THE United States should think very carefully before acceding to Pakistan's reportedly urgent request to lease American radar surveillance aircraft. Pakistan, Washington's key ally in the Afghan war and a haven for more than 3 million Afghan refugees, claims it needs the radar aircraft to defend itself better against increasing border attacks by Soviet and Afghan planes.
The US supports that aim. The question is whether US surveillance planes - Pakistan prefers an airborne warning and control system (AWACS) manufactured by Boeing - are the proper candidate for that job.
The sophisticated early warning planes are not just defensive but sophisticated weapons of war. They have a seeing capacity far beyond that of most aircraft. India is concerned, with good reason, that the planes could be used against India, giving Pakistan a strong advantage. India and Pakistan have fought several wars in past years; tension between the two is currently high.
The global goal of nuclear non-proliferation could be set back by the move. India, which has long had a ban on military use of nuclear power, has been reassessing its nuclear policy in the light of Pakistan's recent admission that it can produce - but will not - nuclear weapons. In the past Indian officials have insisted that if AWACS planes are sent to Pakistan, India will be forced to develop nuclear weapons.
Pakistan's bid to lease rather than buy the US aircraft is aimed both at circumventing the Capitol Hill approval otherwise required and at speeding up delivery. As the coming Iran-contra hearings are about to make clear to Oliver North and other drafters of secret White House policy moves, side door maneuvers to avoid what appears to some as bureaucracy, but to most Americans as the proper democratic process, is rarely good policy.
Under a leasing arrangement, US military personnel would operate and maintain the planes until Pakistani replacements could be trained. Pakistan stresses that the planes would stay within its territory and that the US pilots would be in no danger. Still, the important question of US involvement cannot be dismissed quite so easily.
For long-term regional stability in South Asia, the US should strive for a more balanced policy. Washington seeks closer ties with democratic India. But continuation of the Afghan war and the pressing US need to help resistence fighters and Pakistan in that effort has made balance difficult to achieve.
Pakistan could help itself by moving more of its current aircraft from its border with India to its border with Afghanistan. Pakistan could also more vigorously deny any interest in using the added radar to gather intelligence over India's border. A Pakistani parliamentary delegation now visiting the US insisted in a recent conversation with Monitor editors that AWACS is vital to counter Soviet aggression, noting that India has a defense pact with the Soviet Union. ``India would not attack unless told by the Russians to do so,'' stressed one member of Parliament. Pakistan says that only AWACS can meet its need; however, stepped-up use of US anti-aircraft missiles could prove a partly-effective substitute.
The introduction of AWACS, even temporarily, could spur a long-term escalation of the arms race in South Asia. The US has sound reasons to be cautious about striking any AWACS deal with Pakistan. Washington should hold off, pending a thorough inquiry into the AWACS request.