Why superpowers pay the bills for big armies for small friends. Such surrogates are a relatively cheap and `wondrous' weapon

Small states with powerful militaries cost their superpower backers plenty. And the costs are rising. But for those footing the bills, the price is probably well worth it.

Cuba, with a population of 10 million, receives approximately $4.7 billion a year in economic and military aid from the Soviet Union -- that's some $13 million per day. It sports 160,000 active duty military personnel, with 135,000 reserves who can be mobilized in two to three days.

Vietnam, population 59 million, receives from $1 billion to $2 billion a year from the Soviets. East European states contribute another half billion to Vietnam. The Vietnamese military numbers 1.2 million troops.

Israel, with 4.2 million people, will next year receive $3.6 billion from the United States government in all types of aid. Its armed forces total 141,000; rapid mobilization can bring that to a half million.

Even Syria obtained $2.5 billion worth of arms from the Soviets between June 1982 and January 1984 -- much of which was given in grant form. Richer Arab states had paid for much of Syria's $17 billion worth of Soviet weapons contracts in the past. Syria has 363,000 active duty military and a population of 10 million.

In all these cases, similar problems are occurring. Vietnam owes $6 billion in foreign debt, with $600 million currently due. It now takes all of Vietnam's hard-currency earnings to cover annual debt-servicing requirements. In addition to a $2.8 billion non-Soviet foreign debt, Cuba owes $9 billion to the Soviets.

Israel's debt-service payments to the United States government alone will reach $1.4 billion in 1991 before declining -- assuming all future aid is in grant form. This amount exceeds the current total of grant economic aid being given to Israel by the US. Congress has declared its intention to maintain economic aid levels to Israel above debt repayment needs.

In other words, no end is in sight to continued high -- and increasing -- levels of funding for favored superpower allies in the third world. Is the price worth it?

Most strategists respond affirmatively, even if ideological imperatives tying the US with Israel and the Soviets to their communist clients are disregarded.

Cuba supplies the Soviets with the unique military capability to disrupt sea routes in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. These maritime routes carry 45 percent of all US seaborne trade and would carry some 60 percent of all US resupply and reinforcements to Europe in case of NATO-Warsaw Pact hostilities. Besides Cuba's own forces, the Soviets now average three to four ships deployed in the Caribbean area.

Cuba also does the dirty work of stabilizing leftist regimes by supplying an estimated 30,000 communist troops to Angola, 5,000 to Ethiopia, and some 2,000 to Nicaragua.

Vietnam provides the Soviets with facilities for a growing naval and air presence in Cam Ranh Bay -- which now averages 25 deployed fleet units; a MIG-23 squadron; and some 24 Bear and Badger strike and reconnaissance aircraft. This presence gives the Soviets an ability to counter US bases in the Philippines.

With more than 1 million men under arms, Vietnam complements Soviet military forces in the north by threatening China's southern border. It also subordinates the remaining states of Indochina.

Israel, of course, possesses the Middle East's most vibrant democracy and powerful military. While compromise with its Arab neighbors would enhance its usefulness to Washington, Israel provides a strong, pro- Western presence in the eastern Mediterranean that cannot be ignored by the Soviets or Arabs.

The odds are that these huge subsidies will continue. As Forbes magazine commented in 1983 about Soviet aid to Cuba: ``For less than the annual cost of supporting a single aircraft carrier task force, the Soviet Union has developed a wondrous weapon.''

The writer was a government official for two decades before becoming a consultant on international affairs.

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