MODERNIZATION of short-range nuclear weapons has long troubled West Germans. The fact that most of the weapons are stationed in West Germany helps to explain why the issue tends to pit Bonn against most of its Western allies. US Secretary of State James Baker III, making a sweep through NATO capitals this week, is now trying to cobble together a compromise that would allow the decision on updating to proceed.
Mr. Baker said that he was leaving Bonn convinced that Chancellor Helmut Kohl was not backing down from positions agreed to within the Alliance. But he noted that it would require negotiations with the German government to reach an early decision.
Ironically, it's the relative success of recent arms control negotiations that has made modernization so vital in the view of many Western military planners.
Short-range nuclear missiles - those with a range of less than 500 kilometers (300 miles) - will be the only land-based nuclear weapons left in Europe after the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the US and the Soviet Union is fully implemented.
This has some experts worried. By cutting out all intermediate-range missiles, the West has eliminated one option in NATO's strategy of ``flexible response.'' At the same time, Washington is gearing up for negotiations with Moscow aimed at slashing longer-range strategic forces by half.
This makes short-range weapons more important than ever before.
NATO is being forced to reemphasize conventional defenses. But it would be tremendously expensive - and politically impossible - to match numerically superior Eastern forces tank-for-tank. Instead, the West wants to build a stronger combination of short-range nuclear weapons and conventional forces.
WESTERN planners have already decided to do away with some obsolete battlefield nuclear weapons. It's the American-made Lance missile that holds the most interest for the future. Planners haven't decided exactly how the weapons will be updated, but the new generation is expected to have greater range than the present 110 kilometers (66 miles).
The plan has come up against strong opposition in West Germany, where most voters favor getting rid of all nuclear weapons and particularly dislike the modernization theme. One popular slogan goes: ``The shorter the range of the missiles, the deader the Germans.''
But in recent days, West German politicians - including Chancellor Kohl and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher - have emphasized that they don't favor doing away with short-range nuclear weapons entirely, although they would like a reduction in the total number.
The West Germans would like to put off the decision for at least two years, until after the next round of federal elections in late 1991.
``The phasing out period with the Lance begins in 1995,'' says one West German Foreign Ministry official. ``That means we don't need to make the decision until four years before that date - that's 1991, at the earliest.''
The Soviet Union and East Germany have pressed hard to block the alliance from taking action. By pledging to make unilateral cuts in their conventional forces, both countries have sought to influence the West German public. And many experts say this has been effective.
Some NATO officials say that - if they wait - the decision will only get tougher.