A study being presented to NATO defense ministers here this week criticizes the alliance's conventional warfare capabilities, citing a shortage of ground forces, and calls on the organization's member nations to correct a set of "critical deficiencies," senior Reagan Administration officials said.
The confidential list of these deficiencies, based on a U.S. report, is a central topic on the agenda at the semiannual meeting of North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense chiefs.
Despite budget constraints, the defense ministers are under political pressure at home to improve the quality and equipment of conventional forces and thereby raise the threshold at which nuclear weapons would be used in any combat with Soviet Bloc troops.
"The primary focus will be on the way we can improve conventional strengths, conventional deterrence . . . with limited resources," Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger told reporters while flying here Sunday.
Weinberger is expected to encounter sharp criticism of a possible congressional freeze of the Pentagon's budget as he leads the Reagan Administration's campaign for greater defense spending by the other NATO nations.
"I expect it to be mentioned, yes," Weinberger said, grinning.
NATO, after focusing over the last few years on rebuilding its medium-range nuclear missile forces, is now turning its attention to gaps in the ability to fight Warsaw Pact troops in conventional, non-nuclear battle.
"The (Europeans) aren't going to vote for defense if it is being seen as excessively nuclear," a State Department official said. "We spent a half a decade proving we could get the nuclear effort up to snuff. Now it's time to turn in the other direction."
However, according to a senior Pentagon official aboard Weinberger's plane Sunday, European military planners, reflecting their nations' experiences during two world wars, have recently emphasized the role nuclear weapons could play in deterring war. "They like the idea of the nuclear deterrent" in preference to a non-nuclear force, the official said, explaining that the latter leads to concerns "that we're building up to fight another conventional war."
According to the Pentagon and State Department officials, the list of conventional warfare deficiencies cites, in addition to a shortage of standing ground forces, shortages in these areas: training of reserves, equipment and the availability of forces that can be mobilized for combat. The list was prepared by the defense ministers' representatives for the two-day meeting beginning Wednesday.
In addition, the study is critical of NATO's ability to counter the Soviet Bloc's backup troops, its air defenses, its ability to destroy enemy airfields and its anti-submarine measures.
U.S. and NATO officials are also concerned that ammunition stockpiles are too low, with NATO setting a goal of a 30-day supply and the United States seeking supplies two to three times larger in some categories.
"The European public and European parliaments are behind in their awareness of how important that is," the Pentagon official said. He added that under U.S. prodding, the Europeans are expected to commit themselves to "a special effort (to meet new goals) that relate to the critical deficiencies."
The list and a similar compilation prepared for Weinberger over a six-month period "track very closely," indicating similar assessments in Europe, the State Department official argued.
"If implemented, it does the things that our best military thinkers say are the key things that need to be done for the alliance," he said. ". . . The initiative is designed to deal with the political requirement to raise the nuclear threshold." He argued, however, that budget pressures are complicating the effort.
For the first time since the U.S. military buildup began in the last year of the Carter Administration, a U.S. defense secretary is confronting the Western Allies, seeking greater defense budgets without carrying the club of a continued rise in U.S. spending.
In addition, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) has not announced whether he will resume his nearly successful effort last year to pressure the Allies into greater spending under the threat of U.S. troop withdrawals.
The United States maintains more than 200,000 soldiers in five divisions and their support units in West Germany alone. Additional U.S. troops, including Air Force units, bring the American contingent stationed in Western Europe to roughly 326,000, the ceiling imposed by Congress.
The troop limit "is causing me some problems," Gen. Bernard W. Rogers, commander of U.S. European forces, told the Senate Defense Appropriations subcommittee last week. "We have failed to deploy some units" and have sent home conventional forces to make room for those given nuclear warfare missions, he said.
But Sen. Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.), reflecting congressional concern about "burden-sharing" with other NATO nations, told Rogers: "I find in Congress and in my state that patience is beginning to wear thin. . . . NATO allies are not doing their fair share. It appears our European allies could be providing more for the common defense."
'Whacks Across the Chops'
Weinberger's smiling reference to expected allied criticism of a military budget freeze belies an expectation that such attacks will be strong. "Brother Weinberger is probably going to get a few whacks across the chops. That may well be a can of worms for him," said one senior Pentagon official, reflecting criticism that U.S. officials heard at a preliminary meeting.
Weinberger's assistants have already been successful, in preparatory meetings with their European counterparts, in gaining reaffirmation for NATO's commitment to annual increases in military spending of 3% over the rate of inflation--an increase only some members have met since it was proposed in early 1977 by then-Vice President Walter F. Mondale on a special call on NATO days after he took office.
In fact, West European defense spending has only recently attained a real average annual increase of 3.1%, and it is not expected to be that high this year, Weinberger said. The British have maintained that level but have told U.S. officials they will not be able to meet it in the future.
On related matters, Weinberger said in a television interview broadcast Sunday that it is "a little early to say" whether the absence of any public agreement resulting from last week's talks in Vienna between Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko implies reduction in chances of a summit meeting this year between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
"I think that it's perhaps a little premature to conclude that," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
"Negotiations with Mr. Gromyko are quite glacial. They take an enormous amount of patience and a great deal of time, and it's a little hard to judge after a single meeting."