Arms experts balk at Bonn's zeal for nuclear-free Europe. Warsaw Pact's conventional superiority seen as strong threat

In a dry run for the NATO summit in March, United States Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci told West Germans Sunday that it is important to modernize short-range nuclear forces. By contrast, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl told the Americans the day before that it is important to begin negotiating reductions on short-range weapons (SNF) with the Soviet Union without first waiting for East-West agreement to ban chemical weapons and establish a balance in conventional weapons in Europe.

Despite several attempts at the 25th assembly of the Wehrkunde, American participants failed to get from Dr. Kohl a commitment to modernize SNF (those with a range of up to 500 kilometers). The Wehrkunde is a private military conference that attracts top security officials, officers, and academics from the US, West Germany, Britain, France, and, this year, seven other NATO countries.

Despite several attempts by West Germans to get their allies to concede that negotiating SNF reductions need not mean NATO's dreaded ``third zero'' in arms control, Kohl and his compatriots failed to allay American, British, and French concerns about a possible ``denuclearization'' of Europe. The third zero refers to the total elimination of SNF in Europe following the ``double zero'' of eliminating ground-based 1,000- to 5,500- and 500- to 1,000-kilometer range missiles in the Soviet-American Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty signed in December.

The conference participants agreed a denuclearized Europe could leave NATO vulnerable to the Soviet bloc's superiority in conventional weapons.

The whole dispute was surprisingly bloodless, however, in a forum in which major rows have erupted in years past. There was a conspicuous lack of polemics over the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or ``star wars'') and ``burden-sharing'' of alliance costs, and the recent issue of last month's recommendation by a US commission of a strategy of ``discriminate deterrence.''

The absence of any clash over defense budgets was especially striking, since Bonn's military appropriations will fall below 3 percent of gross national product this year as currently projected, essentially for the first time since this country began arming after World War II. A senior American official at the conference confirmed on background that major clashes over defense budgets were not expected at the NATO summit.

In part the unusual civility at the Wehrkunde reflected departure of hardliners such as Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Assistant Secretary Richard Perle from the Defense Department. In part the civility reflected the lack of any immediate policy decisions that are affected by the squabble over SNF modernization or negotiation. Modernization of the 88 110-kilometer-range American Lance missiles now stationed in West Germany is the most sensitive issue here. But the Lances will not become obsolete until the mid-90s, and there will therefore be plenty of time to negotiate this issue after a new US president and Congress have been elected.

Modernization is urgently needed, according to the senior US official, in developing a tactical air-to-surface missile. This is not a sensitive issue for the West German public, since it does not involve a weapon that is based exclusively and conspicuously in West Germany.

What the US does insist on, however, according to the official, is that the West Germans not lay out a claim that NATO has to make another major policy decision before any nuclear modernization can proceed. Kohl did not clarify this point at the Wehrkunde, the official noted. And some of the remarks in particular of the leader of Kohl's conservative party in parliament, Alfred Dregger - both in the conference and in domestic political speeches - imply a reading that modernization is again up for review following conclusion of the INF Treaty.

The US view is that the need for modernization was already settled on at the NATO ministerial meeting in Montebello, Canada, in 1983 - and that negotiations on SNF were given a nod at the NATO ministerial meeting in Reykjav'ik last summer, but were subordinated to armscontrol efforts in strategic nuclear and European conventional weapons.

American wariness about the West German position on SNF was most sharply expressed at the Wehrkunde by US Sen. William Cohen (R) of Maine, who warned against ``Genscherism.'' He was referring to West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who the Americans suspect of wanting to veto nuclear modernization.

On last month's recommendations for ``discriminate deterrence,'' that were advanced by a commission co-led by then outgoing Undersecretary of Defense Fred Ikle, Mr. Carlucci went out of his way at the Wehrkunde to assure Europeans that these recommendations were made by an independent body and do not represent American policy.

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