Made in America? How U.S. Exports Helped Fuel the South Asian Arms Race

The Washington Post
June 7, 1998, p. C1

India and Pakistan, fresh from testing nuclear devices, are poised to build missiles that could deliver the bomb deep into each other’s territory. The United States deplores these developments, but along with other countries, stands guilty of supplying much of the necessary technology.

In fact, India’s next generation of nuclear missiles will probably be designed with the help of American-made equipment.

U.S. officials say that in 1996, Digital Equipment Corp. shipped a supercomputer to the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, a key missile research site. Supercomputers are the most powerful tools known for designing nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. They can model the thrust of a rocket, calculate the heat and pressure on a warhead entering the Earth’s atmosphere and simulate virtually every other force affecting a missile from launch to impact. Because of the billions of computations needed to solve these problems, a supercomputer’s speed is invaluable for efficiently finding design solutions.

The DEC computer will come in handy at the Indian Institute of Science. The institute is on the British government’s official list of organizations that procure goods and technology for India’s missile programs. It develops India’s most advanced rocket propellants, guidance systems and nose cones. Its wind tunnels and other equipment analyze rocket fuel combustion and flight performance. It has even been linked in published reports to India’s new nuclear-capable missile called the “Sagarika,” intended to be launched from submarines.

International Business Machines Corp. supplied the institute with an even more powerful supercomputer. According to IBM spokesman Fred McNeese, IBM installed the supercomputer at the institute’s Supercomputing Education and Research Center, which specializes in computer-aided design. The machine operated at 1.4 billion operations per second when installed in 1994, and IBM upgraded it in March 1997 to perform 3.2 billion operations per second and again in June 1997 to 5.8 billion, making it one of the most powerful computers in India.

The pro-export Commerce Department granted a license for the DEC sale, despite the notoriety of the institute as a missile site. Commerce also licensed the original installation by IBM, but IBM performed the upgrades without a license, in apparent violation of the law.

This week, the U.S. Customs Service opened an investigation into the IBM upgrades. It is already investigating IBM for selling a supercomputer to Russia’s leading nuclear weapons lab under similar circumstances.

The U.S. government requires an American company to obtain an export license if it wants to sell to a bomb-prone nation like India a computer that performs more than 2 billion operations per second. IBM claimed an exception, that allows such computers to be shipped as long as the buyer is not connected to nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, missile or military work. The seller must ensure that the exception applies, which IBM failed to do. McNeese of IBM says only that the company “has no indication that the machine has been used for anything other than university research.”

And there is the case of Viewlogic Systems Inc. of Marlborough, Mass. According to the Journal of Commerce, Viewlogic shipped computer software for designing printed circuit boards to an Indian missile manufacturer on the very day that President Clinton announced sanctions against India for its five nuclear weapon tests.

The Commerce Department approved the sale, despite the fact that the buyer was Bharat Dynamics Ltd. (BDL), a leading entry on the British government’s list of Indian missile makers. BDL manufactures and assembles India’s single-stage Prithvi missile, which can deliver a nuclear payload about 150 miles, and the two-stage Agni, which can deliver one about 1,500 miles. Both threaten Pakistan’s major cities.

With better electronic circuits, BDL’s nuclear missiles will be more accurate and reliable. The same is true of the antitank and other guided missiles that BDL makes, and advertises in a public catalogue.

How the Commerce Department could approve a sale to India’s main missile assembly site remains a mystery. Both Viewlogic and the Commerce Department decline to comment on the sale. This misguided policy of helping India develop missiles is not new. In 1963, the United States began India’s missile program by launching a U.S. rocket from India’s new Thumba Range, which the United States helped design. Despite his recent claim to being “indigenous,” A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the “father” of the Indian bomb, spent four months in training in the United States. After visiting NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the Virginia coast, where he saw the U.S. Scout space rocket in action, he returned to India to build a copy.

The U.S. government obligingly supplied data on the Scout’s design after a request from the Indian Atomic Energy Commission. The Scout’s first-stage rocket is identical to the first stage of India’s longest-range missile, the Agni.

