NATO may soon adopt a new strategy of launching a conventional counterattack behind enemy lines in case of a Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe. NATO sources expect defense ministers to approve this first major shift in alliance doctrine in nearly 20 years when they meet here in December. The sources say the NATO military committee has backed such a concept and member-state ambassadors and experts are preparing the final wording for incorporation into allied planning.
Some officials play down the proposed battlefield order as a general restatement of existing NATO strategy. Others see it as the first major alteration of NATO strategy since the adoption of the ''flexible response'' defense in the 1960s.
The move, proposed a few years ago in US Army publications, is known as ''AirLand Battle.'' When NATO commander Bernard W. Rogers first recommended it two years ago, it set off alarm bells in Europe.
Europeans were concerned about its impact on East-West relations and wary of additional costs for sophisticated technological equipment. The concept calls for NATO to possess adequate material to both identify and attack Warsaw Pact ''second echelon'' troops and infrastructure while NATO's regular defense deals with the first wave of any invading force. It is said in part to respond to the recent formation of highly mobile Soviet ''operational maneuver groups.''
General Rogers has repeatedly argued that the current battlefield situation would probably leave no option but to request permission to use nuclear weapons to avoid being overrun by superior Warsaw Pact conventional forces. In recent months, these arguments have turned resistance into support for the expected NATO ministerial declaration.
One source noted, ''Interdiction is a mission we've always had but never done well. This will just stress that as the means become available to detect, deter, and destroy enemy follow-on forces, we will upgrade this mission among others.''
But the proposal has also been characterized as ''an extremely important shift from current doctrines.'' Basically it involves using more sophisticated electronic intelligence, targeting, and weapons systems to wipe out the second and third wave of attackers and their domestic means of support. This means waging a counterattack on airfields, command and communications posts, and such key targets as railways and bridges to prevent the second wave from reaching NATO territory.