ROME, FEB. 1 -- Italy, which views the removal of a wing of U.S. F16s from Spain as a "disastrous" blow to the defense of NATO's southern flank if the 72 fighter-bombers are withdrawn from Europe, is considering accepting the aircraft, possibly at a southern air base that currently houses cruise missiles, according to Italian sources.

Italian government sources said the F16s have been the subject of intense discussions within the Cabinet of Prime Minister Giovanni Goria and the Defense and Foreign Affairs ministries in recent weeks. No decision has been reached so far, pending discussions with U.S. Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci, who will arrive here Thursday after a visit to Portugal.

Two weeks ago, soon after the United States bowed to Spanish demands and agreed to remove the 401st Tactical Fighter Wing from Spain in three years, the Italian government announced that it was not in Italy's interest, or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's, for the U.S. planes to be withdrawn from Europe.

"It would be disastrous if they {the United States} proceed to dismantle a group of aircraft so important for the defense of the southern flank of the Atlantic Alliance," Defense Minister Valerio Zanone said last week.

A high-ranking Italian government source said Italy is not "in principle" opposed to accepting the F16s when they are withdrawn from Spain.

Zanone, in an address to the Italian Military Academy in Modena last week, said if Italy were to accept the F16s, "there is every probability that a place for them would be found in a southern area" of the country. He said that, given the size of the wing -- about 4,500 U.S. airmen and an equal number of family members -- "an agreement with NATO is required. No Italian base at the moment is capable of measuring up to the problem."

While Italian government officials have declined to be pinned down on just where the planes might be stationed, the Italian press has speculated that the most likely place might be the U.S. cruise missile base at Comiso, Sicily. It has the facilities and commands the Mediterranean that the 401st Tactical Fighter Wing is assigned to defend under NATO plans.

But putting the F16s in Comiso might be problematical, because the F16s are capable of carrying nuclear weapons and the Comiso community has demonstrated against the presence of the nuclear cruise missiles at the base.

Under terms of the intermediate-range nuclear force (INF) treaty signed at the Washington summit in December, the cruise missiles will be dismantled in three years -- the same schedule for the withdrawal of the F16 wing from Spain. That timetable has been taken as an ominous sign by Comiso residents, who held public celebrations when the INF treaty was signed.

Zanone and other Italian government officials have denied, however, that they are planning to relocate the planes in Comiso. In private, government officials said the planes also could go to a U.S. air base near Aviano in northeast Italy near the Yugoslav border or to an American base on Sardinia.

Italian defense officials argue that the U.S. fighter wing is needed in Europe at least until a U.S.-Soviet agreement on the reduction of conventional forces in the European theater. To pull the planes back before that would disrupt the balance of conventional forces that many defense analysts argue is already tilted in the Soviet Union's favor.

Given Greece's aversion to U.S. bases on Greek soil, Defense Ministry officials said only two countries could receive the U.S. F16 wing -- Portugal or Italy.

Zanone is expected to report to Parliament this week on the F16s. The Communist Party and the ecologically oriented Greens have already announced that they oppose relocating the wing in Italy.