Alternate deterrents: trying to keep NATO from leaning too heavily on nuclear weapons

Public attention these days tends to focus on the MX missile and superpower arms control talks. But much of the less heady - although perhaps more important - maneuvering over defense issues here involves conventional forces in Europe. Allied readiness, ''burden sharing'' (each NATO partner paying its fair share for common defense), and deployment of new chemical and battlefield nuclear weapons are among the topics of debate and congressional budget action.

Despite recent defense spending increases by some allied governments (most notably Britain and Japan), the Pentagon reports that most NATO members still are not meeting the agreed-upon goal of 3 percent real annual increases. And they remain far from the 4 percent average annual defense hike that the NATO commander, Gen. Bernard Rogers, says is necessary to reduce the group's reliance on nuclear weapons.

''By nations' continued failure to meet fully their commitments to improve conventional forces, NATO has mortgaged its defense to the nuclear response,'' General Rogers warned in recent congressional testimony.

This is expected to be one of the prime subjects for discussion this week when West German Defense Minister Manfred Worner meets here with United States officials.

While noting that ''the non-US NATO allies have gradually taken on more of the common burden,'' a recent Pentagon report to Congress finds that ''the burden-sharing pendulum is beginning to swing in the opposite direction. . . .''

There continues to be considerable debate over how much the European allies contribute. Even after 30 days' mobilization and the deployment of more Americans from the US in time of conflict, 75 percent of allied ground forces would be European. But many in Congress still feel the US is doing too much.

The reaction here to perceived European failings is to clamp down on US efforts in Europe. In passing a reduced military construction bill for 1984, the House noted that US defense spending has been increasing at an average annual rate of 4.6 percent (not counting inflation), while European NATO members are increasing their defense budgets by less than 2 percent.

Congress also has voted to cap the number of US troops in Europe. Many lawmakers still insist on ''buy American'' provisions in weapons procurement and want to limit the pre-positioning of US military supplies in Europe.

It took a vice-presidential tie-breaker vote to keep new chemical weapons alive in the Senate. But this contentious item (which the administration says is necessary to counter Soviet chemical warfare capability, especially in Europe) is by no means out of the congressional woods. The Senate Armed Services Committee also has voted against a new, neutron-type nuclear artillery shell, directing instead that an additional $50 million be spent on conventional weapons.

''It has been apparent for years that the nuclear crutch upon which NATO has leaned so heavily for more than three decades is in question,'' says Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, a congressional defense expert. ''This is particularly true with respect to short-range battlefield nuclear systems, many of which are more destructive to the territory we are sworn to defend than to the enemy we are sworn to defeat.''

There are other serious questions about the effectiveness of US conventional forces training for possible European combat.

The Army reported recently that US units in exercises against simulated Soviet forces poorly countered the kind of massed tank attack that could be expected from the Warsaw Pact. ''Evaluations continue to reveal a significant shortfall in go-to-war skills,'' this report stated. Such findings affect weapons procurement, troop deployment, and other key military issues now facing Congress.

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