Brussels — It is an unexciting subject yet one on which the future military strength of the Western alliance could hinge. So far, however, greater cooperation among NATO countries on weapons production and procurement has been for the most part a tale of broken dreams.
''Achievement has fallen far short of our aspiration,'' says Jan van Houwelingen, state secretary at the Dutch Defense Ministry and chairman of the Independent European Program Group (IEPG), which was set up eight years ago to promote European cooperation in the defense equipment field.
Pressure for the IEPG (which includes all the European members of NATO except Iceland) to become more active has come not only from the Europeans themselves, who want ''more bang for the buck,'' but also from the United States administration and Congress, which together want Europe to contribute more to its own defense.
''Our defense effort is going to level off, meaning less for Europe,'' former US undersecretary of defense Robert W. Komer said in Brussels last week. ''We're going to press the Europeans to do more because we can't.''
There is, however, a keen recognition on this side of the Atlantic of just how little room for maneuver exists.
''It is unrealistic,'' according to Mr. van Houwelingen, ''to expect governments to spend much more on defense equipment at a time of low economic growth and mass unemployment.'' For him, the obvious answer is ''to get better defense from the resources we already have.''
Modest progress toward that goal was achieved last week at a two-day meeting here of the IEPG at ministerial level - the first ever. The ministers agreed to cooperate on three long-term projects at the heart of improved conventional defense in Western Europe - a large transport aircraft, a medium-range surface-to-air missile, and a main battle tank.
Another 30 projects will be looked at ''to find out what the cooperation possibilities are,'' according to British Defense Minister Michael Heseltine.
Also approved were plans to cooperate in military-related research and development and to strengthen transatlantic dialogue on weapons cooperation with the US.
''But you shouldn't expect miracles,'' said West German Defense Minister Manfred Worner.
Even these plans can be considered progress. But some skeptics warn that obstacles to widespread cooperation among European countries may be too great to overcome.
''The basic obstacle,'' according to van Houwelingen, ''is the unwillingness or inability of national authorities to subordinate what they believe to be their vital national interests to the larger cause of European cooperation.''
As David Greenwood, director of the Center for Defense Studies in Aberdeen, Scotland, puts it: ''Nationalism is rampant.'' Adds US NATO ambassador David M. Abshire: ''A go-it-alone mentality has emerged (among European countries), making it harder rather than easier to cooperate.''
US defense analyst Thomas A. Callaghan Jr., arguing that the West is currently undergoing ''structural disarmament'' - with more and more money buying fewer and fewer weapons - says that ''this particular type of unilateral disarmament'' will continue and even accelerate until NATO governments establish an intercontinental market structure for the production and exchange of armaments.
''The challenge (for allied leaders),'' Mr. Callaghan wrote in a recent issue of NATO Review, ''is to provide the same creative vision and leadership in establishing a military trade structure within the alliance as the post-war architects did in creating the commercial trading structure.''
That will not be easy, he said, calling the challenge ''every bit as daunting as that which faced the founding governments of the alliance 35 years ago.'' But they joined together then, he said, because no one country could do the job - ''and we must do the same today.''