Seventy-two old missiles that are officially no longer part of the Pentagon's arsenal have emerged as a principal obstacle to a superpower pact banning intermediate range nuclear forces (INF). These Pershing 1A missiles are the property of the West German armed forces. But their nuclear warheads are controlled by the United States, so the Soviet Union is insisting the missiles be dismantled as part of any INF pact - a demand the US has flatly rejected. ``The German Pershings are not on the table,'' Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger said yesterday on ABC.
The problem for the Reagan administration on this issue is that West German leaders, while publicly supportive, have privately complained that their interests have been slighted in the INF negotiations.
Thus, US negotiations on the Pershing 1As with Bonn, let along Moscow, could be difficult.
``The whole thing is very political within the alliance,'' says James Rubin, research director of the Arms Control Association.
US officials say the missiles are simply not theirs to give up. They are ``cooperative systems,'' says national security advisor Frank Carlucci, and thus outside the jurisdiction of the Geneva INF talks.
While not wanting to publicly complain and be seen by the world as standing in the way of arms control, the center-right Bonn government has grown increasingly nervous as INF negotiations have passed the stage of rhetoric and become serious.
Many Bonn politicians feel that withdrawal of all intermediate range nuclear weapons from Europe might, paradoxically, put Germany more at risk of nuclear destruction.
``We are being sold down the river,'' a senior West German security affairs policymaker told Monitor correspondent Elizabeth Pond last month.
The West Germans reason this way: NATO's conventional forces will not be vastly strengthened anytime soon, so the defense of Western Europe against superior Soviet tank forces will still rely on the threat to resort to nuclear weapons.
Yet, in an INF-free world the only nuclear weapons left in Europe will be short-range ones intended for use on a frontline battlefield.
The battlefield in this case would almost certainly be Germany.
Thus, in a NATO-Warsaw Pact confrontation Germans would be the only people at risk of nuclear destruction on their soil, unless the conflict escalated into all-out war and the superpowers exchanged long-range strategic nuclear blows.
Many West German leaders object to this ``singularization'' of the power of nuclear deterrence on Germany.
Conservative deputy parliamentary leader Volker Ruhe put it bluntly last month: ``The shorter the range, the deader the Germans.''
This threat is made more stark for West Germany by the fact that the Soviet Union has numerically superior short-range nuclear forces.
In a broader context, a number of Germany analysts also worry that withdrawal of US nuclear missiles from Europe might be the first step down the slippery slope toward withdrawal of US troops from NATO nations.
Against this background, the West Germans seem loathe to part with their Pershing 1As, or for the US to agree to destroy 1A warheads.
The issue is not so much the missiles' military significance. The Pershing 1A intended targets - choke points for military traffic behind Soviet front lines - could just as easily be struck by aircraft carrying conventional or nuclear weapons.
Instead, the moderately conservative West German government appears to be dragging its feet over the missiles as a way of making a point with US officials.
This looked to be the case over the weekend, when a spokesman for the West German Defense Ministry said the missiles must stay, regardless of what US and Soviet negotiators may agree on in Geneva.
But the Bonn government also said it could back down on the Pershing 1As if something was done to increase the security of West Germany - specifically pointing to a reduction in conventional Warsaw Pact forces.
A number of US analysts believe it unlikely that Bonn will not eventually give in on the matter, if all other problems are solved and only the Pershing issue stands between the West and an INF agreement. Arms control pacts are simply too appealing to Western publics in general, and West German voters in particular.
Even if the center-right Bonn government continues to have misgivings over INF, domestic politics will force it to give in. ``The German government simply cannot afford to be the cause of this not happening,'' says John Steinbruner, director of the Brookings Institution foreign policy studies program.