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The arms trade no one talks about

THERE is a lot of talk in the Pentagon about the "two-way street" between the United States and its allies in the production of weapons. This street is often bedeviled by fears that the sale of technologies to our allies might end up in the hands of our enemies.

Yet, the problem is more serious because of another two-way street, not usually talked about by the Pentagon -- the growing trade between Western arms manufacturers and the users of Soviet-made weapons. This trade not only transfers Western technologies to rather questionable customers but also shows the Soviets exactly how their weapons could be improved. It also shows the contradictions in an administration's policy that weakens the bond with our allies while helping the customers of Soviet weapons.

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The trade in Soviet weaponry is not new. When Egypt joined the Western camp after 1973, the US Air Force bought 24 MIG-21 and four MIG-23 Soviet-built jet fighters to practice against. The residents of Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, for example, are used to the sight of MIG-21s in US makings engaged in mock combat with US pilots.

This program has had its problems. The MIG-21, first produced in 1956, is described as having primitive avionics, poor navigation, and "serious problems" with the engine. Engine problems also seem to plague the more advanced MIG-23.

US Lt. Gen. Robert M. Bond was killed last April while reportedly flying a MIG-23. He died when the Tumansky turbojet engine that powered his plane disintegrated. The East Germans have also had problems flying the MIG-21 and MIG-23. Their Air Force reportedly lost 48 fighter planes in 1983 and approximately a dozen more in the first four months of 1984.

Despite these problems, the use of Soviet planes to train our pilots has been successful enough to tempt LTV Corporation into considering buying 24 MIG-21s from China for use by the US Navy. These Chinese-built aircraft are even cruder copies of the MIG-21s already owned by the Air Force. Nevertheless, no one can doubt that these aircraft would nearly replicate the performance of the MIG-21s that are the mainstay of the Soviet, East European, and many third-world air forces.

Western purchases of Soviet equipment are very small compared with US and allied sales to former Soviet customers. Some of these sales are undoubtedly in our interest. Last month, the Chinese defense minister, Zhang Aiping, secured a deal "in principle" to buy US-built air defense radars and antitank and antiaircraft weapons. These sales should contribute substantially to China's rather primitive equipment with little chance of the equipment getting into Soviet or pro-Soviet hands.

More interesting is the production of "improvement kits" for Soviet weapons by Western manufacturers for sale to Soviet customers in the Middle East.

The most ambitious project is the British Royal Ordnance Factory's new gun for the Soviet T-54/55 tank. The tanks are used by many third-world countries and China. Now, the ordnance factories have produced a better gun for the vehicle, allowing it to fire a variety of advanced ammunition. If a buyer sent one of these kits to the Soviets, the effect could be tremendous.

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The Soviets still have thousands of T-54/55 tanks that could use this equipment.By selling them a better version of their own tank, we not only transfer our valuable technology but also show them where every last screw and bolt should go in order to do it. Marconi, another British firm, has also mounted an advanced laser training system to ensure good shooting from Soviet tanks.

US companies have not been left out. One defense contractor is involved in producing an improvement kit for the Soviet SA-7 antiaircraft missile. The SA-7 is used by a number of Middle Eastern nations, from moderate states like Egypt to more radical states like Syria and Libya. If this kit were to "fall off the back of a truck" into the hands of terrorists, danger to civilians would increase.

This second "two-way street" is in many ways, the most important concern of all: It is one thing to sell the Soviets a basic technology that may be applied to a weapon after a few years work. It is another to show the Soviets exactly how to improve their ownm weapons.

As Lenin said, "the capitalists shall sell us the rope we will hang them with."

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