TAORMINA, Italy -- The North Atlantic Treaty Organization agreed here yesterday on a dramatic reduction in its nuclear armory in Europe as NATO defense ministers decided to eliminate fully 80 percent of the alliance's 3,500 nuclear weapons -- leaving only 700 atomic bombs at European air bases.
The ministers also approved the outlines of a sweeping new strategy for NATO in the aftermath of the Cold War, based on smaller, more mobile forces able to respond inside and outside Europe.
But the NATO nuclear policy discussions were overshadowed by the surprise announcement Wednesday that France and Germany planned to create an army force independent of NATO itself.
U.S. and British officials said yesterday that they found the French-German proposal unsettling.
"The French want to be heavily involved in European defense, and no doubt the Germans want to help them along," a senior British official said. "But we have quite serious doubts about whether this is the way to do it. We just don't understand the logic behind the formulation of this unit at this time."
A senior U.S. defense official said that Washington had many questions about the new force: "Its mission, its area of operations, its relationship to NATO. There's a lot of questions that need to be addressed," the official said.
Overall, the meeting in this Sicilian resort presented a picture of an alliance in turmoil over its role in the wake of the collapse of its longtime adversary, the Soviet Union. Western European nations are seeking a larger role in defense of their own security after 45 years of U.S. dominance in the alliance's military structure.
The current flap over the proposal for a French-German force was expected to be only one of many such disputes as Europe struggles to define its new security needs, according to senior NATO officials.
Yesterday's decision to scrap most nuclear weapons based in Europe had been expected after President Bush's announcement Sept. 27 that the United States would withdraw and destroy all 2,100 of its ground-based nuclear arms in Europe. The NATO ministers went further -- slashing the inventory of 1,400 air-delivered gravity bombs in half.
The withdrawal of the atomic weapons will take two to three years, officials said. Disposing of them will take longer because of limited U.S. capacity to dismantle the arms.
But the NATO ministers deferred a decision on whether to comply with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's proposal to move the atomic bombs away from the aircraft that presumably would deliver them and to put them in central storage sites.
U.S. officials cited the cost of relocating the weapons as a reason for not accepting Mr. Gorbachev's plan, as well as operational problems.
For instance, new nuclear weapons bunkers have been under construction at several NATO bases to enhance security. According to defense analysts, the nuclear air bombs are deployed at airfields in Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, Italy, Belgium, Greece and Turkey.
"The whole trend has been to keep the weapons as close to the delivery systems as possible," one senior allied defense official said. Separate storage facilities for nuclear weapons, he added, would create "new priority targets. People don't want to dismiss these proposals out of hand -- but there are real problems," he said.
Meanwhile, German NATO officials here sought to allay allied fears about the plan to create a new military force -- an armored corps made up of a French tank division and a German mechanized division.
German Defense Minister Gerhard Stoltenberg said yesterday that the proposed force was designed to strengthen NATO -- not replace it. "There is no question of NATO's central role," he said. "We want to avoid competition. This corps is not to be understood as the building of a European force outside the alliance."
The two-day NATO meeting is attempting to revise basic strategic doctrine for the NATO summit meeting next month in Rome.