The United States is seeking to become involved in a major European project to build a sophisticated fighter plane for the next decade in an apparent effort to preserve a substantial American role in allied defense projects.
The West German Defense Ministry announced today that U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger had written to his counterparts in four European nations leading the multibillion-dollar project offering American expertise in building engines, radar and guidance systems for the modern combat aircraft.
A ministry spokesman in Bonn said the four consortium partners -- Britain, Spain, Italy and West Germany -- were considering the appeal and would submit a joint reply to Washington in the near future.
The Weinberger letter was interpreted by some defense experts here as an attempt to deflect calls for a more autonomous European military procurement sector and to maintain a high American profile in allied programs.
The strength of American defense-related firms in recent years has enabled the United States to establish a 7-to-1 advantage over European competitors in winning lucrative NATO armaments contracts.
Allied complaints about the lack of a "two-way street" and the overwhelming dominance of the U.S. military industry within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have prompted an intensive campaign in Europe to redress the balance.
In one of the most notable successes by a European ally in the transatlantic arms trade, France recently beat out Britain for a contract to build a mobile communications network for the U.S. armed forces at a cost of more than $4 billion.
The Eurofighter project, in some ways, involves even greater stakes because the partners are planning to build at least 800 superfighters, on a scale that will exceed $30 billion in development and production costs.
The multinational nature of the project has already sparked numerous clashes of interests among the participants, but the European partners appear committed to make a success of the new fighter plane as a symbol of their desire to promote a more vigorous defense technology sector in Western Europe that could rival that of the United States.
France, which backed out of the program in August because it wanted to build a cheap ground-attack version while the other countries favored a heavy air combat model, announced earlier this month that it would rejoin the consortium as a gesture of support for European defense cooperation.
French President Francois Mitterrand said that his country's share in the project would represent no more than a "symbolic value" of 5 to 10 percent. He said France would still pursue its own plan for a cheaper and lighter plane and would encourage other European partners to collaborate.
Despite the key involvement of American firms in such European projects as the three-nation Tornado fighter plane, a major U.S. role in the latest Eurofighter project could encounter some resistance because of the allies' growing desire to encourage development of a more innovative military industrial complex of their own.
European politicians often bemoan the inability of their national firms to exploit research spinoffs from defense programs because of persistent failures to achieve multinational economies of scale, a condition that has resulted in the loss of many military contracts to American companies.
However, West German defense experts noted that U.S. technology in critical components such as guidance systems remains so advanced that the logic of lower production costs and the greater experience of American companies should outweigh any reasons for favoring European concerns.