Zambia's surprising Soviet arms deal

Zambia has ordered a dozen MIG-21 combat aircraft from the Soviet Union in a secret and puzzling arms deal thought to be worth more than $100 million. Along with the 12 MIGs, the Soviets are to supply Zambia with a wide range of weaponry for its 12,000-strong Army. At present its forces are equipped with both Western and East bloc arms.

Zambia has not as yet officially announced the arms deal. But diplomats and government sources here confirm the order and add that it is the largest single arms purchase made by this nation since it became independent 15 years ago.

Zambia is a nonaligned state that enjoys good relations with the West and depends on the United States and West Europe for almost all its development aid.

What surprises foreign diplomats most is that Zambia, currently facing serious economic problems, including a food shortage, should be spending so much on arms at a time when prospects for peace in southern Africa have seldom been brighter.

The original reason for Zambian concern about its air and ground defenses was the repeated forays into Zambia by the Army and Air Force of neighboring Rhodesia.

But the signing of the Rhodesia ceasefire agreement in December and the independence election planned for later this month make it unlikely that Zambia will again have to face military attacks from its more powerful neighbor.

The MIG-21, a sophisticated combat plane, is superior to any of the aircraft currently used by the Rhodesian Air Force -- and at least equal to the French-type Mirages flown by the South Africans.

But Western diplomats do not envisage Zambia facing a major military challenge from South Africa. And even if a serious conflict did develop, they doubt the squadron of MIGs would make much real difference to the outcome.

As Zambia has good relations with the six independent black nations with which it shares borders, the diplomats wonder if Zambia has bought itself more sophisticated weaponry than it really needs.

They point out that the Soviet Union has sold the MIGs and ground equipment on hard commercial terms, and that replacements and spare parts will have to be paid for in the same way.

The question they are asking is how Zambia can pay for new jet planes and weapons without seriously compromising nonmilitary development programs that already are starved of funds.

They only answer they can come up with is that the programs can be maintained only if the West continues to pour aid into Zambia.

But some Western diplomats wonder whether their governments will be happy to continue supplying aid to Zambia when such large sums are being spent on military equipment.

The United States, for example, has provided aid worth $100 million to Zambia over the last three years. The last major aid agreement, worth $10 million, was for 100,000 tons of corn needed to avert a famine because of the failure of last year's domestic crop.

Britain and other West European countries also have spent millions of dollars helping Zambia in recent years, whereas Soviet aid of any kind has been negligible, according to government statistics.

The feeling in diplomatic circles here is that Western donors are unlikely to be so generous in the future.

"Our aid is indirectly going to the Soviets," one Western diplomat said. "We provide funds to help Zambia, which frees other foreign exchange so they can buy guns from the Soviet Union."

Domestic criticism of the arms deal also was anticipated, and some diplomats predicted that President Kenneth Kaunda could have a hard time explaining the cost of the arms to a population facing shortages of many essential civilian commodities.

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