When a Soviet factory produced some defective equipment for warplanes, an emigre once told Rand Corp. analyst Arthur Alexander, the workers knew how to handle the problem.

"They dug a hole in the back lot," Alexander said, "and buried it."

Despite its fearsome reputation in some quarters, the Soviet military-industrial complex makes mistakes just like its U.S. counterpart. But the military is a unique customer in the Soviet economy: while most consumers have to tolerate shoddy goods, the services can demand quality.

If the arms industry is influential in the United States, it is preeminent in the state-run Soviet economy.Arms factories can commandeer supplies and talent for which civilian plants must scramble, often without success. And uniformed agents patrol the floors of the weapons makers, demanding an adherence to specifications that is rare in consumer goods.

"Senior officials in the U.S.S.R. acknowledge that the managers and engineers in military enterprise get the best materials and equipment," said Columbia University's Seymour Melman. "That is their privilege, and it gives them professional conditions which are unknown in the world of the lower priority managers."

The Soviets reveal little about their arms industry, but western analysts know it is a major component of the Soviet economy, drafting the best technical scientists. The military is believed to consume as much as 20 percent of the Soviet Gross National Product (compared with about 6 percent in the United States last year), allowing it to approximately match U.S. armed might from a far weaker economic base. Melman estimated that about 8.4 million Soviets work for their defense establishment, compared with about 6 million in the United States. Comparative figures are difficult to come by, since the Soviets may use any factory in the country to fulfill a military contract.

In the United States, defenders of big arms budgets boast of the spinoffs from military inventions to the civilian sector, but in the Soviet Union, the two sectors are rigidly segregated. There is little evidence of significant spinoffs from military technology, which is guarded with supreme secrecy. The military sector reportedly even controls factories making cameras because of their military applications and watches because of their kinship to bomb mechanisms.

But the arsenals of the two superpowers share some characteristics, too, including a tendency to overdesign, and a penchant for inflated cost estimates. Melman noted the last trait when he attended a symposium in the Soviet Union.

"It was illuminating to learn," he wrote, "that when several firms that serve the Soviet military made washing machines, their products cost twice as much as the same product from normal suppliers."