The British are counseling President Reagan not to lose a major superpower arms control deal by insisting on a totally unfettered Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or ``star wars''). Somewhat less urgently, they are also counseling Mr. Reagan not to pursue his summit proposal of last fall to eliminate all ballistic missiles (and thus potentially withdraw the United States nuclear umbrella from Europe).
These concerns have been made clear in recent days by the British defense and foreign secretaries and by British commentators at the 24th annual Wehrkunde Conference in Munich Jan. 31 and Feb. 1.
Much more discreetly, West German officials concur with the British.
In response, the highest US official present at the Wehrkunde, Assistant Defense Secretary Richard Perle, dismissed his colleagues' calls as misplaced. He praised SDI as disrupting Soviet capacity to launch a first strike and as holding the potential to evolve into a comprehensive defense of population. He defended Reagan's proposal last year at the Reykjavik, Iceland, summit to eliminate all ballistic missiles. But beyond noting European skepticism about this, he did not address European fears about consequent reduction in the US's nuclear deterrence of conventional war in Europe. Mr. Perle also rebuked by name the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, for ``mealy-mouthed evasion'' in talking about Soviet violation of arms control agreements.
The Wehrkunde, a private conference that has become a major forum for a frank exchange of views between NATO officials and friends, took on particular significance this year, coming three months after the Reykjavik summit aroused uneasiness in the alliance.
Among the several defense ministers present, British Defense Secretary George Younger was the most outspoken in articulating European uneasiness. He again stressed the importance of the Camp David statement that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher got Reagan to sign shortly after Reykjavik, giving priority to ``a 50 percent cut over five years in US and Soviet stategic offensive weapons'' (and effectively dropping the goal of abolishing all ballistic missiles), while keeping SDI research ``within the terms'' of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972.
A few days earlier Sir Geoffrey was even more explicit in making the same points in a major speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. On the same day that Reagan repeated in his State of the Union address that he would not sacrifice SDI to arms control, Sir Geoffrey urged compromise in precisely this area on both Washington and Moscow. He noted that ``not everything technically possible may be affordable or prudent,'' that a 10-year observance of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty would be ``helpful,'' and that negotiating arms control is ``the most responsible approach'' to these issues.
At the Wehrkunde, Sir Arthur Hockaday, director-general of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, was even blunter.
``I wonder increasingly whether the President regards SDI as an end in itself and whether this may not be dangerous,'' Sir Arthur said. ``The difficulty is that SDI can be seen as an end in itself only in the President's vision of a complete defense [against all incoming missiles], which not many people share and most regard as quite unattainable.''
SDI should not accelerate the offensive and defensive arms race, he believed, but should be instead ``a means of moving [arms control] negotiations in the direction of the sort of deep cuts [in offensive weapons] discussed at Reykjavik.''