On the eve of a summit meeting of Western leaders this week, the Bush administration has proposed to its allies the eventual withdrawal of the U.S. arsenal of nuclear-tipped artillery shells from Western Europe, senior U.S. and diplomatic officials disclosed yesterday.
The unilateral withdrawal of a stockpile of nearly 1,400 U.S. nuclear weapons from West Germany and four other countries would occur as virtually all the enemy targets for such weapons disappear from Eastern Europe, due to the expected withdrawal of Soviet troops and recent democratic political reforms that have crippled the Warsaw Pact military organization, the officials said.
The U.S. proposal, which parallels a vigorous appeal from the Dutch and strong expressions of support by the West Germans, Italians and Belgians, is partly aimed at easing Soviet concerns about potential membership of a united Germany in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The London summit meeting of 16 Western heads of state Thursday and Friday will look for ways to reassure the Soviets that their interests will be best served by continued German participation in NATO.
Most of the nuclear-tipped artillery projectiles are now deployed in West Germany, and are incapable of hitting targets more than 18 miles away. With the political unification of East and West Germany later this year, the weapons will be widely viewed as militarily obsolete, officials said. The shells could also become a political embarrassment to the government of West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, they added.
President Bush plans to meet with senior military and foreign policy advisers at Kennebunkport, Maine, Monday to complete U.S. plans for the summit, and the officials yesterday declined to provide details of the new U.S. proposal, including its timing.
"The idea is in the air," a senior U.S. official said, and diplomatic sources confirmed that the proposal is one of several U.S.-backed initiatives on a list that was circulated to allied governments for comment in the past two days. While U.S. and diplomatic officials did not rule out the possibility that the idea could be modified before the summit begins, they said implacable opposition was not expected from any country and that initial responses had been largely favorable.
Asked whether Bush would present the new arms proposal in London, a senior official traveling with the president in Kennebunkport said late yesterday that "a number of ideas have been discussed for presentation at the NATO summit, but we are not going to discuss any details of those proposals."
Elimination of the nuclear artillery shells would leave roughly 700 U.S. warheads associated with short-range Lance missiles, and 1,400 nuclear bombs deployed with tactical aircraft in Europe.
The Soviet Union proposed in mid-June that the two sides promptly begin negotiations aimed at eliminating all these weapons and their Soviet counterparts; separately, Moscow has called for complete denuclearization of German territory.
The new U.S. initiative is seen by some officials as a way to fend off West European interest in the Soviet plan, while preserving the option, now favored by U.S. planners, of deploying roughly 450 new short-range nuclear missiles aboard U.S. and allied tactical aircraft in Europe beginning in 1995. The Bush administration has proposed spending $118.6 million during fiscal year 1991 on the weapons, known as Tactical Air-to-Surface Missiles, or TASMs.
NATO defense ministers agreed at a meeting in May near Calgary, Canada, on a diminished need for short-range nuclear systems in Western Europe, although they were unable to reach a consensus on the timing of any withdrawals or the number and type of nuclear weapons that should remain. Although they approved a statement supportive of the U.S. plan for future TASM deployments, senior West German officials have since ridiculed the plan as politically unacceptable.
The new U.S. initiative on artillery projectiles is the latest step aimed at responding to the sudden collapse of the Soviet military threat in Europe, officials said. In May, Bush canceled development of a new nuclear warhead for artillery shells and a new short-range nuclear-tipped missile to replace the Lance, which will become obsolete in the 1990s.
Bush also suggested a new, wide-ranging review of NATO strategy, which the summit meeting is expected to formally authorize.
Several officials said NATO leaders will likely provide a general endorsement of negotiations with the Soviet Union on short-range nuclear systems that would begin after completion of an East-West treaty reducing conventional, or non-nuclear, forces in Europe later this year. If U.S. artillery shells are withdrawn, only the Lance and its Soviet counterparts -- and air-launched nuclear weapons that the United States wants to exclude from negotiations -- would be left to negotiate about.
A unilateral withdrawal of artillery shells is appealing to some officials because their small size would make it difficult to verify compliance with any negotiated arms control agreement limiting or eliminating them.
Several officials also said that the leaders may agree that NATO military forces remaining in Europe will be used only in self-defense, a new formulation of longstanding alliance policy that is intended to provide additional reassurance to Moscow.
Staff writer Ann Devroy in Kennebunkport contributed to this report.