Fire Sale

The New York Times
September 18, 1995, p. A15

The Defense Department has found a new mission: to make it easier for Russia and China to improve their nuclear arsenals and to help other countries build advanced weapons. This will happen if the Pentagon wins a quiet debate over exporting supercomputers, the most powerful instruments used to develop high-tech weapons.

Federal officials who oppose this effort say the Pentagon is urging the White House to adopt greatly reduced controls on exporting supercomputers not only to Russia and China, but also to India, Israel and Pakistan, which have not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and are widely believed to be building nuclear warheads.

Manufacturers currently need Commerce Department permission to export to China and Russia any machine that can perform more than one billion operations per second; for India, Israel and Pakistan, the limit is 500 million operations per second. The Pentagon plan would raise those limits, lifting export controls on machines that work seven to 10 billion operations per second.

To obtain a supercomputer, a buyer need only promise not to use it for military purposes. But as one official, who asked not to be identified, pointed out, “There is really no difference between civilian and military buyers in China and Russia.” That is also true in many third world countries.

Next year, when they are expected to sign a treaty to ban nuclear tests, China and Russia will depend entirely on computer modeling to maintain their arsenals. One weapons expert in the Government asked me: “Are we going to make it easier for Russia and China to maintain their stockpiles? Why?”

The supercomputers would help third world nations build nuclear weapons, too. Scientists can use them to conduct simulated tests that are much cheaper and more easily concealed than actual fission experiments.

The State and Energy Departments and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency are, wisely, opposed to lifting controls. But the Commerce Department sides with Defense Secretary William Perry, a former computer executive who, informed officials say, is heeding the call of Silicon Valley (which heavily supported the Clinton campaign in 1992). Industry lobbyists claim that export controls are shutting the United States out of deals foreign manufacturers are free to make.

This is not true. For one thing, the Commerce Department has already slashed controls to a tenth of what they were in 1989, and it now denies less than 2 percent of the high-tech export applications it gets.

Nor are American manufacturers facing foreign competition. Japan, the only other serious producer of supercomputers, has export controls as strict as ours. Besides, its models can only compete with the slowest American ones.

Even some experts on Secretary Perry’s staff say privately that they oppose the plan. A recent survey by the Pentagon’s computer experts found that many advanced American weapons are being developed with the very computers Mr. Perry wants to free for export. “We would be giving away our technological superiority,” one staff member told me.

According to the Pentagon survey, American engineers are using these powerful machines to design stealth aircraft, infrared trackers to detect incoming missiles, acoustic detectors for use in shallow water, airborne lasers and designs for rocket motors. “This proposal sells out our soldiers and gives away our technology,” says Representative Duncan Hunter, Republican of California.

This month, Congress voted to give the military billions of dollars to build our missile defenses. If the effort to lift export controls is successful, don’t be surprised if the Pentagon asks for even more money to stay ahead of the foreign weapons soon to be designed on American supercomputers.