BONN — NATO's tussle over short-range nuclear weapons underscores a growing split within the alliance. Some members - particularly continental Europeans - see short-range weapons primarily as tools for deterring an Eastern attack, while others - most notably, the United States and Britain - tend to emphasize their role as a potentially useful weapon in actual combat.
``This isn't really a dispute over hardware,'' says Hans Gunter Brauch, a West German disarmament expert at Heidelberg University. ``It's a dispute over whose territory a nuclear conflict might be fought on.''
Many Europeans worry that the presence here of short-range arms makes it easier for nuclear war to break out in Europe. Therefore, they would prefer to get rid of the weapons - or see them drastically reduced. Nowhere is this feeling stronger than in West Germany.
Bonn has long agonized over its geographic position on the front line between East and West - a factor certain to make it a battlefield in any future conflict. But increasingly, the West Germans seem unwilling to quietly accept this fate, if it means the nuclear devastation of central Europe.
This winter, for instance, West German officials in Brussels angrily broke off a routine NATO exercise designed to test Western consultation procedures during the use of nuclear weapons. The simulation exercise - known as Wintex/Cimex - called for two imaginary nuclear barrages to be launched by the West against the Warsaw Pact, with most of the damage concentrated in Eastern Europe and West Germany. The West Germans are reported to have objected to the size and concentration of the attacks.
The West German weekly ``Der Spiegel'' reported that since the incident, which NATO sought to keep secret, Bonn has pressed for a full review of the West's nuclear strategy. ``That exercise shocked many people in our government,'' Dr. Brauch says.
It also heated up the allied dispute over whether to modernize - or negotiate away - short-range weapons.
``This is a relatively minor issue,'' says one US diplomat based in Bonn. ``But it reflects important issues for the defense of Europe.''
Short-range weapons are considered important for offsetting the East's superiority in conventional forces. But even if short-range weapons were removed, the West would still have a supply of nuclear arms on the continent - attached to bombers based at NATO's European airfields. In this sense, the short-range weapons are largely symbolic - representing the European commitment to a coordinated nuclear strategy.
The West's policy of ``flexible response,'' first spelled out in the 1960s, promises that an attack by the East could prompt any number of reactions - including the use of nuclear weapons. But the idea of a ``ladder of escalation,'' whereby the West could gradually step up the level of conflict, is getting tattered. The removal of medium-range nuclear missiles under the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty leaves the West with fewer nuclear options.
The Soviets, meanwhile, have pulled out all the stops to try to get the West to agree to negotiate reductions in short-range arms.
Last week, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev pledged to yank 500 of his nation's short-range weapons out of Eastern Europe. This one-sided move, although only denting the East's huge superiority in these weapons, has given a boost to those in NATO who support such talks.
Critics, however, insist that the East is only interested in ``denuclearizing'' Europe. US and British officials contend that negotiations on reductions of short-range weapons would almost certainly lead to a call for their complete elimination - something which would be politically difficult to resist.
Alliance leaders gather in Brussels this month for a summit marking NATO's 40th anniversary. The meeting is supposed to lay out policy on a broad range of defense and arms control issues. Experts say that, unless the short-range issue is resolved, this ``comprehensive concept'' may be difficult to achieve.