Designing the Third World Bomb

Wisconsin Academy Review
Winter 1990-1991, p.15-18

The conflict in the Gulf should refocus attention on a frightening fact of modern life: Third World tyrants, armed with missiles and A-bombs, are fast replacing the Soviets as the greatest threat to American security.

Yet at the same time, a small group of government officials may heighten that threat by approving the export of U.S. supercomputers to Brazil, Israel, and India, three countries with secret nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs. If the officials — undersecretaries at the State and Commerce departments — succeed, they will reverse the Reagan policy of keeping these machines away from countries that are trying to get the bomb.

In Brazil, the supercomputers could hasten the day when a nuclear-capable missile is sold to Libya or Iraq and hasten the day when Brazil finally tests the nuclear weapon it is trying to produce. In Israel, the supercomputers could design smaller, lighter nuclear warheads to attack more targets and could reduce the time required before an Israeli missile brings Moscow within range. In India, the supercomputers could hasten the day when Indian ICBMs will threaten all of China with hydrogen bombs.

Is a Supercomputer Really Necessary?

The supercomputer was invented in the mid-1970s to design U.S. nuclear weapons. It since has become the most powerful tool known for designing both nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Today no U.S. nuclear or missile design is physically tested until it is optimized through computer simulations.

A supercomputer can simulate the implosive shock wave that detonates a nuclear warhead, calculate the multiplication of neutrons in an explosive chain reaction, and solve the equations of state that describe fusion in a hydrogen bomb. To design a nuclear weapon, the designer first runs —on a supercomputer—the proposed design through the equations that govern its performance. Then the design is assembled and exploded underground. Afterward, the test data are fed back into the supercomputer, which must predict how the design will perform in the real world, above ground.

A supercomputer can also model the burning surface of a solid-fuel rocket, calculate the heat and pressure on a warhead entering the atmosphere, and simulate virtually every other force affecting a missile from launch to impact. To design a missile, the designer creates a mathematical model of fluid flow, puts the proposed design on a computer-generated grid, and then calculates the forces affecting air particles at discrete points around the body. This technique helped design the hull of the Stars and Stripes, the boat that returned the Americas Cup to the United States. It also helped design the combustion chamber of the main engine of the space shuttle. Because of the billions of computations needed to solve these problems, a supercomputer’s speed is invaluable for finding design solutions in a practical length of time.

The lack of a supercomputer will not stop a country from making its first atomic bomb. But with a supercomputer, a country can design more efficient nuclear warheads with a minimum of tests and design long-range missiles to carry the warheads to their destination. For countries with limited money and manpower, these advantages are crucial.

The proponents of the exports argue that there were no supercomputers when the first bombs were built, and thus a supercomputer is not the key to going nuclear. But in the early days the lack of computing power was made up for by tests. The Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that about 180 physical tests were needed to design the high-explosive part of a 1955-vintage nuclear weapon. Today fewer than five tests are needed because of computation. To show modern computation’s power, DOE used a Cray supercomputer to replicate the Manhattan Project design, the yield of which could not be determined in the 1940s without a test. The Cray, however, calculated the correct yield in twenty minutes. According to DOE, a team of scientists using the calculators of the 1940s would take five years to do what a Cray supercomputer now does in one second.

Unsavory Recipients

IBM wants to sell a supercomputer to Embraer, an arm of the Brazilian Air Force in the missile-for-export business. Through its ownership in another firm called Orbita, Embraer is now trying to turn Brazil’s Sonda IV space launcher into an intermediate-range, nuclear-capable missile. In January 1988, Libyan arms buyers offered to pay Orbita’s development costs in exchange for long-range missiles and the means to make them. Brazil publicly rebuffed U.S. protests of the Libyan offer.

Embraer is also part of a Brazilian team that has been helping Iraq make long-range missiles, and that could help Iraq make nuclear weapons. According to Brazilian press reports, confirmed by U.S. officials, the Brazilian team has trained the Iraqis in rocket aerodynamics, flight testing, and the control of rocket trajectories. The team also has helped Iraq improve its Soviet-supplied Scud-B missiles— the same missiles Iraq used to bombard the civilian population of Teheran. Embraer exchanges personnel with the research arm of the Brazilian Air Force, called CTA, which West German intelligence says is secretly making nuclear weapon material. CTA, also part of the Brazilian team in Iraq, could gain access to the supercomputer through Embraer and share nuclear calculations with its Iraqi customers.

The University of Sao Paulo is IBM’s second intended Brazilian customer. West German intelligence says that one of the university’s own institutes is designing centrifuges to enrich uranium — a step leading to atomic bombs. Also on the university campus is a group called [PEN, which has secretly built lab-scale centrifuges, has built a lab-scale plant for extracting plutonium (the nuclear weapon material that destroyed Nagasaki), and is planning a secret reactor that will create enough plutonium for one atomic bomb per year. All this is being done with university personnel, who will be able to run bomb designs on the U.S. supercomputer.

