Tug of war over high-tech exports

Bulletin of Atomic Scientists
March 1991, p. 7-8

Since last summer, two opposing forces have been operating in the field of export controls. On July 1, the United States and its NATO allies began to loosen their controls on dual-use items — goods that have both civilian and military applications. With the Warsaw Pact dissolving, NATO exporters saw little reason to continue restrictions on the sale of high technology. But a month later, when U.S. troops found themselves facing an Iraqi arsenal that included imported missiles and chemical weapons, calls began for stronger export controls. The issue gained in urgency because the NATO partners were decontrolling some of the very items that Iraq was counting on to make its first atomic bomb.

The move toward decontrol was made by Cocom (the Coordinating Committee on Multilateral Export Controls), whose members include Australia, Japan, and all the NATO countries except Iceland. In July Cocom dropped controls on 30 categories of sensitive equipment, which meant that for the first time developing countries could buy items such as sophisticated skull furnaces, which melt high-performance metals, directly from the United States without a license. But a little more than two weeks later, on July 19, the White House blocked a New Jersey company’s proposed sale of a skull furnace to Iraq after US intelligence learned that Iraq planned to use the furnace for military purposes, not to make artificial limbs as the buyer claimed.

The furnace episode shows the difficulty of controlling dual-use exports. A skull furnace can be used to make artificial limbs — or to make missile, aircraft, or nuclear weapon parts. Other companies, such as Germany’s Leybold-Heraus, have already sold high-performance furnaces to Iraq and may ultimately fill this order, although the furnace issue was put on hold because of the embargo.

Some of the items that Cocom dropped are still covered by unilateral US controls. These include the nuclear weapon triggering devices called krytrons that Iraqi buyers discussed with US customs agents during Iraq’s smuggling attempt last March. Many countries cannot buy these triggers from the United States without a license, but export controls on krytrons have been dropped for destinations in Eastern Europe. This means that a country like Iraq could now order them through Romanian brokers. Other items in this category include high-capacity isostatic presses, used to shape plutonium for fission bomb cores, and high-speed oscilloscopes that could be used to process data from nuclear tests.

Unlike the United States, many Cocom members use the same rules they set for the export of high-tech items to Warsaw Pact countries to govern exports to all other countries. This is true of Britain, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands. While the United States has asked its Cocom partners to refrain from exporting a number of items to countries that are proliferation risks, it is not clear what effect these requests will have.

As the Gulf crisis deepened, both Congress and the administration responded to calls for increased US controls. In November, Congress amended a defense authorization bill to require the president to punish individuals, companies, or governments that violate the Missile Technology Control Regime. Exporters of long-range missiles and their components could be barred from US government contracts for two years and could lose their export licenses. Foreign companies found guilty could be barred from receiving sensitive US exports and their products could be banned in the United States. The act also authorizes the president to waive sanctions under certain conditions.

Congress also changed the Export Administration Act to punish countries using chemical weapons or companies trading in poison gas technology. George Bush, however, pocket-vetoed this act in November, claiming that it “would severely constrain presidential authority in carrying out foreign policy.” Instead, the president issued an executive order enabling the administration to apply such sanctions as halting foreign aid or denying aircraft landing rights to countries that use or produce chemical or biological weapons.

After his November veto was criticized, Bush announced in December the Enhanced Proliferation Control Initiative, a regime scheduled to take effect in February. The initiative, which will add trade in missile technology to the activities that may trigger sanctions, seeks worldwide controls on 50 chemicals used to make poison gas; requires export licenses for whole chemical plants and their technology; and requires licenses for any goods “destined for a publicly listed company, ministry, project, or other entity that is engaged in activities of proliferation concern.” The latter language could affect some important firms — German defense giant MBB, for example, has helped Iraq make both missiles and gasoline bombs.

The State and Commerce departments, in consultation with industry groups, are now drafting a list of dual-use equipment to be controlled, and a list of countries, projects, companies, and front organizations suspected of making or helping others to make weapons of mass destruction. The lists were to be published in the Federal Register some time in February, but the complexities of intelligence protection may delay publication. Meanwhile, some Commerce officials and industry groups are reported to oppose the initiative on the grounds that it will block billions of dollars in US sales.

The Gulf crisis seems to have built support among US allies for better export controls. At a December meeting of the Australia Group, a consortium of supplier nations concerned with the spread of chemical arms, the United States presented Bush’s Enhanced Proliferation Control Initiative. In addition to its existing controls on chemical ingredients, the Group will now work on controls for the equipment used to manufacture poison gas.

Cocom’s February meeting is expected to scrap the current schedule of restricted dual-use items in favor of a much smaller “core group” of goods, limited to eight categories. These categories appear to exclude several sensitive items that the United States has controlled for years. Among the items expected to be decontrolled are filament-winding machines used to make uranium gas centrifuge components, and “shake and bake” equipment that can test the ability of nuclear warheads and missiles to withstand the forces of reentry.

The result of all these activities is hard to predict. It seems likely that Cocom’s decontrol will be followed by new controls by the same countries — under a different name and for a different purpose. All Cocom members, including Portugal, Norway, Denmark, Turkey, and Greece, are expected to join the Missile Technology Control Regime by late spring. So the question may be one of timing — whether Cocom will decontrol proliferation-sensitive technology before new controls are implemented.