LUXEMBOURG — Defense ministers of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization urged the United States on Wednesday to move ahead with research on a space-based missile defense and said the program is in the alliance's security interests.
Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger said he is "extremely pleased" by NATO's unanimous support for the research, which the Soviet Union has said would start an arms race in space.
The ministers, in a closing statement at their regular spring strategy session, also pledged to continue installation of 572 medium-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe unless an arms control pact is reached at the U.S.-Soviet talks in Geneva.
Lord Carrington, the NATO secretary general, disclosed for the first time that 134 of the U.S. cruise and Pershing 2 missiles have been deployed in Europe, including 16 cruise missiles in Belgium earlier this month. Carrington gave no other breakdown of the deployments.
NATO previously had kept the figures secret.
The defense ministers declared their "strong support" for the U.S. bargaining position at the Geneva arms control negotiations, which began March 12. The negotiations involve long- and medium-range nuclear missiles as well as weapons in space.
Research Called 'Prudent'
Noting that the Soviet Union is attempting to develop its own defensive weapons for possible deployment in space, the NATO officials said U.S. research on space weapons--often called the "Star Wars" program--was prudent and should continue.
"We support the United States research program into these technologies, the aim of which is to enhance stability and deterrence at reduced levels of offensive nuclear forces," the NATO declaration said.
"This research, conducted within the terms of the (1972 anti-ballistic missile) treaty, is in NATO's security interest and should continue."
The ministers also welcomed a formal invitation issued by Weinberger on Tuesday for the allies to participate in the multibillion-dollar research of space weaponry.
British Defense Secretary Michael Heseltine said in an interview that "you can be sure" Britain will join in the U.S. research program.
"The precise means by which we pursue that are not yet established, but I will ensure that that is put right very quickly," Heseltine added.
British officials have expressed mixed feelings about the feasibility of the U.S. space weapons research and about the implications for NATO policy.
British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe said March 15 that there were many unanswered questions about the desirability of a defensive system in space. He said it was "liable to be outflanked by relatively simpler and demonstrably cheaper" counterforces from the Soviet side.
France, whose skepticism of the U.S. program has been more vocal than the other NATO partners, was not party to the Luxembourg declaration in support of the research. It does not participate in NATO defense planning because its forces are not in the NATO integrated military command.
Although the Danish defense minister joined in the declaration supporting the space weapons research, his country's Parliament instructed the government Tuesday to reject the U.S. invitation to participate.
Australian officials said Wednesday their country also would refuse to participate. Australia was one of three non-NATO countries formally invited by Weinberger to join the program. The others were Japan and Israel.