Silicon Graphics Inc., the California firm that recently admitted shipping a powerful supercomputer to a Russian nuclear weapon laboratory without the required export license, has acknowledged selling an even more powerful supercomputer to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which helps develop China’s long-range missiles.
Joseph Dinucci, head of corporate marketing for Silicon Graphics, told the Risk Report on February 21 that his company had shipped the computer to China last spring, also without an export license. The computer sold to China was about twice as powerful as the one sold to Russia. China and Russia are subject to the same U.S. export rules for supercomputers.
The U.S. Customs Service, the U.S. Commerce Department and the U.S. Justice Department are investigating the Russian sale, which appears to be illegal, and are likely to add the China sale to their inquiry. Under Commerce Department regulations, computers performing more than two billion operations per second cannot be shipped to nuclear, chemical/biological, missile or military sites in Russia or China without a Commerce Department export license. The computer sold to China performs approximately six billion operations per second.
Mr. Dinucci said that Silicon Graphics was “very comfortable” with the sale, which he said was “well executed” and did not require an export license. Mr. Dinucci did not say why the sale did not require a license, but the only exception to the license requirement is for buyers that do not conduct nuclear, chemical/biological, missile or military activities.
According to Chinese government publications, the Chinese Academy of Sciences oversees institutes that perform missile and military research as well as research related to nuclear weapons.
In the 1970s, the Academy helped develop the flight computer for the DF-5 intercontinental nuclear missile, which can reach U.S. cities. The Academy’s Mechanics Institute has also developed advanced rocket propellant, hydrogen- and oxygen-fueled rockets, and participated in the extensive research necessary to effectively shield the warhead of China’s first ICBM from the heat created by reentry into the earth’s atmosphere. Its Shanghai Institute of Silicate successfully developed the carbon/quartz material used to shield the tip of the reentry vehicle.
The Academy’s Institute of Electronics has built synthetic aperture radar useful in military mapping and surveillance and its Acoustic Institute has developed a guidance system for the Yu-3 torpedo, together with sound-speed and sound-ray tracking instruments and scouting sonar for nuclear submarines and integrated sonar for conventional torpedo submarines.
In the nuclear field, the Academy has developed separation membranes to enrich uranium by gaseous diffusion, and its Institute of Mechanics has studied the effects of underground nuclear weapon tests, together with ways to protect against nuclear explosions. It has also studied the stability of plasma in controlled nuclear fusion. Its Institute of Electronics has developed dye, carbon dioxide, and copper vapor lasers used in atomic isotope separation.
According to information published by Silicon Graphics, its “Power Challenge XL” model was sold to the Academy with sixteen processors and is now the “most powerful SMP supercomputer in China.” The purchasewas financed with a loan from the World Bank. The computer has become the centerpiece of the Academy’s new Computer Network Information Center, where, according to Silicon Graphics, it provides China “computational power previously unknown.” According to information published by the Academy, the computer is now available to “all the major scientific and technological institutes across China.”
Silicon Graphics has also announced plans to expand the Academy’s supercomputer to a full 36 processor configuration, which would more than double its existing power and allow it to operate at above thirteen billion operations per second.