Virtually every element of India’s nuclear and missile programs has been imported directly or copied from imported designs. The Agni’s second-stage rocket motor is derived from a Russian-supplied surface-to-air missile and the Agni’s guidance system was developed with help from Germany’s space agency.

The story in Pakistan is similar. In 1962, NASA launched Pakistan’s first rocket, a U.S.-made Nike-Cajun, in a project led by Tariq Mustafa, the senior scientific officer of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission. NASA also trained Pakistani rocket scientists at Wallops Island. The Pakistanis were there at the same time as the Indians. Other NASA-sponsored launches followed until 1970. China stepped in later to supply Pakistan’s need for bigger missiles, but Uncle Sam launched Pakistan’s missile program just as he did India’s.

Sanctions will stop at least some of the exports from the United States. Because of the recent nuclear tests, U.S. law now bars the sale to India or Pakistan of any “goods and technology” controlled by the Commerce Department. Although the White House was quick to apply financial sanctions, it is still deciding how to interpret this export prohibition. It could cost big exporting companies real money. The companies are already lining up to limit the sanctions as much as they can.

On May 14, the Industry Coalition on Technology Transfer, the exporters’ main lobbying group, wrote to the White House urging that the sanctions be confined to nuclear-related items. They hope the White House will decide that missile-related and chemical weapon-related items will still be free for export. They also requested that they be allowed to sell spare parts and service for U.S. products already in place — such as the DEC and IBM computers. The exporters seem content to watch India and Pakistan build nuclear missiles with American technology.

The administration is now considering three options. The first is to forbid any item controlled for export to be sold to anyone in India or Pakistan — no one could buy a military-related item or any item that could help make nuclear weapons, chemical/biological weapons or missiles. Only 1 percent of U.S. sales to India are now controlled for export, so this option would be effective and painless.

The second option is to deny the nuclear and missile items to everybody, but allow private companies in India and Pakistan to buy only conventional military and chemical/biological items. The third option would allow the two governments to buy such items as well. These latter two options would undermine the integrity of the legislation passed by Congress.

What will the president decide? The pro-trade and pro-India forces are leaning on him, and he is bending. He has already hinted that he would be satisfied if India merely promised to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and to cap its production of nuclear weapon material.

But neither pledge would mean much. The treaty tries to limit the qualitative improvement of nuclear weapons by countries that already have arsenals. It has little to do with proliferation — the decision of a country to build an arsenal in the first place. Even if India and Pakistan signed the treaty tomorrow, they would still be free to build an unlimited number of bombs and the missiles to deliver them. Both countries now have nuclear test data and India even has American supercomputers to process it.

Capping nuclear material production won’t work either. By the time a limit could be negotiated, India could have enough for well over 100 warheads. Pakistan could have enough for at least a couple dozen. The total yield could still devastate the subcontinent.

The only solution is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which obliges countries other than the five big nuclear powers to give up the bomb. Although neither India nor Pakistan would join the treaty now, while tempers and rhetoric are boiling, there is a decent chance in the long run. The goal must be to get South Asia to behave like South Africa. Pretoria secretly built six workable warheads, but decided life would be better without them. Trade, investment and high-tech imports were judged more valuable than a nuclear arsenal. Argentina and Brazil made the same decision, as did Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, which inherited nuclear warheads from their Soviet days.

All of these countries gave up the bomb and all except Brazil joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as non-nuclear weapons states in the 1990s.

That’s the direction the world is going and the direction the world must press India and Pakistan to take. Pakistan has said repeatedly that it will join if India does, so the situation can still be reversed, even after Pakistan’s tests.

Sanctions are the best hope of getting there. President Clinton should adopt a broad ban on high technology and convince U.S. allies to join. At a minimum, it would sever the technological lifeline that has always sustained the South Asian nuclear and missile effort. That alone would be a worthy achievement. It would prevent the Commerce Department from licensing more mass destruction.

And because a cutoff would ban much civilian high technology as well, India in particular would be deprived of what it needs to modernize its industry and armed forces. After a few years, India would face the technology gap that doomed the Warsaw Pact.

India’s tests were a reckless maneuver by a shaky government to shore up domestic political support. The tests left Pakistan little choice but to answer in kind. When the aftershocks die down, and more rational heads prevail, the path away from the bomb will open once again.