A top-level West German delegation embarked today on a 10-day trip to Washington that will determine whether the Bonn government takes part in President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative.
The delegation -- 30 leading representatives from government and industry -- will seek assurances that participating West German firms can have full access to new technologies likely to emerge from the massive research program for an antimissile system.
Horst Teltschik, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's adviser on foreign and security affairs who will be leading the group, also wants to convey Bonn's conviction that the missile defense program, popularly known as "Star Wars," should not jeopardize progress at the Geneva arms talks.
Senior West German officials said that U.S. wariness in sharing technology secrets with the allies and Reagan's insistence that SDI is not subject to negotiation indicate that it will be exceedingly difficult for the Bonn government to gain satisfaction on both issues.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's recent hints that Moscow is prepared to agree to deep cuts in missile forces in exchange for negotiated limits on space arms should be explored as a possible basis for a breakthrough in the stalled negotiations, according to officials in the chancellery and Foreign Ministry.
Even though Reagan has declared that SDI is not part of the Geneva negotiating agenda, the Bonn government would welcome an accord imposing testing or deployment restrictions on space-based systems in return for reduced missile arsenals, the officials said.
Kohl has avoided speaking out in favor of the so-called "grand bargain" scenario in the arms talks because he does not want to weaken the U.S. negotiating position or upset Reagan by publicly calling into question the wisdom and feasibility of the missile defense project, the sources said.
Western diplomats said the current spy scandal in West Germany is likely to reinforce the arguments of Pentagon officials that classified data and advanced technology should be kept from European allies, particularly West Germany, because of serious risks that sensitive matter would end up in the Soviet Bloc. Security sources report that the espionage crisis already has resulted in a cutback in the flow of intelligence data shared with Bonn.
"The chances of getting the Americans to bend on the exchange of technology are virtually nil," said a Foreign Ministry official in Bonn. "It is naive to think the U.S. will agree to give any European ally access to high-technology military secrets."
U.S. resistance to accepting the European allies as full partners in the SDI project was cited last May by President Francois Mitterrand as the primary reason why the French government would not participate in the antimissile research program.
At the Bonn economic summit, Mitterrand complained that in a brief talk about the project with Reagan, the U.S. leader spoke of "subcontractors" in referring to the role he envisioned for Europe. Mitterrand said the term confirmed his fears about the European allies being relegated to a subordinate status.
France has been promoting the creation of a research project called Eureka. It is designed to stimulate research in space-related fields so that European countries can keep pace with the United States and Japan in developing new technologies.
The Kohl government has backed the Eureka concept but has refrained from undertaking any financial commitments because Eureka's research objectives remain too vague and ill-defined, officials said.
So far, Kohl has evaded the delicate political dilemma of having to choose between his country's two principal allies. West Germany has endorsed both projects, but officials in Bonn say that at some point the government will be compelled to pick one over the other because of limited resources.
The Germans say they believe that the U.S. research program is well advanced and offers the best potential economic spinoffs. But for political reasons, SDI evokes caution among the allies.
France and Britain are worried that their expensive national nuclear deterrent forces may be overwhelmed by future development of sophisticated antimissile defenses. West Germany is most concerned that SDI's costs will reduce U.S. investment in conventional military forces in Central Europe. All the allies worry that SDI could erode the strategy of deterrence, or the "nuclear balance of terror," that has been pursued in Europe for 40 years.
The German delegation is carrying a list of 218 questions concerning patents, prices, contracts, licenses and security in the SDI project. Bonn plans to decide by the end of the year whether to sign an intergovernmental accord that would serve as an "umbrella" for industrial cooperation.
Some West German companies, which excel in optics, space subsystems and other areas pertinent to SDI research, are eager to start bidding for contracts and do not want to be hindered by painstaking negotiations between governments in Bonn and Washington.
The Kohl government has declared that West German firms are free to seek SDI research contracts, but it wants to reach a government pact in order to maintain some influence on future development decisions as well as SDI's impact on arms control.
If development of the project proceeds beyond the basic research phase, officials said the Bonn government is keenly interested in exploring defenses against the short-range missiles based in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union that threaten West Germany the most.