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Expanding arms shipments: a dangerous policy

In its first year in office the Reagan administration has moved rapidly to distinguish its policy on the transfer of United States arms to foreign countries from the previous Carter administration policy.

Unfortunately, there is no indication that the Reagan policy team has a healthy respect for the dangers inherent in a commitment to expanded arms shipments by a nation which is already the world's dominant supplier.

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The administration's catalog of ''achievements'' in arms transfer policy is substantial:

* It has effectively eliminated legislative bans on military aid to Chile and Argentina, despite their continuing systematic violations of the human rights of their own citizens.

* It has arranged the exemption of Pakistan from legislation mandating that countries suspected of developing nuclear weapons be denied US military aid. The exemption clears the way for a proposed multiyear, $3.2 billion military and economic aid plan and the sale of 40 F-16s.

* It has won a hard-fought victory over congressional opponents of the $8.5 billion Saudi AWACS deal, a record offer to a country which already had over $20 billion in back orders under the US government's Foreign Military Sales program.

* It has pushed through over $50 million in military aid to El Salvador, twice the value of all US military shipments to that nation since 1950. The recently initiated training of 1,500 Salvadoran military personnel in the US will result in additional aid requests before next year's budget goes through.

In addition, the administration has moved to ensure a more active government role in the marketing of US arms throughout the world. The State Department has repealed the so-called ''leprosy letter,'' which had prohibited US government personnel from actively promoting the sale of US arms overseas. The new Reagan arms transfer guidelines actively encourage the development of new US weapons solely for export.

Congress has authorized the administration's proposed Special Defense Acquisition Fund, which will stockpile commonly ordered weapons in order to assure faster delivery times to foreign governments. At a time when most civilian programs are being cut back, the administration has pushed through substantial increases in US military loans and grants so that financially strapped developing nations can afford to buy US aircraft, missiles, tanks, and helicopters.

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All these actions suggest a dangerous tendency to rely on military solutions to complex social and economic problems. Far from aiming to maintain an abstract ''balance of power'' in regions of potential conflict, many of the acceleratedUS arms shipments are being used in combat. The use of US helicopters against refugees in El Salvador and Honduras and US aircraft in Morocco's military occupation of the Western Sahara are only the most blatant examples of the consequences of expanded arms transfers.

More generally, the free flow of weaponry to unrepresentative governments like the Saudi monarchy and the Zia ul-Haq dictatorship in Pakistan raises serious questions about what further commitments might be made to such regimes in the name of ''stability.'' President Reagan has said that he will not allow Saudi Arabia to become another Iran, but the Shah's fall proved that no amount of advanced US weaponry can keep an unpopular regime in power indefinitely.

Domestically, Reagan policymakers have overlooked the dangers to the US economy of growing dependence on arms sales. The most recent figures from the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency show that close to 5 percent of total US exports consists of weapons. Particular companies are especially export-dependent: Northrop received over half of its business in fiscal year 1980 from foreign military sales contracts, and Chrysler's production line for the M-60 tank is solely dependent on sales to the Middle East and North Africa for its continued operation. The American League for Exports and Security Assistance, an arms industry lobbying group which supports the easing of arms export controls ''to assist US exporters and provide American jobs,'' has seeen many of its recommendations translated into policy during the first year of the Reagan term.

What is good for a small group of arms exporting firms is not necessarily good for the economy as a whole. Arms exports create fewer jobs per dollar spent than most civilian enterprises. At the same time, aggressive government support for expanded arms sales is practically an admission of defeat in the areas of civilian product development which could be benefiting from the research and engineering talent currently devoted to producing weapons for export.

Most important, a growing market for arms exports depends on continuing international conflict, leaving workers in the arms export sector in the unenviable position of depending on increasing world tensions for their livelihoods.

After a year in practice, the new Reagan arms transfer policy hardly looks like a long-term prescription for peace and prosperity.

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