Whose guns are best?
Americans have had a heavy diet for a long time of how super are Soviet weapons. It has made a super argument for the super weapons budget Ronald Reagan campaigned for in 1980 and has been supporting since reaching the White House. It has given some Americans an inferiority complex about their armed forces, and has also frightened a good many in the process.
Well. No one in his right mind doubts that the Soviets have been building one of the world's fullest arsenals of weapons of all kinds at a high speed ever since they were outgunned during the Cuban missile crisis and faced down by superior American armaments.
But, what seems to me to be some healthy perspective has been cast on the question by two recent events.
The first occurred during recent hearings May 11 before the US Senate Armed Services Committee. The Senators were talking about all things military with Gen. John W. Vessey Jr. who is to take over on July 1 as the new chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. After a routine amount of the routine talk about Soviet weapons Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, asked the general whether he would be willing to trade American armed forces for Soviet armed forces.
General Vessey replied that there were some categories where he would like to have the US get as many weapons as the Soviets. Specifically he would like more intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and more nuclear ''throw weight'' with his missiles.
''But overall,'' said General Vessey, ''would I trade with General Ogarkov (Soviet Chief of General Staff)? Not on your life.''
The past two weeks have provided us with another check on the relative merits of Soviet versus US weapons. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon was carried out largely with US weapons. When the Israelis came up against the Syrians it was a clear test of US versus Soviet weapons. The Syrians have mostly Soviet weapons, and some of the latest and best at that.
The testing was short, sharp - and decisive. The American weapons won every time. US planes were superior to Soviet planes. US tanks won out over Soviet tanks. Perhaps most surprising to a lot of watchers was the sudden elimination of Soviet surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries.
It was done with a new American weapon which has not yet been officially described but is said to be able to run down a radar beam and hit the control radar which goes with any SAM battery. Observers reported seeing something suddenly take out a whole SAM battery.
SAM batteries used by the Syrians are said to have been a mix of Soviet SAM 2 , SAM 3, and SAM 6 units. The SAMs were the bane of US pilots during the Vietnam war. Many an American plane was brought down by them. If Soviet SAMs are now obsolete, it means that NATO air forces have gained a greatly improved capacity to penetrate Soviet air defense composed largely of the same weapons.
The Syrians are well provided with some of the latest and best Soviet tanks. Their inventory includes 400 of Moscow's newest tank, the medium T-72 which carries a 125mm gun, the largest caliber gun currently mounted on any tank. Most tanks carry the 120mm gun. The Israelis claim to have knocked out nine of the T- 72 Syrian tanks. The Syrians admitted to the loss of 83 tanks without specifying which kind.
Probably the most interesting to the weaponeers of the great powers was the testing of US vs. Soviet fighter planes. The Soviet fighter force at home consists of 1,300 MIG 23s and 400 MIG 21s. The MIG 23 is obviously the main fighter plane in the Soviet arsenal. The Syrians sent up into a single air battle against the Israelis a total of some 60 of these two types. The Israelis claim to have shot down almost all of them. They claim a total of 90 Syrian MIGs brought down during the fighting. They say they lost none of their own planes. They were using American F-15, F-16, and F-4 planes.
There are reasons apart from quality of equipment to explain some of the Israeli success. Israeli pilots and ground troops are highly trained, probably more so than Syrians although Syrian pilots are supposed to have the best training the Soviets can provide. Israelis may be more highly motivated. Israeli tactics may be better than Soviet tactics as used by Syrians.
But the essential fact remains that in the Middle East fighting American weapons enjoyed decisive technological superiority over Soviet weapons.
The above does not prove that US weapons will continue to retain a technological advantage. The Soviets are usually quick to catch up when they find themselves behind in any type of weapon. But it does justify the conclusion that the US is not lagging behind the Soviets in modern weaponry.