Supercomputer sales undermine national security

January 15, 2002|By Stephen Bryen

WASHINGTON - President Bush has approved another liberalization of supercomputer export controls. Unless reversed, the decision will release very powerful supercomputers that can be sold to countries such as China without any export license.

Just as the U.S. national security establishment is one of the main domestic consumers of supercomputers, China's military and intelligence organizations are scooping up American-made supercomputers for programs that directly target the United States. Between 1996, when President Bill Clinton first opened the supercomputer market to China, and 2000, China bought more than 800 supercomputers. China probably has 1,000 supercomputers today.

It's surprising that the Bush administration would escalate further an initiative from the Clinton administration that was based solely on trade, not national security considerations.

It's disappointing that such a decision is being made in the middle of a war without any evaluation of the military implications. (When State Department officials briefed members of the 33-country high-tech control group in Vienna on the U.S. decision, our European allies reacted angrily because they thought we went too far without consulting with them.)

One of China's first customers during the Clinton years was the Academy of Sciences, which designs nuclear weapons and conducts advanced nuclear research. Mr. Bush's decision will ensure that the Chinese academy can upgrade its research-and-development capability. It's highly unlikely the president was told how this would aid China's nuclear program directly.

Supercomputers have many different tasks, ranging from designing efficient and small nuclear weapons to cracking encrypted communications. In the United States, their early users included the National Security Agency and Los Alamos National Laboratories. Indeed, American security organizations directly subsidized the development and growth of the supercomputer industry.

It's nonsense to believe that China is acquiring supercomputers to improve its commercial sector or its educational infrastructure. If the CIA were to evaluate how China is using its supercomputers, it would learn that Beijing is in hot pursuit of key U.S. military and security targets and needs the supercomputers for that reason. Unfortunately, no one is asking the CIA to evaluate China's drive to obtain computational parity with the U.S. national security establishment.

China is engaged in a qualitative military buildup. A major barrier to China's fulfilling its geostrategic goals is the presence of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, especially American aircraft carriers and submarines.

Supercomputers can help China intercept and decipher American fleet communications to provide significant operational information and help Chinese air and naval movements against our carriers and missile subs.

Supercomputers are also very handy for interpreting acoustic information from the sea's depths. The United States has the quietest nuclear submarines in the world, but they become more vulnerable if an adversary had sensors in the ocean that could feed back to powerful supercomputers.

The administration turned to the same bureaucrats in the Commerce and Defense departments who prepared the original supercomputer liberalization for the Clinton administration. Predictability, these bureaucrats made no serious effort to evaluate the national security implications of further liberalizing supercomputer export licensing.

The supercomputer decision is hurting our attempts to control the proliferation of high-tech devices that can be applied to military uses and has significantly weakened the argument we make to Israel to prohibit sales of advanced military technology to China. A result of the decision is that Israel might offer China new military equipment to compensate for the canceled Phalcon radar-surveillance plane deal.

The White House should freeze its decision to further open supercomputer exports before it is too late. Mr. Bush needs to consider the negative international implications of the sale as well as its impact on our own military posture.

Stephen Bryen was deputy undersecretary of defense for trade security policy in both Reagan administrations.

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