Sony Corp. of America has applied to participate in a U.S. Defense Department program for development of high-definition television equipment, a Sony official said Friday.

Sony's application for the $30 million in government grants is expected to lead to controversy over foreign participation in U.S. government-funded research programs.When the program was announced by the Pentagon in December, defense officials reportedly described it as a means to help U.S. electronics firms catch up with Europe and Japan, both of which already have developed high-definition television systems.

High-definition TV, or HDTV, provides pictures that are much clearer and more detailed than current televisions.

But in January, U.S. officials said the program would be open to foreign bidders because federal procurement regulations require open competition.

Sony Corp. of America submitted bids to the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for research into production of HDTV displays, receivers and signal processing equipment, the Sony official said.

Zenith Electronics Corp. and American Telephone and Telegraph Co. said Tuesday they had formed a partnership to produce HDTV equipment and also submitted a bid for the Pentagon project. More than 80 bids were received for the research program, news reports said.

Sony is a leader in the development of HDTV equipment in Japan, where HDTV broadcasts are expected to begin in less than two years. Sony introduced its first HDTV studio equipment in 1981, said the Sony official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

European companies have developed a separate HDTV system that is not compatible with the Japanese system, and plan to begin marketing equipment in 1992, officials say.

Last summer, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission set preliminary standards for future U.S. HDTV broadcasts that are incompatible with both the Japanese and European systems.

At that time, U.S. electronics officials expressed hope that the separate standards would allow American makers time to catch up with foreign competitors in the U.S. market, and urged the U.S. government to support HDTV development.

U.S. industry officials expressed chagrin Friday that Sony might take part in the Pentagon research program.

"It is a surprising development, and one assumes the Japanese company carefully considered all the possible reactions to its potential participation in this American project," said John Stern, representative in Tokyo of the two largest U.S. electronics trade associations.

"In the current political climate, the idea of the Pentagon financially supporting the Japanese consumer electronics industry will be a difficult idea to sell to the U.S. Congress," he added.