WASHINGTON — U.S. officials are expressing increasing concern that the Soviet Union's extensive inventory of defense technology--including nuclear weapons hardware and expertise--may soon go on the world market as a new class of opportunistic capitalists try to turn a fast profit from superpower disintegration.
Echoing a theme that has been discussed privately among U.S. officials for some time, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said Saturday that he is seriously worried that the breakup of the Soviet Union "will result in dissemination of knowledge about weapons of mass destruction."
Cheney, addressing potential Soviet arms proliferation on a Cable News Network television program, warned of "individuals who've got technical expertise going to work for other countries, and possibly even the flow of some of those weapons themselves to third parties."
Noting that the Soviet Union still has 27,000 to 30,000 nuclear warheads, Cheney said the experts who work on the Soviet nuclear program might be tempted by high salaries to join the nuclear programs of Third World countries. And he said that Iraq and North Korea are two countries that would probably be interested in hiring Soviet nuclear scientists.
"Remember how we started our space program after World War II with Werner von Braun and his German (scientists)," Cheney said.
Other Bush Administration officials have expressed concern about potential sales of Soviet chemical warfare weapons or, even worse, about a Soviet economic collapse that could spawn black market sales of all kinds of weapons during the chaos.
These officials said that Washington has made it clear to the central Soviet government and to leaders of the increasingly independent republics that they must prevent clandestine weapons sales if they hope to obtain economic aid from the United States and Western Europe.
That will probably be enough to stop government-level sales, said one senior Administration official who requested anonymity. But there is no guarantee that the authorities will be able to prevent individual hustlers from getting their hands on weapons or other technology that might find a ready market in the Third World.
"If things go to hell in a handbag, if there are outbreaks of domestic violence, then all of the reservations which local leaders might have about entering into unsavory arms deals might disappear," the Administration official said.
He said that in the "nightmare scenario," hard-pressed Soviet troops might start to sell their weapons to the highest bidder.
The way Administration officials and some American businessmen see it, weapons and other military technology are the only things produced by the Soviet Union that measure up to world standards. With the economy starved for hard currency, the temptation to sell that equipment may prove irresistible.
"I think the fact that they have not made any progress in terms of economic reform," Cheney said, "enhances the possibility that the kind of chaotic situation may develop where there'll be an even greater incentive for people to allow the spread of that (military) capability than has been true before."
Not all potential sales of Soviet military equipment would have a nefarious impact on the Third World. Some top-secret Soviet defense technology can be adapted to produce new and valuable civilian products.
For instance, Philip S. Myers, president of Montecito Trading Co. of Santa Barbara, said that Soviet rocket scientists have developed a chemical spray that could revolutionize the cleanup of oil spills at sea. That is, it could if Moscow had the manufacturing and distribution capacity to put it on the market.
Myers, who hopes to put together seed-capital funds to market Soviet technology, said the spray hardens petroleum into a solid mass. Applied to a leaking oil tanker, the chemical could turn the leaking oil into a patch that would stop the leak and harden oil already in the water into a glob that could be easily removed.
"They can bring out their beakers and show what it does," Myers said. "This is a breakthrough. But first they have to patent it and prove it. The Russians don't know how to pick up the ball from the point where they have the nifty little spray in the laboratory."
Myers said that during a recent trip to St. Petersburg he was told that the Soviet government might be ready to sell submarines for use as oil-drilling platforms or to transport oil in rough seas. He said Soviet shipbuilders apparently want to produce civilian subs rather than convert military craft to civilian uses.
The senior Administration official said the United States would have no objection to the sale of military technology for clearly civilian uses. But he agreed with Myers that Soviet companies are ill-equipped to exploit scientific developments.
"They have never been in a market in which they had to find customers," the official said. "In an economy of constant shortage, if you make anything, you can sell it. The buyer comes looking for you."