WASHINGTON — ADVANCED technology has long been a mainstay of US military might. But some experts say the American lead could be reduced by President Clinton's decision to relax controls on exports of supercomputers.
The new policy is a victory for the US computer industry, which argues that it must be as unfettered as possible to compete in one of the world's most explosive markets. Mr. Clinton insists the "liberalization" will still keep the most advanced computers out of the wrong hands.
The Energy Department and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency don't agree. They share with some Congress members and independent analysts deep concerns that potential rivals will use US supercomputers to enhance their military might. Such machines can be employed to design everthing from advanced antisubmarine warfare systems to nuclear arms.
"It will make it easier for Russia and China to develop their nuclear arsenals without having to conduct underground tests and we will not be able to monitor them," says Gary Milhollin of the Washington-based Wisconsin Project on Arms Control.
At the center of the debate is the question of whether the government can strike a balance between safeguarding the technological superiority of the US military and ensuring US high-tech companies can maintain their dominance of an expanding global market.
"You are transferring more technology and more information overseas and in the process, you have to ask whether in the long term you are going to erode what was a strong US advantage," says Andrew Krepinovich of the Defense Budget Project, a Washington think tank.
The arguments of both sides will be weighed carefully by Japan, which must approve any new export policy. The US and Japan, the world's dominant supercomputer-makers, agreed in 1984 to coordinate export rules to halt the spread of arms-related technologies.
Tokyo has not yet taken a stand on the new policy, which was announced Oct. 6. But sources say Japanese officials felt humiliated because they were not consulted. They indicate that in return for accepting the new US code, Japan might demand looser export controls on other Japanese technologies with military uses.
Under Clinton's decision, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and Western European states could buy the most advanced US supercomputers without a license. States in Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe will be limited to those capable of performing up to 1 billion theoretical operations per second, or tops.
All sales to the so-called "rogue" states of Iraq, Iran, Libya, and North Korea would remain prohibited.
Since 1993, supercomputers have been defined as machines capable of at least 1.5 billion tops. The new Pentium chip is 67 million tops. In their talks, the US and Japan will have to agree on a new standard.
Clinton says his new policy recognizes that in the next several years there will be an uncontrollable explosion in the global availability of conventional computer technologies that can achieve the same power levels as some "low end" supercomputers. He argues that his new measures will safeguard the most advanced US machines while positioning US firms to compete.
Critics, however, accuse Clinton of jeopardizing national security at the expense of winning reelection support from the computer industry, which is largely based in electoral-rich California.
Opponents say that by shifting the control standard from computer technologies now available to those that will appear in the future, Clinton's new policy could enhance the weapons-development programs of potential rivals. That is because such states could obtain technologies today that they would otherwise have to wait to acquire.
"The question is how fast and how soon. My hunch is that they are going too fast, too soon," says Henry Sokolski, head of the Non-Proliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, who served as the Pentagon's top official on proliferation issues from 1989 to '93.
Opponents also charge that the new policy lacks enough safeguards to prevent diversions of US supercomputers to military applications.
Under the new rules, states like China, Russia, Israel, Syria, and Vietnam will be allowed to buy for any purpose machines of up to 2 billion tops without a license. If the machines are for civilian use, the limit will be extended to 7 billion tops. Most supercomputers used by Pentagon weapons designers are in the 1 billion tops range, officials say.