West Germany's ``star wars'' team is downplaying strategic questions and stressing commercial technology on its fact-finding tour of Washington and American Defense Labs September 4-14. This perspective emerges from background conversations with two team members and two other policy-level government officials.
The blue-ribbon 30-member delegation, composed of 12 government officials and 18 businessmen and scientists, takes with it a consensus on the desirability of private West German participation in the United States Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or ``star wars''). But it remains skeptical about the likely extent of the practical commercial benefits it is so assiduously seeking. And it is also wary of SDI's future military, political, and financial implications.
The most immediate issue is whether or not a framework agreement might be reached with Washington to ensure commercial access by West German firms to technology they help to develop (or, in the most ambitious version, to technology that American companies develop) in connection with SDI.
The delegation, under the leadership of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's security adviser and confidante Horst Teltschik, is billed as a fact-finding team, not a negotiating one. But it will clearly be exploring the concrete prospects for an agreement with the US.
Two factors will particularly affect West German thinking in this area. The first is whether the British sign such an agreement. If so, the West Germans would want to have a comparable understanding.
The second deciding factor will be the outcome of preliminary sparring between Bonn and Washington over the content of any such agreement. It was the West Germans who initially broached the possibility three months ago. They were quickly countered, however, by Defense Department Assistant Secretary Richard Perle, who conceives of any agreement as a reinforcement of US restrictions on reexport of US technology.
Here the West Germans are vigorously defending their own interests, but they are also relying on the advance scouting of the British, who have the same broad interests. But the British are considered less suspect to Washington in terms of leakage to the East of militarily useful computers and production processes.
Pressure by West German industry on the Bonn government to be more activist in winning a West German share in SDI has become less vocal in the past two months, as firms have scaled down their estimates of the available contract dollars and commercial spinoff at stake. The West Germans still hope to land a large SDI optics contract, but otherwise there is much less euphoria about big bucks in store for the Europeans.
Furthermore, it is obvious that the West Germans are not going to win anything like their dream of tapping into American SDI research for their own commercial uses.
This sobering of expectations leaves West German ministries and industry with a greater consensus on participation in SDI than was apparent last spring. Despite numerous press reports to the contrary, dissension then resulted less from French-German differences on SDI (or from vacillating deference to Soviet and American pressures) than from a divergence between strategists and industrial champions within West Germany itself.
Government strategists (like Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher) were always leery about the future impact of SDI on the linking of US and European defense, on East-West stability in general, and on political polemics in West Germany. Promoters of high-tech industry (like Baden-W"urttemberg Premier Lothar Sp"ath) were much more concerned about getting in on SDI technology ``before the train leaves.''
The present consensus still postpones grappling with strategic ramifications until decisions about testing and deployment have to be faced a few years hence.
Privately, strategists still cite the quiet guidelines established by Chancellor Kohl and other European leaders and adhered to by President Reagan in his joint statement with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the end of last year. (These include no violation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in SDI testing; no American decision to go beyond the research stage without consulting European allies and the Soviets; continued pursuit of arms control; and a political goal of international st ability.)
But especially in the uncertain period before the Soviet-American summit in November no West German wants to make an issue of these conditions with Washington or stir up a gratuitous domestic debate about SDI.
Beyond welcoming private SDI contracts and postponing broader strategic questions, the current West German consensus on SDI includes a strong defense priority on what is especially applicable to Europe: ``terminal defense'' that could guard against tactical missiles as well as against strategic missiles.