When a US government agency needed a sophisticated new aerial camera with computer-designed lenses and high-resolution film, it counted on Western technology to build it. But the design turned out to be too expensive, and the contract with a Western photographic company was allowed to lapse.
Into the technological breach stepped an East German camera maker. Using microprocessor technology developed in the West, the East Germans built the same camera for less money. Now several state and federal agencies in the United States are considering purchasing the East German equipment, and one agency has already done so.
In the face of American fears about the export of scientific knowledge and high-technology products to the Soviet bloc, the transfer of similar products from the East bloc to the US continues as it has for a number of years - and may be on the rise.
Licenses to purchase products - from the electromagnetic casting of aluminum to particle accelerators - are being sought by corporations such as Reynolds Aluminum, Babcock and Wilcox, and Du Pont from Hungary, Poland, East Germany, and the USSR.
John W. Kiser III, a research consultant to the US State Department, has produced what may be the only study on technology transfer from East-bloc countries to the West. He estimates that the nine members of COMECON - the Soviet bloc's equivalent of the European Common Market - have sold more than 100 licenses to firms in the United States during the last 15 years, with royalties in excess of $60 million.
Such figures show the flow of technology and scientific information from East to West is hardly the raging flood that the West-to-East flow is claimed to be. ''The numbers are sufficiently small that they can be dismissed,'' says Mr. Kiser. ''But the real question is, why does it surprise us that the Russians have sophisticated technology?''
He refutes the widespread belief that the Soviet Union is a technological backwater.
''We lull ourselves into a state of complacency by saying the Russians need our technology. The Russians can do a lot of things we can't do. The 'technology gap' is not between the US and the USSR, it's insidem the Soviet Union. Knowledge they've got. What they don't have is a commercial system to exploit the locked-up brainpower,'' he says.
Vladimir Dvorkowitz, president of Dr.? Dvorkowitz and Associates, an international licensing firm, agrees. ''Generally speaking, Soviet consumer products are inferior. However, in certain areas, their technology, if anything, could be better than ours. It's deceptive because they don't have the industry to soak up the R&D (research and development), but the R&D is there and it is very successful.''
He says US firms need to seek out more East-bloc technology if they are to remain competitive in the world market. ''We (the US) do the wrong things. We cut our R&D in tough economic times. That's just when the Japanese and French are talking with the Russians, spending the most, and moving ahead.''
Very little hardware is actually transferred from East to West. Generally, US companies are granted licenses that allow them to use or market particular technologies, for which they pay royalties. Contracts are instigated by American firms purposely seeking out East-bloc representatives as well as by East-bloc countries who want to push their products through the official foreign trade organization, Licensintorg.
American multinational corporations are purchasing East-bloc technology for a number of reasons. Some companies specifically are looking to the East in hopes of finding products that can be marketed in the US. Some are simply after the best product at the best price - regardless of where it originates.
The Soviet motivation for selling its expertise appears to be grounded in the need for hard currency from the West and a desire to display technological prowess. But sales volume is kept low by bureaucratic entanglements so grievous that they finally led one US manufacturing company to discontinue active pursuit of Soviet technology, according to that company's director of research.
In addition, slow sales are blamed on promotional techniques that draw chuckles from Madison Avenue as well as anticommunist politicking by Western competitors and sheer lack of practice in the free-enterprise game.
''They're just not a selling society,'' says Leo Matthews, president of Allied Steel and Tractors. ''Their whole system makes it difficult to sell aggressively the way an American corporation might sell.''
Concern that American computers and technological know-how in Russian hands would be used for military defense rather than industry led successive US presidents to staunch the flow of high-technology goods to the Soviet Union.