Is the `star wars' scramble on?

JAPAN and Italy have become the last of the major Western allies to decide on participation in the ``star wars'' research project. They follow Great Britain and West Germany in accepting the American offer of participation, with Italy signing and Japan negotiating a ``memorandum of understanding'' (MOU) with the United States on the matter. The Japanese and Italians, however, will soon find out what the British and Germans are beginning to learn: At the end of the star-wars rainbow there are a few pennies, but no pot of gold. Why have Britain, Germany, and now Italy and Japan decided to participate in star-wars research? Two major benefits are often cited. First, the Pentagon has requested well over $20 billion for the Strategic Defense Initiative, to be spent over the next five years. Such money is hardly peanuts, and the allies, once invited by the American government, hope to gain a healthy share of the funds. Second, star-wars research is on the edge of high technology. Participation in the program could therefore provide allies with substantial technological benefits to be used for civilian and commercial ends.

Both these reasons, however, will prove illusory. Up till now, participation in star wars has hardly been the second Marshall Plan some allies hoped it to be. Since Britain signed onto SDI last December, it has received a total of $16 million in research contracts. In the six months after the signing of the German-American MOU, German companies have received a mere $4 million in SDI funds. In fact, less than 1 percent of all star-wars contracts let this year have gone to foreign companies, and even then only as subcontracts.

The reason for the lack of contracts is simple. Congress has opposed funding star wars at requested amounts. Last year it cut $1 billion from the Pentagon request, and this year it is set to cut $2 billion more. The cake that was to be shared is therefore much smaller than was thought at first. More important, perhaps, Congress has opposed spending any star wars funds on foreign contracts. In August, the Senate passed an amendment to the defense authorization bill prohibiting spending SDI funds on foreign contracts unless the secretary of defense certifies that the work cannot be done in the US. In short, Congress is unlikely to tolerate transferring valuable research money to allies who, in most instances, are running trade surpluses with the US that greatly exceed total SDI funds.

The second major benefit expected from participation, the potential for civilian technology spinoffs, is equally illusory. This, for two reasons. First, the Reagan administration in general, and the Pentagon in particular, have put severe constraints on technology transfers, including transfers to US allies. Fearing that any advanced technology could ultimately end up in the Soviet Union via one of its allies, the US has slapped export controls on even the most mundane technologies. These controls are unlikely to be relaxed in the case of SDI. Quite the contrary: Such export controls will become even more severe than they are at present.

But even if technology is transferred to allies for the specific purpose of SDI contracting work, the potential civilian spinoffs will be minor. The memoranda of understanding signed with Germany and Britain contain specific clauses limiting the potential use of technology developed under star wars contracts.

Thus, the memorandum with Germany states that the US would only allow, ``in accordance with the security interests, laws, and rules of the US, as well as subject to the property rights of third parties, the exploitation of unclassified research of SDI technologies for civilian purposes.'' Not much, if any, SDI research will be unclassified, however. And the MOU emphasized that all classified research contracted by the Pentagon will be the property of the US government.

What started out some 18 months ago as the great scramble for star-wars contracts has thus proved to be a scramble for pennies rather than a pot of gold. The Japanese and Italian governments, as, indeed, all other governments that have yet to decide on participation, should be aware therefore that signing onto SDI has more political than economic significance. Politically, it provides the Reagan administration with much-needed support for its SDI program. Economically, it won't mean much for the allies.

Ivo H. Daalder is a research fellow at the Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, and a doctoral candidate in political science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His book ``The SDI Challenge to Europe'' will be published early next year by Ballinger.

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