WASHINGTON — Some of the same European allies who are undecided or have even opted out of the Reagan Administration's program to develop a "Star Wars" shield against Soviet missiles are promoting a "mini-Star Wars" system designed to protect them from the short-range and medium-range missiles that pose a direct threat to Europe.
Such a system could be operating sooner, more easily and probably more cheaply than the more ambitious Strategic Defense Initiative, the formal name for the proposed "Star Wars" program of space-based defense. And it also could give a boost to President Reagan's controversial research program for the system.
So far, only Britain has signed a pact to take part in the program, which is designed to protect Europe as well as the United States from Soviet missiles. West Germany announced Wednesday that it will open negotiations with the United States toward regulating the participation of German firms in "Star Wars" research, although differences on the issue persist in Bonn's coalition government.
Division Among Allies
France has flatly refused to be a U.S. "subcontractor" on the project. Italy is waiting until the dust settles although its budding space industry is eager for a role. And the Netherlands has been among the North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations most reluctant to accept new weapons.
Still, the West German Defense Ministry is trying to drum up support for a modest version of the Strategic Defense Initiative concept, sometimes called a European Defense Initiative. The goal is a system that would defend against the short-range Soviet missiles in Eastern Europe and the western Soviet Union.
The system would employ an anti-tactical ballistic missile (ATBM); tactical is another term for "short-range" in missile jargon.
Similarly, French military officials are interested in developing an ATBM defense, and France has also suggested a joint French-German satellite to detect and track hostile aircraft and missiles.
Even the Dutch are inclined to support development of a European umbrella against Soviet missiles, Defense Minister Jacob de Ruiter recently told Parliament.
Surprise Attack Concern
"Regardless of SDI," Manfred Woerner, West Germany's defense chief, said recently, "we all have to be concerned at the threat of (Soviet) short-range missiles" because Moscow could launch a surprise attack--even with missiles equipped with non-nuclear warheads--and wipe out NATO command and control centers, airfields and ammunition stores.
"We are pressing" the United States to help Europe develop an ATBM system, Woerner added. "It is in (the U.S.) interest because their troops are also stationed in Europe."
His desire resonates strongly with Strategic Defense Initiative supporters in the United States.
"On both political and technical grounds," said Fred S. Hoffman, director of the consulting firm Pan Heuristics and one of the original strategists of the nuclear age, "it now appears that SDI technologies could be applied earliest to defenses against . . . (shorter-range) ballistic missiles . . . in mid-course or after re-entry into the atmosphere."
Hoffman said in an interview that a European "mini-Star Wars" defense could become operational by 1995, while a full-fledged SDI system would have to wait for early next century.
U.S. Favors Full System
At the Defense Department, however, the full system clearly comes first. Funds for the Army's ATBM development program have dropped drastically since the Strategic Defense Initiative effort was announced, from almost $100 million two years ago to about $30 million now. The message from Washington seems to be that if the Europeans want their own missile defense, they will have to pay for it themselves.
In political terms, a European ATBM system would be more acceptable than the full-blown space-based program because it would not violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which forbids defenses against long-range missiles but is silent on the shorter-range missiles that are the object of ATBM defenses.
An ATBM system in Europe could also test some of the concepts of the larger system. Shorter-range warheads travel much slower--and are easier to intercept as they descend on their targets--than their intercontinental big brothers. Any progress could be helpful in SDI's final phase--the effort to shoot down enemy warheads as they return to Earth.
The U.S. Patriot anti-aircraft system, which is under development, should similarly have some ability to intercept shorter-range missiles at the end of their trajectory. A Defense Department official told Congress last year that the Patriot program includes "technologies for defense against the shorter-range nuclear ballistic missiles," which remain within the atmosphere throughout their entire route.