President Bush has secretly approved the future transfer of more than $1 billion worth of sophisticated U.S. fighter planes and antitank missiles to Egypt in the first of what could be a series of new arms exports to Middle East nations, administration officials disclosed yesterday.

The Egyptian arms transfer, which requires congressional approval and funding, would add at least 40 F-16 fighters and associated weaponry, including dozens of Maverick air-to-surface missiles and cluster bombs, to Cairo's arsenal, the officials said.

The officials, describing what they regard as a special military peril in the region stemming from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, said the administration is also considering stepping up arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Turkey, all of which have assisted in the recent trade embargo and blockade of Iraq.

Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III have previously said the administration plans to waive a congressionally imposed limit of 60 F-15 aircraft that may be held by Saudi Arabia, allowing at least 12 new fighters to be deployed under Saudi control to defend against any Iraqi air attack.

The sales and transfers would be aimed partly at bolstering the military forces of nations supporting or participating in the multinational Arab defense force now being assembled on Saudi territory, several officials said. Another aim is to help some of Iraq's neighbors defend against future aggression.

"The defense bureaucracy wants to sprinkle arms throughout the region," said a senior U.S. official of the Pentagon's plans, adding that the details and timing of many future transfers or sales remain undecided.

Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney alluded to the still-classified Egyptian arms transfer on Sunday, when he stated on NBC's "Meet the Press" that Bush "wants me to deploy enough forces to deter an attack against Saudi Arabia . . . and, at the same time, work with Saudis and others in the region to try to build their own indigenous military capabilities."

Several officials said they hoped broad political support for the current deployment of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf could be translated into support for new arms sales and undercut traditional congressional reservations about supplying sophisticated arms to potential adversaries of Israel.

But some legislators and independent experts have raised questions about the wisdom of pumping new U.S. arms into the region, beyond the estimated $48 billion in U.S. arms already sold to more than 16 Near East and South Asian nations since 1980.

These critics, citing the swift collapse of Kuwait under Iraq's assault and the subsequent Iraqi capture of substantial U.S. arms sold to that country, say providing additional weapons to unstable or vulnerable nations in the region could eventually boomerang.

"It would be tragic if the administration concluded from this experience that additional arms sales are the answer," said Rep. Mel Levine (D-Calif.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East who has opposed past arms sales to the region. "We would make a tinderbox even more volatile."

Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), who played a key role in restricting the 1989 sale of U.S. Stinger antiaircraft missiles to Bahrain, said that in the wake of Iraq's takeover of Kuwait Aug. 2, Congress is likely to scrutinize "the security and the reliability" of any Middle East nations receiving U.S. arms.

Military officials said the administration is considering sales of Stinger missiles to Oman and the United Arab Emirates. One official said Moroccan King Hassan II is seeking F-16s like those provided to Egypt but lacked funds to buy them.

One official said the new F-16s for Egypt were part of a classified arms transfer discussed before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and would merely "fill out" previous transfers to Cairo of 120 such aircraft. But several senior administration officials said the invasion had caused an acceleration of the weapons delivery date as well as Bush's decision to notify Capitol Hill of it in writing within the past few days.

Defense Department officials have urged that Egypt, because it has cooperated with Washington in the dispute with Iraq, be given generous relief on its debt to the United States for past weapons purchases. Another official said additional arms may eventually be sent to Turkey in appreciation for its closure of a key pipeline carrying Iraqi oil and collaboration with the U.S.-inspired embargo.

Rep. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), a critic of some past arms sales to the Middle East, said he will insist that future recipients of sophisticated U.S. weapons develop a contingency plan to prevent the armaments from falling into the wrong hands when conflict erupts. He and others noted that Iraq was able to obtain control of several Kuwaiti naval vessels and their armaments, although virtually all of the Kuwaiti air force was safely evacuated to Saudi Arabia.

The Atlantic Council, an independent Washington-based study group, warned in a report released yesterday that continued sales of sophisticated arms to nations of the Middle East and elsewhere in the Third World posed significant risks for that the United States and other Western nations whose military forces may be called on to squelch regional conflicts.

"We should keep the best military technology to ourselves and not let it get into the Third World," said Seymour J. Deitchman, a senior research associate and former vice president of the Institute for Defense Analyses. "One can see {weapons} capabilities coming over the horizon that will make warfare even more destructive and terrible," including improved tank armor, missile guidance systems and stealthy aircraft or missiles that can be much more difficult to defeat.

Deitchman emphasized that he was expressing personal views.

Staff writer David Hoffman contributed to this report.