Japan Should Refuse American Pressure to Decontrol Supercomputers

English language version of article appearing in Yomiuri Shimbun
September 28, 1995

The United States is getting ready to pressure Japan into lowering export controls on supercomputers, the most powerful instruments used to design nuclear and other advanced weapons. Japan should not agree, unless it wants to undermine its own security just to help President Clinton win California in the U.S. election of 1996.

The United States and Japan have cooperated since 1984 to deny supercomputers to countries that are trying to develop nuclear arsenals. But the U.S. Defense Department is convincing the White House to greatly reduce controls on the sale of supercomputers to nuclear weapon powers China and Russia, and also to India, Israel and Pakistan, which have not signed the Nonproliferation Treaty and are secretly building nuclear warheads and long-range missiles.

And the U.S. State Department, in a memo written to other U.S. agencies in July, has proposed that the U.S.-Japan agreement be ended unless Japan agrees to reduce export controls in line with the Pentagon’s position. But a concerned U.S. official, who asked not to be identified, fears that by helping China build up its military capability, “the Pentagon is undermining our own security commitment to the Japanese.”

The supercomputer was invented in the mid-1970s to design U.S. nuclear weapons. Today, no U.S. nuclear weapon or missile design is physically tested until it is optimized in computer models. 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 that describe fusion in a hydrogen bomb. For missile design, it can model the thrust of a solid-fuel rocket, calculate the heat and pressure on a warhead re-entering the atmosphere and simulate virtually every other force that affects a missile from launch to impact. 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.

U.S. and Japanese manufacturers currently need approval from their governments to export any machine that can perform 1.5 billion operations per second or more, and they also need a security plan to make sure it is not diverted to nuclear or high-tech weapon design. The Pentagon’s new proposal is for a level of seven billion, which would make machines operating below that level available without security plans to many more countries.

To obtain a supercomputer, a buyer need only promise not to use it for military purposes. But, as one U.S. official opposed to the plan points out, “there is really no difference between civilian and military buyers in countries like China and Russia.” This is also true in many third world countries.

Next year, when they sign a treaty to ban nuclear tests, China and Russia will depend entirely on computer modeling to maintain their arsenals. A senior weapons expert in the U.S. government, who is deeply worried about the decontrol, asked me: “Are we going to make it easier for Russia and China to maintain their stockpiles? Why should we do that?” The Japanese government should ask the U.S. government the same question.

The U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) are opposed to lifting controls. But the U.S. 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 and could help carry California for Clinton in 1996). Industry lobbyists claim that export controls are too much of a burden and are shutting America out of deals other countries are free to make.

That is not true. The Commerce Department has already slashed U.S. controls to a tenth of what they were in 1989 and it denies less than 2 percent of the high-tech license applications that it gets. Nor are American companies facing foreign competition. Japan, the only other serious supercomputer producer, has export controls as strict as America’s and its supercomputers only compete with the slowest American models.

In its memo written in July, the State Department went so far as to propose ending the U.S.-Japan accord unless Japan agrees to an “acceptable” control level. “If the proposed new threshold is so high that the U.S. holds a near monopoly in the marketplace, we should seriously consider whether a continuation of this control regime is warranted,” the State Department wrote in the memo, a copy of which I have obtained.

The Pentagon’s plan is based on a still-confidential study that the State Department hoped to give to a Japanese delegation that visited Washington in early August, but the Japanese “arrived before we got our position worked out,” one knowledgeable U.S. official said, “so they were told to stay tuned.”

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 American engineers are now developing some of the most advanced U.S. weapons with the very computers that Defense Secretary Perry wants to free for export. “We are giving away our technological superiority,” one concerned staff member told me.

According to the Pentagon survey, Pentagon designers are using–or will need to use–machines performing between one and ten billion operations per second to develop ground radars for theater missile defense, infrared trackers to detect incoming missiles, acoustic detectors, airborne lasers, stealth aircraft, and designs for rocket motors. Mr. Perry’s plan would free many such machines for export to China without individual licenses. “This proposal sells out our soldiers and gives away our technology,” says Representative Duncan Hunter of California, who is Chairman of the Subcommittee on Military Procurement of the House Committee on National Security. Six members of the Committee have written to the White House to protest the plan.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Congress voted to give the U.S. military billions of dollars to build missile defenses, some of which will benefit Japan. If the effort to lift export controls is successful, the United States and Japan will soon be spending even more money to stay ahead of the foreign weapons designed on American and Japanese supercomputers.