President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly called "Star Wars," is causing enormous controversy in this country. In Western Europe it's causing something akin to physical pain--for reasons that, in our own self-interest, we ought to consider.
The gut reaction of the Western European allies, who were not consulted before the President announced his Star Wars program two years ago, is overwhelmingly negative. They fear that their own security might be imperiled rather than enhanced, as Reagan believes. They fear that the cost of the program would divert money from programs that are truly essential to the defense of Europe.
The Europeans are also persuaded, however, that SDI research will beget enormous spinoffs in exotic technologies that will dominate global economic competition in the years ahead. And they don't want to be left out.
So far there has been more talk than substance to the Star Wars program. Critics say that building a multilayered strategic defense system could cost $500 billion or more, and wouldn't work even then--and they may be right. But if deployment of a space-based system ever happens at all, it will be many years down the road.
In the present research phase, actual spending is not much higher than before Reagan's Star Wars speech--a situation that cannot change significantly without cutting into money and scientific manpower that are now devoted to other pursuits with strong constituencies both inside and outside the Pentagon. The uniformed military is nervously aware that, in an era of tight budgets, any big increases in Star Wars spending will force offsetting cuts in outlays for jet fighters, non-nuclear "smart bombs," nuclear submarines and other military programs that are essential to national defense. They don't like the prospect.
Within the scientific community, warnings are being heard that this country does not have the scientific manpower to pursue an ambitious missile-defense program without seriously imperiling progress in other areas--including the civilian-oriented computer race with Japan.
Congress also has strong reservations. Just last week the House Armed Services Committee cut the Administration's $3.7-billion request for fiscal 1986 by a full third. When the time comes to vote really big bucks, the Star Wars program may collapse of its own weight.
The Europeans, however, feel compelled to hedge their bets. And for good reason. The program has managed to gather a surprising amount of momentum in a relatively short time.
In sharp contrast with the situation just a year ago, the President's Strategic Defense Initiative now dominates almost every meeting of experts who deal with world politics and nuclear strategy. The scientific community as a whole still considers it a misguided and potentially dangerous pipe dream. But that doesn't stop this country's greatest universities from crowding into line to get a piece of the research action. And many nuclear strategists have come around to the view that, while a leakproof defense against missiles is impossible to achieve, the same is not true of a limited system that would enhance deterrence by multiplying the uncertainties faced by a would-be attacker.
Even if the United States eventually agrees in Geneva to restraints on developmental tests of Star Wars components or weapons, virtually everybody agrees that a substantial research program must continue because there would be no way to verify Soviet compliance with a treaty ban on laboratory work. In that sense the Europeans are probably right in concluding, as a West German expert put it in Los Angeles the other day, that "the train has already left the station."
The Star Wars idea came along at a time when thoughtful Western Europeans were already concerned that they might be falling hopelessly behind in the high-tech race with Japan and the United States. In their eyes, competence in the technologies involved in the SDI program--things like ultra-fast computers, artificial intelligence, microchip technology, optics, exotic power sources, lasers and directed energy beams--are the very areas in which Europe cannot afford to fall behind.
To quote a West German political leader: If the nations of Europe "don't decisively push to cooperate in SDI . . . in 10 to 15 years at the latest, Europe, technologywise, would irreversibly fall back to the second or third rung."
The Reagan Administration, seeking to build support for the Star Wars program, has invited the Europeans to participate and thereby qualify for a sharing of technological advances. France is trying to promote an alternative European program on grounds that cooperation with the Americans would condemn Europe to subcontractor status. The other European countries are interested, but reluctant to close the door to what may be a larger, more fruitful, American effort. These split-level feelings were apparent during Reagan's visit to Europe.
Actually, the European obsession with the civilian-economy ramifications of the Star Wars program is very sensible. The seeming lack of deep thought in Washington on the question of technological transfer is less comprehensible. As everybody knows, the United States suffers from a severe balance-of-trade problem that threatens American jobs and the basic economic strength on which both future prosperity and national security depend. High technology is one of the few areas in which we still have an overall advantage over global competitors.
Considering the overlap between Star Wars and the commercially important technologies of the 21st Century, should we really be rushing to arrange technology-sharing agreements that will erode this advantage? If we are very sure that the Strategic Defense Initiative is essential to our survival in a dangerous world, the answer is yes. Otherwise we should stop and think before pressuring the Europeans into arrangements that may not in fact be in our national interest.