Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and other NATO defense ministers Wednesday began talks likely to center on the politically sensitive issue of upgrading short-range nuclear missiles in Europe.

Cheney, attending his first gathering of the 16-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization, was expected to press the allies for a fresh - and stronger - commitment to American plans to modernize the weapons.The two-day meeting on the alliance's nuclear strategy will raise anew the controversy surrounding the proposals to develop a new generation of short-range nuclear missiles that would be deployed in Europe.

The ministers were not scheduled to make any key decisions on modernization, which is strongly opposed in some European countries. But they will be asked to reaffirm their backing to plans to upgrade the current Lance surface-to-surface missile.

The United States contends it needs a strong signal from the allies in public statements to lobby Congress for money to continue a research-and-development program for the weapon.

The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the United States would like enough support in NATO meetings this spring so that it could urge Congress to commit $150 million to the program for two years.

Bush and other NATO leaders will meet at the end of May and discuss the modernization plans as part of a blueprint designed to guide the alliance in arms control and force planning in the coming years.

The modernization issue has become increasingly sensitive in recent months.