on Thursday. The State Department has declined to comment on that decision or any details about the talks on the F16s.
Government spokesmen in both Washington and Madrid have sought instead to redirect public attention to the status of the broader negotiations on basing rights at all four locations in Spain for U.S. forces, which have been postponed until January.
El Pais, Madrid's most influential daily, quoted Spanish officials on Saturday confirming that a mid-1991 deadline has been set by Spain on the F16s.
The dispute between Washington and Madrid has come at a particularly awkward moment for the major European members of NATO, who are pushing for increased European defense efforts within the alliance and within the smaller Western European Union. Spain has expressed interest in joining the union and in associating itself with any wider expression of French-West German defense cooperation.
But these expressions are being received coolly by all other European nations, including France, while the dispute with the United States becomes more intense behind the scenes, diplomatic sources report. NATO members are also likely to be reluctant to be seen by their publics to provide a new base for U.S. military units that Spain asserts are too politically unpopular to be kept there.
"It will be more than ironic if the first material result of Spain's membership in NATO is that it does less for western security than it did before it was a member," said a senior allied official. "What is a country like Italy supposed to do then? Say it will take the planes and do more so that Spain can do less?"