The West German Cabinet has sent a weaker political signal than anticipated to Washington about President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative. Chancellor Helmut Kohl's intention had been to negotiate an agreement with Washington strictly defining the terms under which West German companies would cooperate on SDI, the research program on space-based defense often called ``star wars.''
But the decision the Cabinet agreed to yesterday was considerably watered down. The Cabinet decided that Bonn will not negotiate an agreement with Washington specifically covering SDI but intends to approach the issue within a larger and more general framework of technology negotiations.
This is a much weaker political signal than the British government sent to Washington on Dec. 6, when it made the first SDI deal between the United States and an allied government.
And while the British government intends to establish an office for funneling SDI contracts to British firms, the Bonn Cabinet said that it ``does not aspire to any state participation in the SDI research program and therefore also will make no public funds available for cooperative projects.''
The West German Cabinet agreed to instruct Economics Minister Martin Bangemann to go to Washington next month to attempt to improve the general conditions governing the transfer of technology and research results.
``Thus the legal position of those German research institutes and enterprises that wish to participate as contractors in the SDI research program would also be improved,'' a government spokesman said.
Dr. Kohl and other members of his Christian Democratic Party have spoken enthusiastically of a significant innovative impetus that West German industry could expect from SDI research. US Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger took the same line during a visit to Bonn in early December. At the time, he said that ``there are still billions of dollars worth of contracts to be let'' and urged West German companies to go after some of them.
But official German involvement in the program was sidetracked by the arguments of Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. As recently as Sunday, Mr. Genscher said that he believed German industry will be ``only minimally involved'' in SDI research, because ``it is primarily an American program.''
Genscher also has expressed concern about the possible effects a Strategic Defense Initiative would have on on Europe's defenses, a worry that appears to be shared by some of the military.
Gen. Wolfgang Altenburg, general inspector of the armed forces, told a meeting of commanders last weekend that ``SDI still contains many unresolved questions.''
The careful statement was viewed by many as reflecting differences between General Altenburg and Defense Minister Manfred W"orner, who supports SDI research without qualification.
But neither Kohl nor Dr. Woerner has gone so far as to support actual deployment of an SDI system, and Wednesday's Cabinet meeting reiterated the chancellor's earlier statement that Bonn expects to be consulted by Washington before any decision to deploy.
Chancellor Kohl's spokesman said the Cabinet also took the view that the conclusion of negotiations on an agreement concerning technological transfer ``should not be long delayed.''
Asked whether this would, however, permit delay until after the next US-Soviet summit meeting, which the US has suggested be held in Washington next summer, the spokesman replied, ``not in six months, but in half that time.''
Kohl's spokesman said Economics Minister Bangemann had been authorized to conclude some kind of ``framework agreement'' with the US. He said this could be an exchange of letters or memorandum of understanding. Earlier, Genscher said that whatever agreement might be reached, it would not be one requiring parliamentary ratification.