Moscow hawking its T-72s, despite what happened in Lebanon

Step right up, folks! This baby may not be much on gas mileage or parking. But it climbs like a cat. It turns on the proverbial 10-kopek piece.

And for the driver who demands that little something extra, . . . it also happens to fend off nuclear radiation.

It is the T-72, Moscow's top-of-the-line battle tank.

In recent weeks it has starred in something oddly akin to a Kremlin advertising campaign on the virtues of Soviet weaponry.

The main catalyst for a curbing of traditional Soviet reticence to address such military matters has been the recent Mideast war, in which the Syrian Army and Air Force are said to have lost a good chunk of their Soviet-manufactured equipment to Israelis wielding mostly US-made arms.

To a lesser extent - particularly in the case of the T-72 - Moscow may also be trying to counter any erosion of Soviet morale from the considerable publicity, however critical, given new US systems like the neutron anti-tank weapon.

(On at least one score, the claim Sept. 12 in the Soviet trade union newspaper that the T-72 ''reliably protects its crew from the shock waves, light radiation, and penetrating radiation of the nuclear blast,'' Moscow seems intent not to let facts get in the way of a domestically reassuring exercise in public relations. This article was timed for the Soviets' annual Tank Forces Day.

(A more specialized outlet, the armed forces newspaper Red Star, acknowledged only a year ago that conventional tank armor could offer only two to three times normal protection against weapons radiation. That article, too, held that ''existing means and possibilities'' could counter a neutron weapon, but made it clear this implied skillful use of battlefield geography, rather than tank armor.)

The recent spate of commentaries here on Soviet weapons performance in the Mideast is targeted partly at a domestic audience. But the Kremlin clearly wants to counter adverse publicity among current or potential partners in the Arab world.

Privately, various Soviet officials have reacted to Israel's air and land successes against the Syrians by emphasizing factors other than the quality of arms. They emphasize elements like the quantity and intended purpose of the weaponry, or the tactical advantage accruing to Israel as ''aggressor'' in the conflict. Or they emphasize the level of training among the soldiers operating the tanks, missiles, and planes. Indeed, more than a few Western analysts have cautioned against reading the Mideast war as some neatly packaged triumph of US arms over Soviet arms.

Publicly, Moscow has tried generally to steer clear of at least one of its private lines of reasoning: the politically tricky suggestion that allied Syria might lack the expertise to handle Soviet weapons properly.

Instead, Soviet spokesmen have charged Israeli and Western officials with cooking up battle statistics to obscure a near-balance that, they say, marked the Syrian-Israeli clashes.

Western diplomats here reject the figures tendered by the Soviets as patently false. They note that at least one prominent example, Syria's alleged downing of dozens of Israel's US-made warplanes, would have been virtually impossible for the Israelis to hide from their own population.

But of principal interest to most diplomats is Moscow's uncharacteristically public focus on the performance of its military equipment.

A major role has been played by the official Soviet news media, including a number of Arabic-language radio commentaries for the Mideast.

An article that appeared Aug. 31 in the military newspaper Red Star and was excerpted by Soviet radio's world service, quoted a Syrian captain as saying the soldiers in his company had turned back an Israeli assault, hit at least 21 Israeli vehicles, and afterwards had hugged the armor of their Soviet tanks ''in gratitude.''

Syrian troops were quoted as appreciating the Soviet tanks' capacity for withstanding 105-mm shells. The ''soldiers (also) have much praise for the (Soviet-made) antitank wire-guided missiles and anti-aircraft guns. . . .''

But the degree of seriousness with which the Soviets are seeking to counter foreign ''lies'' about Soviet weaponry is reflected by involvement of some quite senior individual officials in the campaign.

Leonid Zamyatin, head of the Communist Party Central Committee's international information department and President Brezhnev's press spokesman on foreign trips, tackled the arms issue on national television in July. Accusing ''US and Israeli propaganda'' of maligning the performance of Soviet weapons in the Mideast fighting, he said the Israelis had actually incurred considerable losses in tanks and aircraft. He said that in the air, Syrian losses had, indeed , been greater. But he attributed this to primarilyIsrael's ''aggressor's tactics.''

On Aug. 15, the Soviet Union's annual Aviation Day, no less a figure than a first deputy commander in chief of the Soviet Air Force digressed in a statement on Moscow Radio's world service to comment on the Mideast fighting. He charged that Israel was exaggerating Syrian losses and minimizing its own.

''But the real facts are these: Using Soviet arms and military vehicles, repelling attacks of the aggressor, Syrian troops have destroyed more than 120 Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers, several anti-aircraft missile batteries, and about 70 planes, including the latest American-made F-15 and F-16 aircraft. . . .''

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