BRUSSELS, Belgium -- The North Atlantic Treaty Organization reached agreement yesterday on the outline of a radical reorganization that would mean deep cuts in its overall troop level in Europe and the creation of a rapid-reaction corps for sudden hot spots.
The number of active U.S. troops now in Europe is estimated at 320,000, and officials agreed that the reorganization, driven by the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, could cut that figure in half.
The reductions in the 16-nation alliance would begin at the end of 1994 and are to be completed by the end of the decade.
"There's no longer a need to defend Europe against a sudden invasion from the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact . . . so NATO is evolving a new strategy," U.S. Defense Department spokesman Pete Williams said at the opening of a two-day NATO meeting.
The centerpiece of the reorganization would be a multinational rapid-reaction corps of 50,000 to 70,000 troops, under British command, partly based in Germany.
Washington would provide planes, helicopters and logistical support, officials said.
Because of the possibilities for instability in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, alliance nations envisage the smaller, more mobile force dealing with small-scale crises, then withdrawing quickly as tension receded.
In addition to the rapid-reaction corps, there would be seven multinational units, each with 50,000 to 70,000 troops. Six of those corps are to be in Western Europe.
The new military structure is based on the assumption that a direct frontal attack from the East on NATO countries is all but ruled out.
Since NATO's creation in 1949, its members have lined up in Central Europe to defend against invasion by the now-defunct Warsaw Pact.
While conventional military forces would be sharply reduced in the reorganization, NATO will retain its own nuclear forces, which will remain on station in case of a drastic shift in policy by the Soviet Union, which retains a large nuclear force.
The overall reorganization is to be formally approved later this year at a meeting of heads of alliance governments, which is scheduled for November, probably in Rome.
The alliance's members are Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The impetus for the NATO reorganization came last June when NATO members agreed that the Soviet threat had diminished and asked military planners to develop a new strategy.
The defense ministers are to continue to talk today about the force restructuring.