Pentagon Urges Reduction in Controls on Supercomputers

The Defense Department is urging other federal agencies to agree to a sharp reduction in existing controls on the export of supercomputers. The Pentagon’s position is based on a study that has ignited a debate between the Pentagon and other federal agencies, who are concerned that the machines could help develop nuclear weapons, long-range missiles and other advanced weaponry.

The debate was kicked off in July by a secret State Department memo summarizing the study’s conclusions. The study, which was still confidential as the Risk Report went to press, finds that “there is a continuing need to control supercomputers because of applications related to advanced conventional weapons, simulation, visualization, testing and encryption,” according to the memo. In contrast, the study found less reason to control supercomputer exports for nuclear weapon applications “because they can be accomplished effectively with computing power below the controllable level.”

Based on this latter finding, the Pentagon has urged that machines now defined as supercomputers should be free to go to countries such as India, Israel and Pakistan, which have not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and which are widely acknowledged to have active programs to produce nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. The only restriction would be a promise by the buyer to limit the computer to civilian purposes. Under current rules, buyers from these countries cannot import a supercomputer without obtaining an export license and agreeing to a security plan to prevent the machine’s misuse.

Since December 1993, a supercomputer has been defined as a machine fast enough to perform 1,500 MTOPS (million theoretical operations per second). Previously, the definition was 195 MTOPS. The Pentagon’s new proposal is for a level of 7,000 to 10,000 MTOPS, which would make machines operating below that level now defined as supercomputers available without security plans to many more countries.

In addition, the Pentagon has proposed that many machines now defined as supercomputers should not require individual export licenses, including those destined for countries suspected of making weapons of mass destruction.

The Commerce Department has sided with the Pentagon in the debate, but the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) and Energy Department are opposed. “These levels are much higher than anything we will accept,” says one U.S. official opposed to the Pentagon’s proposal. ACDA and Energy argue that existing requirements for export licenses should stay in place for countries suspected of making weapons of mass destruction. Under current rules, any machine faster than 500 MTOPS needs an individual validated license for countries suspected of proliferation, even if the buyer promises a civilian use.

The Pentagon’s proposal has also run into opposition from Pentagon staff. Research done for the study revealed that Pentagon is now developing some of its most advanced weapons with computers that would be decontrolled under its proposal. “We are giving away our technological superiority,” says one concerned staffer. An internal Pentagon memorandum incorporating the research has been obtained by the Risk Report.

According to the Pentagon memo, Pentagon designers are using or will need to use machines between 1,000 and 10,000 MTOPS 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. The Pentagon’s proposal would free many such machines for export without individual licenses.

Once U.S. agencies agree to a control level, it must be negotiated with Japan. The United States and Japan have pledged under a joint agreement to apply the same controls to supercomputers. In its July memo, the State Department proposed ending the agreement 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 was recently made available to the Risk Report.

State hoped to give an advance copy of the Pentagon study 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.” As the Risk Report went to press, final drafts of the study were being reviewed. The overall U.S. negotiating position, however, was still being debated at the White House because of disagreements among federal agencies.

State’s memo also proposed that some twenty eight countries might be dropped from the list to which the most stringent supercomputer controls now apply. Only India, Israel and Pakistan, countries that have not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and China, Cuba, Egypt, Russia and Syria would still be covered by stringent controls. Washington would continue to bar all supercomputer sales to Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea, “where it is believed that exports cannot be safeguarded.”

In addition, State advocated cutting back on safeguards plans intended to prevent computers from being diverted to weapon use. Only “minimal safeguards” would be required for buyers in China, India and Pakistan, provided they promised a civilian use. More stringent safeguards, including an assurance by the buyer’s government of non-diversion, would be required for military buyers. This distinction has run into opposition because, in the words of one official, “There is really no difference between civilian and military buyers in countries like China and Russia.”

Officials also say that the debate is complicated by other impending negotiations on export control. In mid-September, the United States and its allies were scheduled to meet in The Hague to discuss the “New Forum,” an export control regime designed to replace Cocom, which served to keep Western military technology away from the East Bloc during the Cold War. The United States hopes the New Forum will deny military technology to countries like Iran.

But a knowledgeable U.S. official tells the Risk Report that the Pentagon’s proposed control level of 7,000 to 10,000 MTOPS is several times higher than the level the members of the New Forum have already agreed to in earlier discussions. “If you say that you aren’t controlling to India below 7,000, then how can you ask the New Forum to control to Iran below 7,000?” asks an industry official close to the debate. The official fears that if the United States adopts the Pentagon’s position, the entire decontrol effort could fail.