Mons, Belgium — Gen. Bernard W. Rogers, the man who commands both NATO's European theater and American forces in Europe, is on the offensive against the current ferment in NATO and the American malaise with the European alliance.
* Challenges the American discontent about NATO and welcomes the much-discussed strengthening of the alliance's ''European pillar.''
* Sees the role of NATO nuclear weapons as deterring Warsaw Pact nuclear use, not as compensating for the West's conventional weakness.
* Politely dissociates NATO from the US Army's AirLand Battle doctrine.
These were the highlights in a long, comprehensive interview with General Rogers at his Mons headquarters.
The four-star general also praised France's quiet cooperation with NATO, specified that his much-publicized target of a 4 percent increase in NATO defense spending would only meet existing force goals (and not finance new ''deep-strike'' armament) - and noted that congressional ceilings on US troop strength in Europe are now compelling him to withdraw an entire unit against his better judgment.
(The initial portion of the interview appears in today's paper, the rest in tomorrow's issue.)
General Rogers tackled first the strong misgivings in the United States about the European alliance.
''Now as I travel around the States speaking in various areas I always get the question, 'Why is it, general, that we should use our taxes for the purpose of defending Western Europe if they're not prepared to do it themselves?' ''
''You have to face that one directly and point out some of the hidden costs that are borne by the West Europeans,'' he continued, ''such as the provision of military facilities and real estate. Therefore, with no reimbursement whatever. . . . We in the United States have about 900 of those facilities in Western Europe for which not one dime is returned in tax or revenue. . . . Another hidden cost . . . here is conscription.''
He ticked off further European inputs: 90 percent of the ground forces and three-quarters of the air and sea personnel in peacetime. Seventy-five percent of land, 50 percent of air, and 30 percent of naval forces, even after a month of mobilization.
''Now Americans come back and say, 'Yes, but that's for us to help defend them.' ''
''No, that's to help defend our own vital interests,'' Rogers contended. The US ''has essential interests here in Western Europe, none the least of which is to ensure that Western Europe remains free.''
If the US pulled back its troops from Europe out of exasperation and turned isolationist, Rogers suggested, that ''would unravel this alliance'' and ''would move the Soviets a long ways down the road toward that objective they've set for themselves, which is to intimidate and coerce us here in Western Europe without having to fire a shot.''
This would be contrary to American interests, Rogers argued - and so would Henry Kissinger's proposed sanction of removing half of US troops from Europe if Europe doesn't beef up its own conventional strength. Rogers endorsed Kissinger's ''premises that we need to improve conventional forces,'' but he disagreed with Kissinger's drastic means of forcing the Europeans to this step.
Even the existing congressional ceiling of 315,600 American troops in Europe is already forcing him to eliminate this summer ''a whole single function'' that he would rather maintain. He will be shipping all the 800 pilots and maintenance staff of the OV-10 spotter aircraft for close air support back to the US, to make room for the TR-1 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft (a successor to the U-2).
Because of the ceiling, Rogers added, he may not be able to introduce some modern systems at all that he would like to.
When asked about Kissinger's proposal that the next NATO commander be European rather than American, Rogers noted the improbability of all 16 NATO members agreeing to NATO leadership by any other nationality. He also pointed out the advantage an American commander has of direct links to the political leadership of the alliance's strongest member.
Rogers was much more enthusiastic about Kissinger's (and others') call for a stronger ''European pillar'' within NATO. In particular, he hopes that European attempts to cooperate on arms production might let European industry compete with the hitherto dominant American industry for contracts for the next generation of high-tech weapons.
Rogers saw increased European cooperation as entirely positive and was not at all concerned that such European coordination might assume anti-American overtones. In this context he expressed special satisfaction with France's increased military cooperation with NATO, despite its absence from NATO's integrated military structure ever since President Charles de Gaulle pulled out of that part of NATO in the mid-'60s.
''We work very closely'' with the chief of staff of the French armed forces, Rogers declared, ''and over the years we have made great progress. Some things we talk about. Some things we don't talk about. . . . We have the plans for use of the First French Army as a reserve for Central Army Group.
''Those plans . . . have been exercised in command-post exercises. The allied air force of Central Europe works very closely with the tactical air force of France. (There is) a very close relationship between the navies in the Mediterranean. . . . If you knew as much as I know about the progress that has been made, you would be as encouraged as I am. As I mentioned, there are some things we don't talk about, just because they are sensitive for everybody concerned.''