Washington — Arms sales to the third world are growing by leaps and bounds. While many third-world countries are groaning under burdensome debts and hefty oil import bills, arms sales to the developing countries are doubling every five years, according to the 1982 statistics of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Developing countries involved in most of the 135 local conflicts that have broken out since the end of World War II are now purchasing tanks, jet fighters, missiles, and other sophisticated arms at more than twice the rate of the developed world.
The US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in Washington puts the military expenditures of third-world countries in 1980 at $133 billion. That's about 22 percent of all arms expenditure in the world. Military analyst Ruth Leger Sivard puts the 1980 third-world figure at $117 billion in her publication World Military and Social Expenditures for 1982.
Rapid militarization of the third world is responsible for a sharp rise in military personnel in the developing countries, including China. The number of military troops, officers, and technicians has increased from 12.3 million in 1975 to 15.1 million in 1980. By contrast, the number of personnel in uniform in the developed world - including both NATO and Warsaw Pact countries - went down slightly from 9.55 million in 1975 to 9.54 million in 1980, according to the Sivard analysis.
London's International Institute for Strategic Studies reports that for 1982- 83 the two superpowers - the United States and the Soviet Union - have total armed forces of 2,117,000 and 3,705,000 respectively. In addition, the Institute indicates that the Soviet Union has some 560,000 border guard, internal security , railroad, and construction troops.
For both the US and the Soviet Union, which are running a neck-and-neck race to arm the developing countries, arms sales to the third world have overtaken economic assistance as a major instrument of foreign policy.
Yet not all the third world is jumping on the arms bandwagon. There are a number of small countries - Sri Lanka, for one - that have put much greater emphasis on social development than on joining the third-world arms spiral. According to figures obtained from the Agency for International Development, only 0.75 percent of Sri Lanka's gross national product was spent on military expenditures in 1979, the last available year for comprehensive global military statistics. By contrast, 22.76 percent of Syria's GNP was spent on defense.
Costa Rica, situated very close to the escalating military conflict in Central America, continues to remain a democracy without a standing army even though it is moving, with help from the US and several other nations, to establish a volunteer national security force. One cynical view is that if Costa Rica allowed itself to established an Army it might follow an all too familiar pattern in Latin America and become a military dictatorship.
Some third-world experts also suggest, however, that rising military expenditures should be seen in the context of an overall growth in spending. In other words, while third-world countries are spending vastly more on sophisticated armaments, their military expenditures as a percentage of the gross national product have not shifted that markedly - from 3.6 percent in 1961 to 4.2 percent in 1980.
At the same time the trend toward more and bigger and better weaponry is unmistakable.
Although the Reagan administration deplores the spiraling global arms race, substantial arms sales to countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Sudan are justified on the basis that they stabilize rather than destablize US allies in strategic corners of the globe.
The acceleration of arms sales by both the superpowers - although there is some suggestion that the Soviets may have saturated their markets - as well as by such key European powers as France, Italy, West Germany, and Britain means:
* Some 32 countries, mostly in the third world, spend more on defense than on education and health care combined, according to World Military and Social Expenditures.
* Libya, a Soviet client state, is now bristling with an arsenal that in some departments exceeds that of Egypt, Africa's preeminent military power. Libya, with only a 55,000-man Army, has some 2,900 main battle tanks compared with 2, 100 for Egypt, which has an Army almost six times the size of Libya's. At the same time, military analysts point out that Libya's military hardware is kept in notoriously bad condition.
* Syria, thanks again to heavy resupplying by Moscow, imported the world's largest dollar amount of arms in 1980 - $2.17 billion.
* Even Kenya, a modest power, has opted to develop a small but well-equipped defense force with air mobility, missile armament and short-range jet interceptors.
The growth of arms sales to third-world countries is attributed to a number of factors. Apart from one overriding consideration - the perceived vulnerability of OPEC countries and their ability to pay out large sums of money for new defense systems in the 1970s - defense analysts offer these other explanations:
1. Prestige. A modern, well-equipped army signals to the outside world that a relatively small state can take care of itself and is not looking to other countries for a defense umbrella.
2. Proliferation of regional conflicts. Examples of such conflicts include El Salvador and Nicaragua in Central America; Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia in the Horn of Africa; Libya, Chad, and Egypt in North Africa; and Thailand, Vietnam and Kampuchea, in Southeast Asia. The current war between Iran and Iraq is regarded in defense circles as signaling the first significant war fought with sophisticated weaponry that did not directly affect any of the world's major military powers.
3. The developing nations' push for more sophisticated arms. This thrust, which has occurred over the last 10 to 15 years, also carries higher price tags. As Michael Moodie, defense analyst at the Georgetown Center for Strategic and International Studies succinctly put it: ''F-16s cost more than F-4s.''
4. A more aggressive sales pitch by arms producers. The producers see in vast arms supplies a highly profitable means of beating the world recession. European powers, in particular, seem to feel they have a greater commercial need to boost arms exports. In addition, the number of arms-producing countries is growing and is now extending into the third world itself. Both Israel and Brazil have flourishing arms markets in the third world.
Nowhere in the third world has the rapid purchasing of arms proceeded at a greater pace than in Africa. The US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency shows that arms exports to Africa increased by as much as 33 percent between 1971 and 1980 - from a modest $500 million in 1971 to $4.5 billion in 1980.
Much of the increase is because of Soviet penetration of the arms market. According to information from the US State Department, during the last decade the Soviet Union shipped 895 combat aircraft to African countries while the United States delivered only 20. During the same period, the Soviet Union delivered 77 naval combatants; the US none.
Meanwhile Cuba, the Soviet Union's proxy, accounts for most of the East bloc's troops, advisers, and military and economic technicians stationed in Africa.
According to a recently issued report from the US State Department, Cuba has 39,960 military technicians in Africa, most of these in sub-Saharan Africa. The report lists 23,000 in Angola, 12,000 in Ethiopia, 1,000 in Mozambique, 50 in Guinea-Bissau, 10 in Guinea, and 850 in other countries. The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe reportedly have 18,205 military technicians in Africa. Some 5,300 are in sub-Saharan Africa, principally in Ethiopia and Angola. Although Moscow made inroads into new markets in 1981 with its first arms agreements with Jordan and Nicaragua, a recently released report from the US Library of Congress shows the US moving ahead of the Soviet Union in third-world arms sales in 1982.
At the same time there is mounting concern about what impact the growing military debts of dozens of developing countries are likely to have on the countries' ability to deal with pressing social and economic problems.
A January 1983 report issued by the General Accounting Office supplied a list that showed that as of February 1982 a dozen countries were receiving guaranteed loans, even though they were already in default on prior loans for military assistance. These countries were Zaire, Sudan, Bolivia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Lebanon, Liberia, Morocco, Nicaragua, Senegal, Sudan, Tunisia, Turkey, and Zaire.