West German conservatives are proving less gung-ho about American missiles than some Americans had hoped.
The ruling conservatives still staunchly support the new nuclear missiles which NATO plans to start deploying next year unless there is progress in the Geneva talks on such intermediate-range weapons.
But the new West German government is refusing to be pushed by the United States into a larger-than-expected deployment.
And, conversely, there is some concern here that successive test failures of the Pershing II missile will force a delay in deployment, thus opening the door to the strong European antinuclear movement and weakening the West's bargaining position in Geneva. The latest test, scheduled for Nov. 12, was canceled due to an electrical failure.
The limits to Bonn's basically staunch support of the NATO missiles became clear with the maiden Washington visit of West Germany's new defense minister, Manfred Woerner.
To be sure, he fully backed the planned 1983 to 1988 deployment of new intermediate-range missiles if no mutual East-West arms control agreement is reached first. He also stressed on his mid-November visit to the US that, unlike ex-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, the new government of Chancellor Helmut Kohl can speak for his entire party on this issue.
Mr. Woerner put his foot down, however, on a plan the Pentagon sprang on him to double the number of new Pershing II missiles on German soil by interpreting NATO's designated 108 to mean 108 loaded Pershings plus 108 complete spares, one to each launcher. Woerner, according to a scoop in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which other newspapers then got confirmed, rejected this proposal out of hand.
Instead, diplomatic sources say, tentative plans now call for having only enough disassembled spare parts on hand in West Germany to make sure that all 108 Pershings are operational at any one time. The quantity and the types of parts are not to be anywhere near enough to constitute a reload capability for each launcher, however.
Although Woerner wants the missiles themselves to be deployed at the end of 1983 without delay, he would like to have the prior site preparations postponed as long as possible to avoid giving protesters handy targets for demonstrations and an opportunity to build up momentum.
This is said by informed sources to be a less acute problem for West Germany itself than for other allies that will be taking NATO missiles; the existing Pershing I sites in West Germany need relatively little preparation before installation of the longer-range Pershing II, Defense Ministry sources say, (at the same time denying magazine reports here that preparations have already begun).
Nonetheless, even a start to missile preparations in Britain in April, as is reportedly under discussion, would upset West Germany because of Bonn's insistence on simultaneity. Under this concept, other European allies must deploy the new missiles at approximately the same time as West Germany.
One further remark of Woerner's in the US set off a row back home: his observation that even if arms control talks get nowhere before deployment begins , they could still continue after deployment. The Social Democrats' detente architect, Egon Bahr, immediately retorted that this took the pressure off the Geneva arms control talks (and by implication especially the US side) for serious negotiations - and brought the Social Democrats closer to saying no to the missiles.
Woerner countered by rejecting the inference and charging Mr. Bahr with artificially inflaming the issue as an excuse to abandon ex-Chancellor Schmidt's support for the NATO decision and to oppose the missiles. Instead of continuing the feud, Bahr then welcomed Woerner's assurance that there was no change in Bonn's position on NATO's two-track decision. This seems to indicate the Social Democrats would like to get through the planned March election at least without making a major issue out of the missiles.