The Pentagon, armed with a shopping list, is prospecting in the former Soviet Union for weapons of war developed by its onetime adversary, and the first deal may be for an intimidating Russian cruise missile that the U.S. Navy desperately wants to get its hands on.

Until recently, the U.S. military might have had to bribe middlemen to slip it some stray examples of any weapon they wanted, or to wait for a Soviet defector to bring one out.

But as post-communist Russia transforms its defense plants and military bases into arms bazaars, the Defense Department is expressing interest in a different kind of deal on the SS-N-22 missile, called the "Sunburn." It wants to buy rights to the supersonic missile from Russia and Ukraine, and then to pay Russian and Ukrainian workers to mass-produce about $600 million worth of the missiles over 10 years.

If the U.S. Navy buys the Sunburn, it would be one of the first Western acquisitions of a state-of-the-art weapon from the former Soviet Union on the open market, informed sources said.

One reason many Navy officials like the deal is that U.S. intelligence officials are deeply concerned about reports that Iran has purchased eight Sunburns from Ukraine, industry officials said.

U.S. ships have little defense against the missiles. They travel 15 feet above the waves at 2 1/2 times the speed of sound -- 1,900 miles per hour -- and perform evasive S-turns before slamming into their targets. They reportedly could defeat U.S. electronic countermeasures designed to mislead incoming missiles.

The Navy wants to buy the missiles to learn how to defend American ships against them, military sources said. So the Pentagon has privately encouraged U.S. defense companies to arrange for the former communist republics to sell the missiles to the United States on the open market.

Russian and Ukrainian officials insist that most of the new design and assembly work be done there. One attraction of the deal for the United States is that it would keep former communist missile engineers employed by America, rather than letting them be lured into secret work for the likes of Iran.

The peculiarity of the transaction suggests the Navy's unease.

"This missile is a source of great concern to the Navy," a Navy official said, because of its speed, Mach 2.5. "They give you little reaction time. ... You can see the advantage of getting the real McCoy" from the Eastern Bloc.

By contrast, the Exocet missile that killed British sailors in their nation's 1982 war with Argentina zoomed in at 500 miles an hour, one-fourth as fast as the Sunburn. They saw it coming only four seconds before it hit.

The Iranians' Sunburns are not outfitted with nuclear warheads, but the missiles can be equipped that way. They are so fast they don't need a warhead. "The kinetic energy of impact alone will break a ship in half ... before we even know what happens," one industry official said of the Sunburn, which the Navy calls the Supersonic Sea-Skimming Target, or SSST.

The Navy has solicited bids for a $3 million contract to study the Sunburn, and could spend as much as $600 million over 10 years to make and then shoot it at U.S. ships. It would test the ability of the Navy's Aegis shipboard defenses to shoot it down.

In the past, the Navy has contracted with U.S. defense firms to design a target that would mimic the Sunburn's capabilities. But the test missiles never worked, and the program died in 1991. So the Navy realized that with the revolutionary changes in Russia, it could try to get the actual missile.

The fact that such a transaction is even under discussion is a sign of the times. In the old days, an American entering a Soviet missile factory -- or a submarine base, or tank design bureau -- would have been interrogated sternly, and maybe shot at.

Now Russians are begging Western defense executives to stop by and purchase their military hardware, or structure a deal to keep their assembly lines warm. The country is crawling with middlemen and retired generals offering influence to foreign buyers, for a price. Middle Eastern defense ministers, in particular, are learning the back streets of Moscow and Kiev.

While many Russian and Ukrainian officials want to make arms deals, some conservative former communists resist such transactions, thinking the sale of their weapons to the West endangers Russia.

Another problem is bribes. Officials of numerous Russian and Ukrainian enterprises -- including military commands, the bureaus that designed the missile and export agencies -- have asked for payoffs to facilitate any deal, U.S. industry officials said.

The endless bribe demands are one reason the Pentagon thought of using U.S. defense contractors to swing the deal, U.S. industry officials said.

Not that U.S. officials have never heard of bribes on the international arms market. U.S. intelligence agencies, wanting to learn about the weapons of adversary nations, occasionally have paid people off to get copies, industry officials said. Naturally, the United States also used to welcome communist defectors piloting combat aircraft. In those cases, the United States wanted to know what weapons it was up against. But with the Sunburn, the United States actually would use the weapons.

