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Third world goes on arms-buying spree

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* Syria, thanks again to heavy resupplying by Moscow, imported the world's largest dollar amount of arms in 1980 - $2.17 billion.

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* 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.