Helping Others Build the Bomb

Washington Post
December 14, 1998, p. A23

The Department of Energy has issued a new warning about the nuclear weapon efforts of China, India and Pakistan. In June, the department found that for these countries to improve their bomb designs, they will need supercomputers able to perform about 4 billion operations per second. Computers in this range, unfortunately, are the ones that the Clinton administration decided to free for export to these countries in 1996.

The Energy Department concluded that access to supercomputers “would have the greatest potential impact on the Chinese nuclear program.” The result has been what you would expect. China has imported more than 100 U.S. supercomputers since 1996, many of which have gone to nuclear and military sites. The Chinese Academy of Sciences, which helps develop China’s nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, got a machine from Silicon Graphics that performs about 6 billion operations per second. It is now the most powerful parallel processing computer in China. India also has imported DEC and IBM supercomputers for the Indian Institute of Science, a leading missile research site.

None of this should be happening. The General Accounting Office concluded in September that the administration had no basis for decontrolling supercomputers in 1996. The GAO found that the decision to decontrol was based on a faulty study in 1995 that “lacked empirical evidence or analysis” and failed to “assess the capabilities of countries . . . to use high-performance computers for military and other national security applications.”

To make matters worse, the author of the 1995 study refuted his own work in a study this year. The 1995 study predicted that computers operating at 7 billion operations per second would become so common by 1997 that it would no longer be feasible to control them for export. On the strength of that prediction, the administration decontrolled computers operating at less than 7 billion operations per second to most countries in 1996. In fact, such computers are not commonly available even now. The 1998 study finds that machines operating at much lower speeds still can be controlled effectively today.

The administration therefore should tighten controls immediately. Why should the United States help Third World countries make better bombs and missiles when we can avoid it?

A big improvement would be to set controls according to a computer’s potential speed rather than the speed at which it is sold. Why? Because foreign buyers may soon be able to obtain American supercomputers operating at relatively low speeds and then scale them up to much higher speeds by adding chips, which are not controlled for export. The risk arises because new computer designs accommodate a varying number of processors in a single box. Someone can buy a computer with one or two processors, which allows the machine to operate below the export control level, and then add more later to boost the performance above the control level.

If the administration tightened controls in this way — which the GAO recommends — it would be possible to control supercomputers performing about 3 billion operations per second. And machines operating below 7 billion operations per second could be controlled at least until 2000. Keeping such machines out of the hands of Chinese, Indian and Pakistani bomb makers would be worth the effort.

U.S. industry would not suffer, because it has no foreign competition. Compared with American machines, foreign-built computers have “modest performance” and are available only in small numbers, the 1998 study says. Except for those made in Japan, which coordinates its computer controls with the United States, foreign machines do not compete seriously in the world market. The GAO agrees with this assessment.

Nor are American jobs at risk. According to Commerce Department records, 202 American supercomputers were exported to countries in the high-risk category during the 20 months following Jan. 25, 1996. By contrast, the rest of the world imported 3,759. Sales to risky countries are thus 5 percent of the world supercomputer market. No company will prosper or fail because of sales to such a small percentage of its market.

Jobs are not the issue. National security is the issue. But the White House isn’t listening. The administration slashed supercomputer controls in 1996 to reward Silicon Valley for its campaign support. It was a payoff pure and simple.

It is time to stop trading U.S. security for political favors. American cities should not be targeted by weapons designed with American help.