Western Europe is disappointed - and a bit resentful - over the skimpy share it has received in President Reagan's ``star wars'' program. The United States' multi-billion dollar project to develop a missile-defense shield against Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles, known as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), has proved almost impervious to foreign participation.
Experts say that the European allies' share of research and development funds is unlikely to increase in years ahead, even if the controversial program outlives Mr. Reagan's administration.
``The bottom line is that the allies are disappointed in the money that's come, and the second bottom line is that they shouldn't be surprised,'' said Ivo Daalder of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. Mr. Daalder, a research associate, is studying the impact of the SDI program on NATO defense policy.
Daalder said there is resentment in Europe that the Reagan administration extracted political support for SDI with the lure of huge defense contracts. Now the critics, who said three years ago such contracts would never be signed, have been vindicated. Five countries have signed secret memorandums with the US on participation in SDI - Britain, West Germany, Israel, Italy, and Japan. France, Canada, Belgium, and the Netherlands have not signed, but have been awarded some contracts (see chart). Japan signed a memorandum in 1987 but received no contracts.
One reason the Europeans have done poorly is that funding for the program itself has fallen short of original estimates. Funding for the 1988-89 fiscal year is $3.6 billion, the largest appropriation so far, but well below the estimated $5 billion annually planned when Reagan announced the program in 1983.
Other principal reasons the allies have been participating only on the edges of SDI research include the complexity of the US bureaucracy, the politics of defense contracts, and the reluctance of the US Congress and the Pentagon to share sensitive defense technologies with allies.
``It's a good strategy for the SDI office to go out and get the best science and technology they can where the allies can make a contribution,'' Daalder says. But he said it would be difficult to bring in the allies on such a sensitive and ambitious program. ``If you're going to work on the most advanced project ever conceived, you're not going to share the technology with allies where it could slip into Soviet hands.''
As Washington's closest ally, Britain was the first country to agree to participate, after former Defense Minister Michael Heseltine tried to extract a US promise of some $1.5 billion in contracts was rebuffed. Britain's faithful if reluctant support has brought scant rewards.
``Most of the problems lie with the American bureaucracy - it's become too complex and too unwieldy,'' says Stanley Orman, director of the SDI Participation Office in Britain's Ministry of Defense.
Dr. Orman says access to secret information has been a serious problem for British industry in bidding on SDI work, since the nature of the projects themselves is highly classified. However, access has improved since Britain signed the memorandum on SDI research with the US in late 1985. ``While I can't say it now physically prevents UK industries from bidding, which it did at one time, it's a source of constant concern and some irritation,'' Orman says.
Britain's efforts to secure a share of SDI money have been second to none. With a full-time staff of some two dozen experts, some extremely familiar with the US bureaucracy, the SDI participation office in the Ministry of Defense has facilitated the signing of more than 60 contracts. Although these include leading British universities and most of the major British weapons and aerospace companies, only a few have gained a significant share of the work. They include Ferranti Ltd., teamed up with Martin Marietta Corporation, and Culham Laboratories of the UK Atomic Energy Authority partnered with Grumman Aerospace Corporation.
Despite the low dollar value of British contracts, estimated by the defense ministry at about $65 million, Orman contends that Britain, unlike other allies, has contributions to make across the full range of SDI research. And he says that British companies are ahead of US companies in certain key fields such as fiber optics and test-bed technologies for computer simulations of defense systems. ``We've been involved in all the technologies of the SDI program for 20 years.''
Since the US Congress and the Pentagon dislike awarding lucrative defense contracts to foreign companies, Orman counsels British industries to join in partnership with US companies in the bidding process. Even with this approach, it has not been easy to open doors.
``We've had a much more difficult struggle than I ever envisaged,'' Orman says. Part of the problem was a lack of informed response by British industry. ``Companies that took initiatives early are now reaping results; those that were wary are now suffering disillusion,'' he says.
Unlike the West German government, which supported the SDI program on the basis of its potential economic benefits to German industry, Britain has taken the concept of a missile defense shield more seriously.
A number of SDI contracts have been signed with universities, but there are doubts in the academic community about the feasibility of a space-based missile defense. And, some academics distrust US objectives.
``The difficulty for a lot of people has been that the stated aims of the project don't correspond with the true aims,'' says Chris Moss at London's Imperial College. Dr. Moss says many academics are worried that SDI has become an obstacle to concluding a strategic arms reduction treaty and, if deployed, could bring to an end the US-Soviet Antiballistic Missile Treaty.
But Orman says research scientists with such reservations about SDI are in a minority. SDI research overlaps with other defense work so that the level of foreign participation in US defense research and development is greater than the Pentagon data on SDI suggest.
Defense experts, though, say that after the research and development phase of SDI is over, US contracts for actual equipment and deployment are unlikely to go to foreign companies.
FOREIGN PARTICIPATION IN STAR WARS RESEARCH Figures are cumulative since program was announced in 1983; US appropriation for 1988-89 alone was $3.6 billion Country No. of contracts Value in millions Britain More than 60 $65 West Germany 29 47 Israel 12 12 Netherlands 3 12 Italy 22 7 France 6 6 Canada 5 2 Belgium 1 less than 1 ----------------------------------------------------------------- TOTAL 138 152 Sources: SDI, Dept. of Defense, Washington; SDI Participation Office, Ministry of Defense