Defense Secretary Michael Heseltine sought Friday to dismiss suggestions that the British government's position differs significantly from that of the United States on President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, nicknamed "Star Wars."
Heseltine denied that his government opposes research into the feasibility of a space-based defense against nuclear missiles.
The issue was raised last week when Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe raised questions about the possible deployment of defensive weapons in space.
"I don't regard this (Howe's statement) as indicating a serious difference within the alliance," Heseltine told a group of reporters. "We are partners in a free democracy, and we have debates in order to reach policy decisions."
Support for Accord
Howe said in a speech that he supports Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's accord with President Reagan on the need to consider the possibility of putting weapons in space. But he raised questions about the cost of such a system, its feasibility and the long-range political problems that might arise as a result.
Aides to Howe said after the speech that it should not be interpreted as a departure from British policy but as an examination of the possible ramifications of putting weapons in space.
Nevertheless, some editorial writers suggested that Howe's speech reflected a policy at odds with the U.S. position.
Richard N. Perle, an assistant U.S. defense secretary, said in London that Howe's speech was "tendentious."
The day after the speech, U.S. Ambassador Charles H. Price II met with Howe, and the two reportedly exchanged assurances of accord on the subject.
On Friday, Heseltine refused to be specifically critical of Perle but said pointedly: "I share Sir Geoffrey's views. It is unthinkable for me not to share Sir Geoffrey's views, since he is our foreign secretary."
When pressed to comment on Perle's statement, Heseltine said, "I deal with Defense Secretary (Caspar W.) Weinberger."
Heseltine suggested that questions raised in Europe about research on space weapons do not necessarily reflect any rift in the Atlantic Alliance.
"What you see," he said, "is . . . a debate, with a full and free ventilation of all the arguments."
Heseltine insisted that Britain continues to support research into the possibility of space defense but pointed out that deployment is years away and therefore "not a question on the table."