AFTER the diplomatic snafus that followed the 1979 NATO decision to deploy intermediate-range cruise and Pershing II nuclear missiles in Europe, one might expect NATO to be a bit more careful about such things in the future. The Atlantic alliance, however, may be about to booby-trap itself again. Another nuclear modernization is under way, but political support for it is uncertain, and European governments have actively avoided any public or parliamentary debate on the subject.
If all goes according to plan, NATO will modernize its entire arsenal of nuclear artillery shells over the next five to 10 years, despite longstanding criticisms of such short-range nuclear weapons.
Some of the new artillery shells are already in production in the United States and could begin arriving in Europe within a year or two. Others, which will replace NATO's 155-mm nuclear artillery rounds, still require a congressional go-ahead before entering production.
American officials expect the modernization to encounter no serious political obstacles. ``The allies are, in fact, behind this development,'' Defense Department official Richard Wagner Jr. told a congressional committee in March.
If they are indeed behind it, America's major allies have been curiously reticent about it. ``No proposals have been made for [nuclear artillery] modernization,'' stated Adam Butler, British state secretary for defense procurement, in the House of Commons on Jan. 28. He repeated that statement in written form two months later: ``No specific proposals have been made to or considered by NATO ministers.''
The West German government has also chosen to publicly ignore the ongoing preparations for deployment of nuclear artillery shells. Both the British and German governments prefer to answer all questions on the matter by emphasizing NATO's Montibello Decision, under which the number of warheads in the European nuclear stockpile will declne by 1,400 warheads over the next several years. A German Defense Ministry spokesman has termed this ``an unprecedented unilateral step'' demonstrating NATO's ``policy of self-restraint.''
Pentagon officials, on the other hand, see the Montibello-mandated reductions going hand in hand with the modernization program. ``Due to the greater effectiveness of the new rounds, the older ones can be replaced on a less than a one-for-one basis,'' wrote Caspar Weinberger in his last Defense Department annual report.
NATO is stumbling into another major decision on its nuclear forces without the benefit of either parliamentary or public debate on the topic in the alliance's most directly affected nations. When the decision runs into public opposition in these countries, we are likely to be treated to another round of transatlantic finger-pointing.
There is certain to be public opposition. In fact, that is precisely the reason that the European allies have been so reluctant to talk about the subject.
The major opposition parties in West Germany and Britain are committed to the withdrawal of short-range nuclear weapons from Europe. Particularly in Germany, the modernization of weapons designed to explode on West German territory if they are used at all will certainly provoke emotional opposition.
Nuclear artillery, which is compelled by its short range (less than 15 miles) to being deployed in the front lines of battle, is regarded by many as next to militarily useless. In addition, the proliferation of such small nuclear weapons on the battlefield blurs the nuclear threshold and raises the risk of unwanted nuclear escalation.
The job of selling these weapons in Europe will be further complicated by the fact that the new 155-mm shell could be converted very quickly into an enhanced-radiation ``neutron'' shell through insertion of certain additional components.
The reservoir of potential opposition to battlefield nuclear weapons in Germany was illustrated by an extraordinary poll taken recently among members of the West German military. In response to the statement that West Germany should still be defended if nuclear weapons needed to be employed on its territory, less than half of all senior officers, one-third of the junior officers, and less than 20 percent of all enlisted personnel agreed. When even the soldiers responsible for battlefield nuclear weapons reject their use, the strategy that calls for them is in deep trouble.
It may be time to consider eliminating this entire category of nuclear weapon. At the very least, a decision to replace the present short-range stockpile with new weapons should be the subject of open public and parliamentary debate. If the majority of West Europeans opposes new battlefield nuclear weapons, NATO should realize that fact now, not two years down the road when deployment of the weapons becomes a test of the credibility of the alliance.
Daniel Charles is research associate for European affairs at the Federation of American Scientists, Washington, D.C.