STAVANGER, Norway — The North Atlantic Treaty Organization on Thursday took a major step toward accepting a Soviet offer to eliminate medium- and short-range missiles from Europe.
Britain endorsed the Soviet proposal, with minor qualifications, and U.S. officials quickly indicated that they agreed with the British position.
The principal qualification cited by the British is that the United States and Soviet Union eliminate all their medium-range missiles rather than retain 100 warheads each at bases outside Europe. This is consistent with the original U.S. position, although Washington later accepted a Soviet wish to retain 100 warheads on each side.
The British announcement, made in London, caught the meeting of NATO defense ministers here by surprise. It had been widely assumed that Britain, like the United States, would wait for a decision by the West German government, because West Germany would be most directly affected by the Soviet offer.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's call this week for a general election on June 11 is believed to have precipitated the British announcement. She apparently wants to prevent the opposition Labor Party from making the missile question a factor in the election campaign. Thatcher's Conservatives apparently fear that Labor, which has taken a strong anti-nuclear position, would try to exploit any NATO delay in taking a stand on the Soviet proposal.
There was growing impatience here with Bonn's indecision on the issue. The British announcement will increase pressure on Bonn to decide quickly, and NATO is expected to take a stand soon afterward.
Consultation With U.S.
London and Washington apparently consulted on their positions. This was indicated by the speed with which a U.S. official endorsed the broad outlines of the British stand.
"That's very close to President Reagan's position," he said. "It's very much in line with what our thinking has been."
After NATO takes its stand, the United States is expected to respond to the Soviet offer. That response now appears likely to be a counterproposal that accepts the zero short-range missile offer but couples it with a demand to eliminate all medium-range missiles as well, officials said.
Earlier in the day, at a meeting of the NATO Nuclear Planning Group, the defense ministers of the member governments were told by military experts of the dangers that an agreement to eliminate these missiles would create for the alliance.
According to Manfred Woerner, the West German defense minister, the military experts reported three conclusions:
--That elimination of the medium-range missiles (1,000 to 3,000 miles) would require the introduction of new or improved weapons if the same level of deterrence against a Soviet attack is to be maintained.
--That the experts, including the NATO commander, Gen. Bernard W. Rogers, expressed skepticism that both medium- and short-range missiles (down to 300 miles) should be eliminated at the same time. To do so "would reduce our ability to implement the NATO doctrine of flexible response," Woerner said.
--That, to the degree that the nuclear capability of NATO is reduced, the conventional force superiority of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Bloc armies becomes more important.
U.S. officials did not question the accuracy of Woerner's summation, but they did suggest that he was "selective" in emphasizing aspects of the military experts' report so as to favor his position. Like Gen. Rogers, he is opposed to accepting the Soviet offer to eliminate short-range missiles.
U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger acknowledged that there are "benefits and detriments" to eliminating missiles in both the medium- and short-range categories.
"We must ensure that what's left (after an agreement) will provide an effective deterrent at all times," Weinberger said, and he added that "additional weapons" may be needed to provide such assurance.
Among weapons identified as "compensatory" are sea-launched cruise missiles. Weapons to be improved or new weapons to be developed include battlefield-range missiles, air-to-surface missiles and fighter-bomber aircraft.
"And it is not enough to say we will modernize and add to the force in the future, say, by 1999," Weinberger said. "Effective deterrents must be maintained at all times"--at every step in the process of eliminating the missiles, which is now envisaged to take place over a five-year period.
No Calculations Now
Asked whether more new nuclear weapons may be added after five years than are removed from Europe under the terms of a new agreement, Weinberger said he "can't do that arithmetic now."
"We'll look at what the Soviets have, what it takes to deter them," he said. "It is not a static thing, and there could be shifting waves to maintain the same level of deterrence."