For the first time in half a decade, the pell-mell transfer of high technology US industrial equipment to the Soviet Union -- running at $180 to $ 200 million annually -- is showing a sharp drop.
Analysts here cannot yet fully gauge what the final tally with be on technology transfers to the Soviets for 1980. But it is now assumed that the large-scale movement of US industrial products -- ranging from sophisticated computers to entire plants and assembly operations -- will slow significantly this year.
Factors explaining the downturn range from US reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to mounting opposition from Republican political contenders eager to exploit what they perceive as a vulnerable spot in President Carter's foreign policy.
The Carter administration, after adopting an initial moratorium on high technology transfers following the Afghanistan invasion, now is allowing goods to flow to the USSR again. Yet the administration is imposing tighter controls than before on the types of goods that can be exported.
Significantly, total nonagricultural exports to the Soviets were down sharply for the first months of 1980, compared to 1979. Between January and April of 1979, nonagricultural sales to the USSR reached $240 million. This year, the amount was only $115 million for the same period. Commerce Department officials say something like 30 percent of nonagricultural exports represent high-technology transfers.
According to Hertha Heiss, who heads the USSR desk at the Commerce Department , total nonagricultural exports to the Soviets will "reach around $400 million" in 1980, compared to $750 million last year. Thus, if the "30 percent generalization" is applied, that would mean high technology transfers in 1980 of around $120 million or so.
While a precise definition of "high technology" presents innumerable problems to US export officials, it is assumed here that such transfers last year were roughly in the $180-to-$200 million range.
Despite the apparent decline, Republican political contenders are stepping up their attack on technology transfers to the Soviets. The GOP platform, adopted in Detroit last week, argues that "the Carter administration has encouraged the most extensive raid on American technology by the Soviet bloc since World War II." The platform pledges to "stop the flow of technology" that could "contribute, directly or indirectly, to the growth of their military power."
It is not lost on many observers here that the party now decrying the transfer of high technology to the USSR, was the chief architect of such transfers.
In the early 1970s, the amount of sophisticated technology was considered insignificant -- pegged at around $39 million in 1972 during the start of the second Nixon administration. Under two Republican administrations, the level of trade shot up dramatically, reaching an estimated $207 million or so in 1976, the last year of the Ford administration.
There was a slight drop during the first two years of the Carter administration, with levels rising again somewhat after 1978, but still not to the high point of 1976.
Prominent congressional critics of high technology sales -- such as Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D) of Washington -- have long argued that the Soviets divert industrial products or data from civilian to military purposes. For example, the Soviets arranged a purchase of $1.5 billion worth of equipment to build a truck factory on the Kama River. The facility was planned as a civilian plant. In fact, Kama-built Soviet Army trucks were used in the Afghanistan invasion.
According to a top Commerce Department official who declines to be quoted, the US is "clearly much more restrictive toward transfers [of high technology items] now than before Afghanistan.
"Frankly, we're not making anyone happy," the official adds.
"Conservatives [who oppose all transfers] believe we're not going far enough in stopping the trade. Businessmen who want to wrap up sales are unhappy. The Soviets are unhappy."
According to the official, under the new guidelines the US will not approve the transfer of an item that is on an international "multilaterally controlled list" of products most Western nations have declined to ship to the Soviets. Under the prior policy, if US officials felt that the shipment would not harm US security, an exemption would be sought. Currently, says the Commerce official, the US does not usually bother to seek an exemption at all.