Brussels — The military alliances of both West and East have been engaged in a battle of defense budgets this week, even as they prepare for next month's resumption of arms talks.
In Brussels, NATO defense ministers, after years of preoccupation with nuclear arsenals, scraped together more cash to bolster their conventional military strength.
This, in the face of widespread popular demands for spending cuts, was seen by the NATO governments as the most visible sign of an unusually harmonious gathering here Tuesday and Wednesday.
The European members of the alliance have been waging a major campaign to fend off American critics of West European defense spending. The Europeans have an especially anxious eye on measures floated in the American Congress that would limit, or even reduce, the United States military presence in Europe unless the Europeans remedy deficiencies in their own defenses.
On the other side of Europe's East-West divide, meanwhile, the defense ministers of the rival Warsaw Pact have been holding a meeting in Budapest; and the pact's foreign ministers have been gathered in East Berlin.
The Warsaw Pact, too, has been wrestling with the ques-NATO17NATO1
tion of defense spending. Just before this week's meetings, the Soviet Union and East Germany announced increases of 12 percent and 6 percent respectively in next year's defense expenditures.
The Kremlin announcement is taken to be a signal of its intention to match the West, rather than an accurate reflection of real defense outlays. Actual Soviet defense spending is kept a tight secret and reckoned by Western experts to be far greater than indicated publicly.
Although the Kremlin is scarcely subject to public opinion, Western analysts say recent Soviet declarations suggest Moscow is under some pressure to restrain its military costs. Leading Soviet figures are thought to be calling for increases in domestic rather than military spending. And the Warsaw Pact foreign ministers Tuesday issued a communique from East Berlin that was seen here as much more conciliatory than the harsh polemics to which NATO had recently become accustomed.
While making clear that ''the Warsaw Pact countries . . . will not allow themselves to fall into a situation of inferiority,'' the communique said the ''chance of a change for the better in the international situation now exists.''
In the Western camp, most members have been struggling to meet NATO's goal of 3 percent annual increases in defense spending. Recently, a strong incentive to follow through on this commitment has been provided by the sharpening criticisms coming from Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia and his congressional colleagues.
The NATO ministers, as a result, doubled the amount their countries will spend over the next five years on one of the alliance's most vital programs, its joint infrastructure - including such items as aircraft shelters, storage sites, and communications. The new figure is $7.85 billion. Although the US was asking for still greater outlays, something on the order of $10 billion, the compromise outcome was heralded on all sides as a ''remarkable'' achievement.
Several members were also able to demonstrate progress on another important NATO priority, ammunition supplies. They reported they now were close to a 30 -days' supply of various ammunitions and, in some cases, had exceeded this requirement.
This is a big change from the past, both in actual amounts of ammunition and in willingness to spend money to obtain it. It is seen by NATO officials as answering, at least in part, those criticisms of NATO readiness coming from the US Congress.
As part of this drive to improve the NATO conventional posture, numerous ministers pointed to recently adopted guidelines that would improve NATO's ability to counterattack with high-technology conventional weapons behind Warsaw Pact front lines during a war.
Several NATO officials, including US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, stressed that the meeting was a harmonious and productive one, free of the wrangling that has frequently characterized such sessions.
They were also hopeful that the results would go a long way toward not only improving alliance capabilities but also soothing US critics. And they expressed the belief that such a display of Western determination would strengthen the US negotiating stance when arms control talks resume with the Soviet Union in January.
''I am absolutely delighted with the unity, strength, and resolution at this meeting,'' Weinberger said.