NATO defense ministers are expected to give the green light this week to the development of a new generation of nonnuclear ''smart'' weapons. Advocates say these weapons would make nuclear war less likely.
The ministers, including US Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, who proposed the plan 17 months ago, are expected to endorse a series of new weapons that will take advantage of the West's substantial lead over the Warsaw Pact countries in advanced technology, officials said.
Gen. Bernard W. Rogers, NATO's top military commander in Western Europe, is certain to welcome the decision. For years General Rogers has been calling for NATO to strengthen its conventional forces.
Earlier this month, Rogers told an audience here that the West's currently ''unfavorable imbalance'' in nonnuclear forces would force him to request permission to use nuclear weapons ''fairly quickly'' to hold off a full-scale assault from the Soviet Union and its allies.
''I'm not happy being in that position,'' he said.
David M. Abshire, the US ambassador to NATO, has said that Soviet arms production in the past decade has outpaced the West's by between 3 and 7 to 1 in key weapons categories such as tanks and surface-to-air missiles.
''As a result, the gap on the conventional level between Warsaw Pact and NATO continues to widen,'' he said. ''If some crisis ever were to tempt the Soviet Union to attack, the alliance might be forced to resort to earlier rather than later use of nuclear weapons.''
According to senior NATO officials, the NATO defense ministers will give the go-ahead to the development of 11 weapons projects using advanced technology ranging from precision-guided ammunition to a self-protection system for battlefield helicopters, an artillery-locating unit to battlefield helicopters and an electronic jamming devise.
The officials, emphasizing that the new program will not narrow to any significant extent the gap between Soviet and NATO conventional forces, say the plan represents a major step forward - certainly in political terms - in modernizing and improving NATO's nonnuclear capabilities.
But some West European sources here concede that problems could arise within the alliance when the bill for the new program comes due.
Already balking at spending more on defense many financially overstretched West European governments fear the development of the new NATO weapons could be extremely costly.
NATO officials familiar with the plan say no price has been put on the project to date but that making more than half of the systems operational by 1990 will require resources beyond those already committed to the NATO budget.
''Where will the money come from?'' asked a European official based here.
General Rogers has said that although bolstering NATO's conventional forces will involve ''some financial sacrifice,'' it should become ''our goal for this decade.'' Rogers has been calling on NATO members to increase defense spending by 4 percent a year beyond inflation when many governments can't even seem to meet the current 3 percent requirement.
Strengthening of conventional forces would ''lead NATO away from the unsettling prospect,'' Rogers said recently, that ''should deterrence fail, we would soon face the agonizing choice of first use of nuclear weapons or capitulation.''
Conventional forces, according to the NATO general, also ''deter by physically protecting our nations, whereas nuclear forces deter by threatening what has been termed 'mutual suicide.' ''