Cray — America’s other supercomputer giant — wants to sell a machine to Technion University, the Israeli MIT. In 1987 a Pentagon-sponsored study revealed that Technion was helping design Israel’s ballistic missile re-entry vehicle. And, according to U.S. officials, Technion’s nuclear physicists work at Israel’s secret nuclear weapon complex at Dimona, where an Israeli reactor makes plutonium for atomic bombs. According to a Technion brochure, the Cray that Technion wants to buy will be able to do in one month calculations that now take eight years.

Hebrew University would also get a supercomputer. The Pentagon study found that its physicists work at Israel’s nuclear weapon lab at Soreq, which is using computer codes similar to the Pentagon’s for designing nuclear weapons. The study frankly said that Soreq’s scientists were “developing the kind of codes which will enable them to make hydrogen bombs.” It said that the Israelis “are roughly where the U.S. was in the fission weapon field in the 1950s.” It added, however, that the Israelis did “not yet have the capability to carry out the necessary calculations” for hydrogen bombs. A U.S. supercomputer would provide exactly that capability.

The Weizmann Institute, the third Israeli applicant, is similar to Hebrew University. The institute’s scientists are studying the high energy physics and hydrodynamics needed for nuclear bomb design and the use of lasers to enrich uranium, the most advanced method for making nuclear weapon material. The whole faculty would have access to the U.S. supercomputer.

All of the proposed Israeli recipients pose an additional risk: cooperation with South Africa. NBC News reported in October 1989 that Israel is helping South Africa build and test long-range missiles. In return, Israel receives money and the ability to test its own long-range missiles over the empty ocean off the South African coast. To enable its missiles to reach their full range — which will cover Moscow and Western Europe — Israel needs an accurate re-entry vehicle. This is exactly what a U.S. supercomputer could help design. Israel might even decide to share the supercomputer with its South African customers.

In India, U.S. supercomputers would go to the Indian Institute of Science (IIS) and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). Both are doing rocket research. They are studying stresses on rocket bodies, the performance of solid rocket fuel mixtures, and supersonic combustion. There is even a project to study the performance of solid rocket fuel through computer modelling. All this learning will go straight into missiles. When India launched its first intermediate range missile in 1989, it used a first stage solid fuel rocket produced by the space program. Thus, Indian missiles could profit directly from the U.S. supercomputers.

In May 1989, CIA director William Webster told a congressional committee that India appeared to be working on a hydrogen bomb. Over the next few years, India will be trying to perfect an efficient fusion warhead and an accurate long-range missile to carry it. The U.S. supercomputers could powerfully aid both endeavors.

India also presents a second risk: diversion to the Soviet Union. Soviet personnel by the thousands permeate Indian industry and science. The Soviet military, India’s primary and long-time supplier, has contacts throughout the country. U.S. officials are worried about Soviet access to the supercomputer. In cryptography, a supercomputer’s high-speed calculations are used to break codes. U.S. intelligence officers were second in line after the bomb designers to use the first Cray. If the Soviets gained access to one of the Indian supercomputers, they could carry out intelligence operations now beyond their reach.

Security Plans

To justify the sales, the proponents are proffering computer security plans. Someone, whose identity and competence is yet to be defined, could visit computer sites to see who had used the computer and for what. The problem is that the plans can’t really work. Embraer is free to design aircraft—to compute fluid flows around aircraft noses, fuselages, and wings. But the computations are basically the same as the ones for fluid flows around the noses, bodies, and fins of missiles. Hebrew University is free to study nuclear fusion by using exactly the same hydrodynamic and radiation transport codes one needs to design hydrogen bombs. It would be an extraordinary inspection that could detect a violation under such conditions.

All of the machines would be furnished on a “multi-user, multi-use” basis. India has already received a Cray supercomputer under a security plan, but it is a “single-user, single-use” machine set up to forecast monsoons. Operated by the Indian Weather Bureau, it runs a single program and receives only one kind of data. Any other program or data could be detected readily by an audit. Brazil too has received a supercomputer — an IBM — under a security plan, and it too is a single-user, single-use machine. It is set up to receive only seismic data for oil exploration. Its use for another purpose could also be detected readily through an audit.

The machines now proposed would be available to a wide range of users for many purposes. At the University of Sao Paulo, Technion, Hebrew University, and the Indian institutes, the machines would be available generally to faculty members. Each faculty includes persons who work on missiles or nuclear weapons, or who work with other researchers who do. The ability to run a variety of programs using a variety of data would make effective inspection impossible.

