Israel Gets High-Speed Computers

In November, the United States approved the sale of powerful computers that could boost Israel’s well-known but officially secret A-bomb and missile programs.

The most controversial exports are a pair of supercomputers produced by Cray Research and IBM. Valued at roughly $2 million each, they perform at speeds more than ten times faster than the current level at which most American machines are controlled for export.

“This would be the largest machine ever sold to Israel,” said one senior official, describing the Cray Research machine. Several smaller computers approved for individual sale to Israeli universities are also more powerful than anything Israel has now.

The Israel sale highlights a relaxed U.S. policy on the sale of high-performance supercomputers to countries known to be working on weapons of mass destruction. Five federal agencies fought for months over whether to allow Cray Research to sell its machine to a network of Israeli universities, with the National Security Council making the final decision for approval in November. The decision came after a high-level review of supercomputer export policy.

Although supercomputers perform many civilian functions, they were invented primarily to design U.S. atomic and hydrogen bombs. Supercomputers are a powerful tool for developing both nuclear weapons and long-range missiles because they can simulate the implosive shock wave that detonates a nuclear warhead, or model the forces affecting a missile from launch to impact.

The Cray machine is destined for the Inter-University Computation Center, a “wide area network” that connects Israel’s leading universities, several of which are known to be working on nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

A 1987 Pentagon-sponsored study found that Technion University, one of the schools in the network, was helping design Israel’s nuclear missile re-entry vehicle. U.S. officials say Technion’s physicists also worked in Israel’s secret weapon complex at Dimona, where an Israeli reactor makes plutonium for atomic bombs. In 1989, Cray was denied a license to sell a supercomputer to Technion because the university conducted research on nuclear-capable missiles.

Hebrew University in Jerusalem also would be allowed to use the Cray supercomputer, even though the study said Hebrew University supplied physicists to Israel’s nuclear lab at Soreq, where scientists were “developing the kind of codes which will enable them to make hydrogen bombs.”

And the university network includes the Weizmann Institute, whose scientists, the study said, studied high energy physics and hydrodynamics needed for nuclear bomb design, and worked on lasers to enrich uranium, the most advanced method for making the material dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

Cray and U.S. officials say the computer’s security plan minimizes the risk that it could be used for illicit military calculations. Cray maintains its personnel will have access to the computer at all times, though it admits it won’t constantly oversee the machine and cannot disable it in case of diversion. Cray also says high-level technical committees will be formed to oversee Israel’s promise not to misuse the machine. “If someone ran a large calculation that seemed suspicious, the U.S. government would know about it and could ask the Israeli government for a copy,” a Cray spokesman said.

No one involved argues the deal is without risk. “The question is how much risk we are willing to take,” says a U.S. official.

The Pentagon, the Department of Energy and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) voted against the Cray sale on the inter-agency working level, while the Commerce and State Departments supported it. The vote also was split on the smaller machines.

The decision then was bumped to the next bureaucratic level, the Advisory Committee on Export Policy. DOE changed its vote to “yes” on the Cray and “no” on the smaller machines, reasoning that if university scientists wanted to work on A-bombs, there would be less risk of detection on the smaller in-house computers.

Cray believes the desire for military secrecy will deter a possible bomb or missile maker from revealing data and software over an open network. But one U.S. official who opposed the sale says that “safeguards are impossible with such wide access.” He argues that “the conditions are just a fig leaf” because skilled Israeli scientists could defeat the safeguards. Israel will be permitted to design aircraft on the machine, with air-flow calculations that would be nearly impossible for any expert to distinguish from missile designs or to distinguish effectively enough to support a diplomatic protest.

The U.S. official also contends the sale contradicts current policy. “Other computers went to Israel for joint [U.S.-Israel] programs, or for purely civilian applications, but not to a network where everybody can log on.” He and a former U.S. official familiar with nuclear weapon design worry that the boost in computing power will help Israel with its latest engineering problem, shrinking thermonuclear warheads to fit on long-range missiles.

Critics also are concerned with precedent. If you say “yes” to supercomputers going to Israel, they contend, how do you say “no” to India, China and Pakistan?

U.S. Computers Approved to Israel – November 1994

Exporter Speed (CTP)* Buyer
Cray Research 5,225.0 Tel Aviv University
Cray Research 1,325.0 Weizmann Institute
IBM 6,796.1 Tel Aviv University
IBM 1,421.0 Hebrew University
IBM 1,421.0 Bar Ilan University
IBM 1,278.1 Technion Institute
IBM 1,278.1 Weizmann Institute
Silicon Graphics 1,334.0 Weizmann Institute
Silicon Graphics 1,071.0 Bar Ilan University

* Composite Theoretical Performance