As leaders of the Western alliance prepare to tell the world this week of their solidarity, West Europeans are concerned about the new austerity forced on the Pentagon by the United States Congress. British defense officials in particular fret that as the Reagan era - with its commitment to big defense spending and a strong military - comes to an end, the European allies could again be criticized for not making adequate contributions to NATO. The organization begins a summit meeting Wednesday.
These European concerns are prompted by more than the usual worries about reductions in US defense spending announced earlier this year. For the first time since President Reagan came to office in 1981, significant cuts in US military manpower are planned, though so far there has been no mention of decreasing US forces in Europe. During a turbulent presidential election campaign this year, there is the added possibility of a military spinoff from protectionist sentiment affecting Congress's support for NATO.
Any revived debate on burden-sharing would prove difficult to resolve, say British defense officials. Military spending is heading downwards on both sides of the Atlantic in what appears to be a long-term trend, and there are few prospects for additional spending or manpower commitments by the European allies.
``I think it would be unrealistic to look for significant increases,'' a senior official in Britain's Defense Ministry said.
In a briefing with US correspondents last week, the official cited these developments and indicated it was an appropriate time to remind Washington of the European allies' contributions to NATO. His remarks were a counterpoint to the ``sometimes one-sided views of some Washington commentators,'' including recent congressional testimony by Richard Perle, a former US assistant secretary of defense for international security.
The British official pointed out that since 1970, aggregate spending by Western Europe on defense has steadily increased every year and is now one-third higher in constant dollar terms. On a per capita basis since 1970, he said, defense spending by the European allies has increased by 20 percent while in the US it has declined by 3 percent. While recognizing that the US outspends its allies on defense by a factor of two to one, the official said only an estimated 30 percent of the US budget was NATO-related. Among European allies some 90 percent of military spending goes to NATO.
Compliance by NATO members with the agreed target of a 3 percent annual increase in defense spending in constant dollars ``has been a bit patchy,'' the official said. But it was also important to consider how the money was spent, as well as political and social costs. European NATO members now spend more on equipment than on manpower. From 1976 to 1986, the Europeans added twice as many tanks, warships, and combat aircraft to NATO than did the US.
Europeans provide 90 percent of NATO's manpower, 85 percent of its tanks, 95 percent of its artillery, 80 percent of its combat aircraft, and 70 percent of its warships, according to the British Defense Ministry. The mobilized strength of European forces is 7 million compared with 3.5 million for the US.
With falling birthrates and smaller populations in individual member states, this manpower requirement is a heavy burden. The manpower pool available to the West German military, for instance, will have fallen by half from 1983 to 1993. And Bonn has had to extend its conscription period from 15 months to 18 months to maintain force levels.
There are also hidden costs in housing NATO forces and conducting exercises in small territories with densely settled populations. The largest number of NATO forces are stationed in West Germany which makes land and buildings available to allied forces with an estimated value of $22 billion, the ministry says. West Germany is also the site of some 5,000 NATO exercises a year, along with an estimated 600,000 sorties by combat aircraft.
In the nuclear field, seven European nations operate US nuclear systems on on a cooperative basis, and five states accepted deployments of Pershing missiles. France and Britain support their own strategic weapons systems and with costly modernization programs. ``The political costs of all that shouldn't be underestimated,'' the official said.
Several London observers on defense affairs described last week's briefing on burden sharing as a ``preemptive strike.''
``I'm optimistic that members of Congress won't raise the issue this year,'' one senior West European diplomat said.