The Middle East is in the grips of an arms spiral that threatens long-term peace and economic progress. Although burdened by poverty and a growing population, the region is beating plowshares into swords as military expenditures and arms imports mount at an alarming pace, arms experts say. Today, the Middle East spends a high 16 percent of its gross national product (GNP) on defense. It accounts for more than 42 percent of total world arms imports.
Contributing to the buildup are massive arms flows from the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and other nations.
``The rate of military expansion in the Middle East has reached the point where the real problem the nations in the region face with `modernization' is not such cultural issues as `Westernization' but the practical threat of `militarization,''' says Anthony H. Cordesman, a leading specialist on the Mideast military balance.
Dr. Cordesman notes that:
Total real military expenditures have tripled since the October war of 1973, growing from $24 billion in 1973 to $61 billion in 1983 (in constant 1982 dollars). The average annual rate of increase -- 7.8 percent -- was more than double the rate for NATO and Warsaw Pact outlays.
Some $542 billion was spent on arms in this 10-year period. About $122 billion of this (23 percent) went for imported arms.
From the time of the Egyptian-Israeli peace settlement in 1979 to 1983, the region imported $65 billion worth of arms. This includes 7,700 main battle tanks, 11,500 armored personnel carriers, 11,300 field-artillery pieces, 1,700 combat aircraft, and 11,000 surface-to-air missiles.
The number of soldiers in uniform has about doubled since 1973, from 1.3 million to 2.1 million in 1983. Adding the irregular, revolutionary, and popular armed forces, between 6 and 10 percent of the area's 145 million people are involved in military activity.
These trends are expected to continue. Some $250 billion to $500 billion more will be spent in the next five years unless oil revenues drop, Cordesman reported to the annual conference of the Middle East Institute last week.
``The bulk of the region's population . . . may well have seen its development resources squandered during the only period when they might have bought self-sustaining growth that could keep up with population growth,'' he writes.
This deluge of weaponry is seen to be affecting tens of millions of people in the 16-nation region. The war between Iran and Iraq persists; Lebanon is torn by civil strife; and Morocco is fighting over the Western Sahara.
As for the Arab-Israeli conflict, a military confrontation is now limited to Israel and Syria and is a ``confrontation that neither side can win,'' says Cordesman, who is vice-president of Eaton Analytical Assessments Center. Drawing on the latest unclassified data of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the arms specialist provides this outline of the Arab-Israeli arms balance:
Israel and Syria. The Syrians have received more than $17 billion in Soviet arms, and there are now some 1,300 to 2,000 Soviet air defense advisers in Syria. But Israel retains a major military edge, above all, in electronic warfare and air power. It spends more than $5 billion annually on defense, more than double the Syrian level, and its technology and professional base are superior. It is also a nuclear power.
But Syria has achieved a numerical parity with or superiority over Israel in total land and air forces. The Syrians now have 3,700 active main battle tanks, to 3,600 for Israel; some 2,700 major artillery pieces, to 1,700 for Israel; more than 600 jet combat aircraft, about the same as Israel; and 130 major surface-to-air missile fire units, to 45 for Israel.
Given continuing Syrian arms imports, Israel would sustain greater casualties in a war with far less decisive results unless it carried out a preemptive strike.
Israel's challenge will come not on the battlefield but from having to control some 2 million Arabs in Israel and on occupied Arab land. This requires keeping 110,000 men in uniform full-time. Even with massive US grant aid, this means devoting 30 percent of GNP to defense.
Jordan. Jordan has an army of fewer than 70,000 men and is critically weak in terms of air power and air defense, lagging well behind Syria and Israel. It has 103 combat aircraft, compared with more than 650 for Syria and 640 for Israel. Jordan has 14 I-Hawk surface-to-air (SAM) missile launchers, against 130 units for Syria and 45 for Israel.
If Jordan receives the 40 advanced jet fighters and other equipment requested from the US, it will still fall further behind Israel and can only create ``a reasonable level of deterrence'' against Syria.
Egypt. With 1,750 tanks, some 500 combat aircraft, and massive numbers of SAM launchers, Egypt, on paper, appears to be one of the world's strongest military powers. But two-thirds of its tanks and much other equipment supplied 15 years ago by the Soviets are nearing the end of their utility.
Egypt's manned force, down from 490,000 in 1973 to 450,000, consumes its defense resources. As a result, it has not modernized its infrastructure, logistics, and training for more than a decade and cannot support all the arms it receives from the US. On balance, Egypt maintains some capability against Israel but nowhere near what numbers indicate.
The United States will provide more than $3 billion in direct military aid to Egypt, Israel, and Jordan in fiscal 1986. If the US is to fund the forces now dependent on its arms, it will have to raise the total to $4 billion to $5 billion annually within the next few years, Dr. Cordesman says.
But without a peace settlement, he adds, increased US aid would only maintain a strategic status quo. GRAPH: PRICE TAG Arab-Israeli military expenditures Israel, Egypt, Syria, Jordan * Figures are in constant 1982 dollars but do not include grant aid from other countries to buy arms. Source: Eaton Analytical Assessments Center