BRUSSELS — Most of the time, Western Europe's conventional armies are a background issue, overshadowed by debate about nuclear missiles. The troops and tanks and generals go about their business of practicing for battle while disarmament negotiators refine the definitions of missile range and warhead yield.
The priorities are evident in the various East-West disarmament talks. There seems to be almost daily progress toward reduction of nuclear missiles (intermediate- and shorter-range). But talks on conventional armies--the Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction negotiations in Vienna--have been virtually stalemated from the day they began more than 14 years ago.
Now, at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters here, and at bases scattered from Norway to Turkey, debate over conventional armies widens as nuclear disarmament seems to grow closer. While the Reagan Administration continues to reject any linkage between nuclear disarmament and conventional disarmament, linkage already exists in the mind of every European leader.
What is sure to emerge from the renewed attention is fresh knowledge that the NATO powers, including the United States, have fallen far short of their promises, beginning in the 1950s, to strengthen conventional forces. The reality of economic priorities and reliance on the ultimate nuclear deterrent have left regular armies, navies and air forces ill-prepared.
Consider NATO's Long-Term Defense Program, proposed in 1979, outlining a 30-day strategy in the event of Soviet attack. Under that plan, the European armies pledged to improve their strength so that they could hold out in conjunction with the existing American forces--325,000 of them, 250,000 in West Germany--for 10 days. The United States in turn promised to send reinforcements of six divisions and 1,500 planes within the 10-day period. According to the best estimates, European forces today do not have the ammunition to hold out for even 10 days of hot war, much less provide supplies for arriving American reinforcements.
Or consider the adoption of standard quipment and weaponry for the 16 NATO armies that would theoretically fight shoulder-to-shoulder in the event of attack from the East. Despite decades of proposals and counterproposals, the demands of national industries have usually won out. Experts assume that tanks would play a key role in any ground war and yet NATO still has three different tanks--the U.S. M1, the West German Leopard 2 and the British Challenger--whose parts are not interchangeable.
Comparative figures between NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries are estimates, since the Soviet Union has declined to provide numbers during the 13 years of talks on conventional disarmament. An analysis by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London gives the Warsaw Pact 2.7 million ground troops in Europe, 46,600 tanks, 24,000 artillery pieces and 1,075 fighter planes. The equivalent figures for NATO are 2 million troops, 20,300 tanks, 9,000 artillery pieces and 452 planes.
Measuring the worth of conventional strategy is complex. But governments know that while nuclear weapons have an enormous initial cost, they are much cheaper than supporting conventional forces in the long run. And anyone listening to the defense debate knows that the loudest advocates of conventional forces are also the loudest proponents of nuclear disarmament.
There are observers on both sides of the Atlantic who cannot imagine conventional war in the old terms of armies overrunning the Continent. There is an emerging question about whether, in an East-West context, any such conventional war could remain conventional. Certainly Gen. Bernard W. Rogers, the departing NATO commander, has said that in present conditions the NATO strategy of "flexible response"--matching force with equivalent force-- would lead within days to use of nuclear weapons because NATO could not hold out by conventional means against all-out attack by Soviet and Warsaw Pact countries.
In a speech here last month, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), said: "If NATO cannot fight and fight well with conventional forces for its own 30-day declared goal, we do not have a flexible response capability to match our strategy and U.S. forces serve primarily a psychological role rather than a conventional military role. If U.S. forces are merely a delayed trip-wire connecting American nuclear might to NATO defense, our nation should recognize that and adjust accordingly."