Exporting an Arms Race

The New York Times
February 20, 1996, p. A19

The White House is about to take one of the greatest national security gambles since the end of the cold war. To please the computer industry, the Clinton Administration is preparing to send powerful American supercomputers to Russian nuclear weapons laboratories.

The Convex Computer Corporation, a subsidiary of Hewlett-Packard, wants to send two computers to Arzamas-16, where Moscow’s first atomic and hydrogen bombs were built, and another one to Chelyabinsk-70, the center that developed most of Russia’s nuclear warheads, including the world’s most powerful hydrogen bomb. The three machines, together worth almost $8 million, operate faster than anything now in Russia.

Many experts are convinced that the computers would improve Russia’s nuclear arsenal. “These are the worst places in Russia to send a supercomputer,” a senior American official familiar with the deal told me last week. The economic expediency of the transaction rankles Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who said, “A decision of this magnitude should not be made based solely on commercial interests, but on national security interests as well.”

The United States has always used the most powerful computers available to simulate and design nuclear weapons. Yet Convex has assured the Commerce Department that the computers would be used only for peaceful applications such as “ground water and atmospheric pollution modeling.” A company spokesman assured me that there would be an inspection plan to prevent cheating.

But a senior American nuclear weapons expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity, questioned the security arrangement, citing Russia’s legendary disregard for the environment and the lack of central control over its labs. “I can’t imagine that they won’t be used for nuclear weapons work,” he said of the computers. Last year, the Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported that scientists at Arzamas were still using simulations to develop new warheads.

Such simulations will become critical after the five official nuclear powers ban all testing, as they are scheduled to do this year. The United States is spending $46 million to develop the world’s fastest supercomputer, which Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary said will create “a safe, secure and reliable nuclear deterrent without underground testing.” Obviously the Russians want to do the same thing — using the Convex supercomputers. But if both sides are pursuing the same strategy, supercomputers are not a deterrent: they are part of an arms race.

Convex contends that its deal supports a program begun in 1994 in which the Energy Department pays Russian labs to keep better track of their nuclear materials. But an official familiar with the contracts told me there are no provisions in them involving supercomputers. In fact, the Energy Department initially opposed the Convex deal but was outmaneuvered by the Commerce Department.

The Defense Department could still block the transaction, but it rarely interferes with export agreements. If the Pentagon gives in, Russia will get a strategic boost, even as our nuclear talks with Moscow deteriorate into an extortion game. “We are almost down to paying them off for one clause at a time,” said one United States official.

The Convex agreement could make it impossible to keep other American companies from making similar sales to Russia and other countries. “This Russian deal is part of a disturbing pattern, where we are taking bigger security risks to make money on exports,” said James R. Lilley, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs in the Bush Administration.

With the Communists resurgent in Moscow and extreme nationalists trying to reawaken the Soviet bear, we should not be sharpening Russia’s nuclear claws. The Clinton Administration should kill the Convex deal.