To make matters worse, Brazil, Israel, and India are already violating inspection agreements made in the past. In order to import West German nuclear equipment, Brazil promised to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to verify that the equipment was not used to make atomic bombs. However, Brazil has prevented inspection by refusing to report a single one of the numerous German deliveries over the past ten years. In order to import heavy water to run its Dimona reactor, Israel promised to allow Norway to verify that the water would not be used to make atomic bombs. However, Israel has repeatedly rejected Norway’s demands for inspection and is obviously breaking its pledge not to use the water for bombs. In order to import two reactors from the United States for its site at Tarapur, India promised to restrict all the reactors’ plutonium to peaceful use. However, India is now threatening to declare the plutonium — enough for about 320 Nagasaki-sized bombs — free for use in nuclear weapons because of an implausible interpretation of the nuclear sales agreement.

In October 1988, a congressional investigation revealed what Israel really might do with a U.S. supercomputer. After being denied access to the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratory at Los Alamos, two Israelis used a friendly U.S. technician to gain access to one of the lab’s Cray supercomputers. They called in on an access line from the technician’s garage. The purpose of the access? To work on a design for nuclear weapon detonation, which they accomplished before leaving the United States.

Risk vs. Revenue

Not only would inspection be inadequate, it would be costly. The sale to Embraer is worth only $400,000 — the price of two “vector processors.” The processors would raise Embraces existing IBM mainframe to supercomputer speed. If U.S. government inspectors ever were to visit Brazil, and go there several times a year for the next few years (which would be necessary for an adequate inspection), the costs would easily exceed the profits from the sale. U.S. taxpayers would thus foot the bill for IBM’s decision to sell computers to people whose promises are suspect.

The computer makers argue that the growth market is now overseas, but the sales figures tell a different story. Cray has sold about 140 supercomputers in the United States and exported about 100 to developed countries and NATO allies — none of which is a proliferation risk. Each machine has a security plan. IBM is estimated to have sold about 300 vector processors to the same market. Compared to these sales, the prospective handful to the proliferators is a drop in the bucket. To get the drop, however, the exporters seem ready to put the whole world at risk.

To avoid such a risk, the U.S. Commerce Department has issued specific regulations. Five criteria determine whether a country has the “non-proliferation credentials” needed to import U.S. computers: whether the country belongs to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, whether the country has all of its nuclear activities under international inspection, whether the country has an agreement for nuclear cooperation with the United States, whether the country’s public statements and policies support the goal of nuclear non-proliferation, and whether the country is generally cooperative on non-proliferation policy matters. Brazil, Israel, and India do not meet a single one of these criteria. This was why the Reagan administration wouldn’t approve the exports.

Keeping the Faith

The proposed sales would make a mockery of U.S. nuclear non-proliferation policy. The United States is now trying to stop France from selling the technology for the “Viking” rocket motor — a powerful, ICBM-sized booster — to Brazil. The United States justly fears that Brazil will use it to make an intercontinental missile. Can the United States still credibly oppose the sale, after hawking supercomputers to the very Brazilians who make such missiles? Approximately two years ago, the United States stopped West Germany from helping Libya build a poison gas plant. Could the United States credibly do that again, after selling supercomputers to the very Israelis who are working on hydrogen bombs?

If the need to restrain France and Germany were not enough, there is the need to restrain Japan. In 1984, the United States and Japan — the only supercomputer suppliers— agreed not to sell supercomputers to developing countries that had rejected the non-proliferation treaty. In 1986 they renewed the agreement. All of the proposed exports would breach that accord. If the United States does break faith with Japan by making these deals, the result could be a no-holds-barred race to sell supercomputers to the Third World. Moreover, the loss of the Japan accord would make it impossible to bring new suppliers into it. This would be a disaster for U.S. non-proliferation policy and for world security.

The Commerce Department is already chipping away at the Japan agreement. It wants to raise the agreement’s definition of a supercomputer from 100 to several hundred megaflops (million floating-point operations per second — a measure of mathematical computing speed). This would let the University of Sao Paulo get its machine (110 megaflops) without a security plan. The more cautious Japanese want to stay at 100. To justify the new definition, IBM and Cray say that their lower-end machines are now nearing the 100 megaflop threshold. Soon, they say, workstations will have near-supercomputer speed. Thus, the argument goes, the limit should be raised to reflect the advance of technology. By the same logic, however, they should argue that the MX missile is better than the early Atlas, that the neutron bomb is better than our earlier fission devices, and therefore we should sell Atlas missiles and fifties-vintage A-bomb designs to the Third World.

Commerce and State, the departments pushing the deal, are suffering from export-mania and lobbying. IBM and Cray lobbyists have flooded Washington and pressured as many Bush officials as they could find. The Arms Control and Disarmament Agency — with the help of the Pentagon and the Department of Energy — is holding out, still determined to follow the export rules.

George Bush promised after his election to work “every day” against nuclear and missile proliferation. If he really meant that, he must now tell his appointees to hold the line on supercomputers.