The United States has pushed ahead of the Soviet Union in a key area of the arms race. According to a new Library of Congress report, the US in 1982 surpassed the Soviets in conventional weapons deliveries to third-world nations for the first time in several years ($7.6 billion to $7.2 billion). In arms transfer agreements, which are deals signed for future delivery, the US lead is even more dramatic. This past year, the US more than tripled the dollar amount of such deals, making its total half again as much as the Soviet Union ($15.3 billion to
Congressional researchers point out that when total Western vs. communist arms transfers to the third world are compared, the West is ahead by a very wide margin ($29.3 billion to $13.9 billion in 1982). The four major West European suppliers - France, Great Britain, West Germany, and Italy - together concluded more arms agreements with third-world countries than the Soviet Union.
Reagan administration officials say their arms sales practices are necessary to make up for the Soviet lead in this area in recent years, to protect US interests abroad, and to help this country economically. Officials argue that the cost of US rearmament goes down with the economies of scale gained from increasing production to sell to others.
''Arms transfers should be and are an integral part of our security relationships with friendly countries who seek to deter and defend against neighbors who are, most likely, armed by the Soviets or other East-bloc countries,'' Undersecretary of State William Schneider told the House Foreign Affairs Committee recently. ''If we want reliable friends, we must be one ourselves.''
Congressional critics, however, are unlikely to acquiesce fully in administration plans to continue the trend toward increased arms exports. Senate Democratic leader Robert Byrd of West Virginia last week asked the General Accounting Office to investigate whether significant increases in arms transfers to the third world in fact are harming US security interests.
Senator Byrd asks whether the administration's arms sales program might not increase the risk that sophisticated weapons could be turned against this country or captured and countered by a potential adversary.
He also suggests that accelerated sales abroad could draw down US inventories and reduce the pool of available specialists needed to maintain high technology military equipment.
Other senators have joined in sponsoring legislation requiring approval of both House and Senate before major arms sales (over $200 million) are made. Now, both houses of Congress must disapprove arms transfers, which is very unlikely.
For 1984, the Reagan administration wants to increase the foreign military sales loan guarantee program 22 percent. Outright grants to buy US-made weapons (the military assistance program) would jump more than 150 percent under this program. In addition, the administration is seeking substantial supplemental appropriations for 1983 in these areas.
Stiff opposition to increases of this size is expected on Capitol Hill, and critics will bolster their position with the new data on the US lead in arms transfers to the third world.
The Congressional Research Service report agrees with administration officials that the Soviet Union remained ahead of the United States in actual weapons deliveries to third-world countries until very recently. But again, when allies are added to both sides, the West has been ahead the whole period covered by the report (1975-82).
Such comparisons are complicated by several things, however. In last year's war over the Falkland Islands, the US sided with Britain, while France supplied some of its most advanced weaponry (including Exocet missiles) to Argentina.
There is also the question of relative quality of weapons sold.
''The fact that the United States . . . may not 'lead' in quantities of weapons delivered to a region does not necessarily mean that the weaponry it has transferred cannot compensate, to an important degree, for larger quantities of less capable weapons systems delivered by the Soviet Union or others,'' states the congressional report.
Echoing commentary about the Israel's mastery in the air against Syria during the Lebanon conflict last year, the report also notes that ''superior training . . . may, in the last analysis, be a more important factor in a nation's ability to engage successfully in conventional warfare than the size of its weapons inventory.''
Value of arms transfer agreements with third party* (Billions of 1982 U.S. dollars) 1975 '76 777 '78 '79 '80 '81 '82 Total 19.7 24.3 25.1 20.4 28.2 45.6 30.2 43.2 Total non-communist 15.3 16.6 14.0 16.5 17.8 27.8 16.0 29.3 US 9.6 12.6 6.0 6.7 9.1 9.7 4.6 15.3 France 2.6 1.0 3.1 2.0 4.1 8.7 1.6 7.7 United Kingdon 0.5 0.5 1.4 2.5 1.3 2.1 1.8 1.5 W. Germany 0.6 0.7 1.2 2.5 0,9 0,8 1.6 0.4 Italy 1.0 0.4 1.0 1.4 0.3 2.9 0.3 1.4 Other free world 1.0 1.4 1.3 1.4 2.1 3.7 6.0 3.0 Total communist 4.4 7.8 11.1 3.9 10.4 17.8 14.2 13.9 USSR 3.7 6.6 10.2 2.9 8.9 15.5 7.4 10.2 Other comunist 0.7 1.2 0.9 1.0 1.5 2.3 6.8 3.7
* Includes all countries except NATO, Warsaw Pact nations. Europe, Japan Australia, and New Zealand. Source: Congressional Research Service