The Sunburn deal harkens back to another in the mid-1980s, when U.S. officials were concerned because the Iranians had acquired another missile, Chinese-made Silkworms, and were using them to menace ships in the Strait of Hormuz. The United States got an Alexandria-based firm, Vector Microwave Research Corp., to help buy some Silkworms from the Chinese, industry officials said.

About two years ago, after German reunification, the German government gave the United States dozens of Russian-made missile targets once controlled by the East Germans, industry officials said. At a California Navy base, Vector -- whose president is retired Air Force lieutenant general Leonard Perroots, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency -- is testing the SS-N-2 "Styx" missiles. Both the Styx and Silkworm are slower than Sunburns.

Iran's government bought its eight Sunburns from Ukraine in mid-1992 for about $600,000 each, informed sources said, and is seeking more.

U.S. intelligence agencies have information that Iran's Sunburns are hidden along the Strait of Hormuz. The Navy, fearing Iran will use them in the Persian Gulf, wants to pinpoint the location and has stepped up surveillance, industry sources said.

Iran also has bought Russian submarines and North Korean missiles, and is trying to develop nuclear weapons, U.S. government officials say.

"Through its active efforts to acquire offensive weapons, Iran is seeking an ability to dominate the gulf by military means," Martin Indyk, top Middle East expert at the National Security Council, said in a recent speech.

Last week, Secretary of State Warren Christopher told Western European leaders that Iran is "the most worrisome" of the nations buying arms today, and Defense Secretary Les Aspin was in Ukraine to restate a U.S. commitment to its security.

Both the United States and Russia are concerned Ukraine will sell weapons and military expertise to others, and will back out of a promise to shed nuclear weapons. Russia and Ukraine also are in a power struggle over control of the Black Sea fleet.

The Russians have had trouble selling weapons because of doubts their factories can deliver at the agreed price. The Soviet Union was not a market economy, so the true value of its products is unknowable. Many experts also fear Russian industries will deteriorate and fail to deliver spare parts for weapons.

"There's no way you can get the parts to keep them running," said Stephen Meyer, a Russian military expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was not commenting specifically on the Sunburn deal. Getting spare parts for Russian arms will be like trying to get parts for the Yugoslavian Yugo car, he said. "The Russian army can't even get parts for its own helicopters," he said, much less guarantee parts for overseas buyers.

Demands for bribes also complicate weapons deals there, said Floyd D. Kennedy Jr., spokesman for the Center for Naval Analyses, a federally financed research group.

"It's like capitalism in the Old West," Kennedy said. "There are no laws governing commerce that are enforced. ... The relationships are bloody incestuous. In one day, one {Russian} person can be director or president of three different organizations."

The price for speaking to officials at one Russian weapons export firm claiming a role in any Sunburn deal is $10,000, and even then, there are no guarantees of action, U.S. industry officials said.

In the gold rush atmosphere of the Russian military business, it appears everything is for sale.

The U.S. Navy tried for years to gather every scrap of information about the Soviets' super-secret Typhoon submarine, which was designed to crash through the Arctic ice pack before launching its missiles on New York and Washington.

So Navy officials recently were shocked to see a television documentary on cable TV's Discovery Channel describing how a news crew paid $500 to a Russian admiral, and then showed the reporters climbing aboard with video cameras going. Besides displaying the missile tubes on the Russian sub, which is the world's largest, the reporters broke the news to the world and the U.S. Navy that the Typhoon is so big it has an indoor pool.

Among the U.S. firms that have tried to win Russian and Ukrainian franchises for the Sunburn are Hughes Aircraft Co., Vector and another Alexandria-based firm, Sweet Analysis Services Inc. McDonnell Douglas Corp. also has worked on the deal.

Vector has said that it was the first to suggest the Navy buy Sunburns, and that the Navy unfairly favored Hughes. Navy officials deny it.

An Alexandria arms consultant, Steve Stylianoudis, said he originated the idea to buy Sunburns, and, on behalf of Vector, won support from some Russian agencies before other firms entered the competition, souring his deal. "I initiated this with the Russians," said Stylianoudis, who now runs his own defense firm. "I'm the one who sweated."