East-West `battle of the drawing boards'. US holds R&D edge, but quality of Soviet weapons is improving

The United States space shuttle, B-1 bomber, F-16 fighter, and C-5A military transport have all made major contributions to the Soviet Union's military strength. The contributions are apparent in the Soviet's space shuttle, Blackjack bomber, MIG-29 jet fighter, and its planned AN-124 transport plane. Each borrows heavily from its US counterpart, Pentagon officials say. Some add that they are virtual copies.

Such striking similarities between US and Soviet weapons systems are a major concern to Defense Department officials. They worry that the Soviets may be drawing ever closer to the US in developing sophisticated weapons systems.

``While the United States continues to lead the USSR in most basic technologies, the gap in the military application of such technologies continues to narrow,'' says the Pentagon's 1986 annual report ``Soviet Military Power.''

The East-West rivalry is increasingly becoming a technology race played out on drafting tables, in laboratories, and on proving grounds on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

Although US and Soviet soldiers have never faced each other in combat, weapons built in the two nations have. The results -- seen most recently over Libya -- seem to confirm that the US holds a significant lead in the weapons technology race.

US forces count on superior Western technology to overcome the numerical advantages the Soviets enjoy in ground forces and basic weapons systems.

Some specialists warn that measuring the so-called ``technology gap'' can be an elusive exercise.

``Weapons in the lab don't fight battles,'' says James Townsend of Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies. In addition, Pentagon critics warn that during times of threatened budget cuts, Defense Department bureaucrats are particularly prone to alarmist interpretations of projections about the ``technology gap.''

In fact, the most recent Defense Department assessment shows the US superior in cutting-edge research in 14 of 20 key military technologies. In the remaining six areas, the US and USSR are said to be roughly equal.

But when the focus shifts to technology in currently deployed weapons systems, the US lead shrinks. The 1986 survey shows US and Soviet land forces on roughly equal footing in the sophistication of their weapons. The US is reported to be superior in strategic, air, naval, and communications areas.

On a weapon-by-weapon basis, the assessment suggests that the Soviets are approaching technical parity with the US in submarine-launched ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, fighter aircraft, air-to-surface bombs, attack submarines, torpedoes, and surface warships. ``The deployed hardware comes closer to what we have than you would suspect from looking at the background technologies,'' says Arthur Alexander, a Soviet military specialist with the Rand Corporation.

Analysts say that part of the reason for the discrepancy between the gap in cutting-edge research and the gap in deployed systems is that the Soviets are more efficient than the US in incorporating the latest high-tech advances into battlefield-ready weapons.

In general, it takes eight to 12 years to take a major weapons system from drawing board to operation. The Soviets are said to update their weapons at frequent intervals to make use of new technologies. By contrast, the US spaces development out over longer periods of time, waiting to incorporate substantial upgrades in a weapon. ``We like to make dramatic changes. The Soviets are much more incremental in their approach,'' says Peter Alquest, a PhD candidate in the Soviet Security Studies Working Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This Soviet efficiency is complemented by a world-wide effort to buy or steal Western technology and know-how to make up for Soviet deficiencies. US officials estimate that the Soviets can chop two to five years off their weapons-development time by acquiring critical components and technology from the West. In addition, the acquisition program saves them ``billions of dollars'' in R&D costs and helps the Soviets devise countermeasures to Western weapons before Western nations can deploy them, a 1985 Pentagon report says.

Thousands of pages of NASA documents and reports released to the public are said to have greatly helped the Soviets develop their space shuttle. Some officials say the Soviets copied the US design. Others counter that the laws of aerodynamics and physics know no national boundaries; hence, it is not surprising that space systems designed for similar missions resemble each other.

Rand's Alexander calls this ``the creative use of previous experience.'' He notes that rather than direct copies, US officials have observed many ``shared features'' in which the Soviets have adopted a good idea pioneered by the Americans.

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