Protecting the West's technological edge

THE defense of the West is hostage to a high-technology race between the United States and the Soviet Union. The nonpartisan National Academy of Sciences reports that the overall loss to the Soviets of US technology has permitted the Soviet military ''to develop countermeasures to Western weapons, improve Soviet weapon performance, avoid hundreds of millions of dollars in research and development (R&D) costs, and modernize critical sectors of Soviet military production.''

Surreptitious acquisition of advanced goods and technology by our adversaries is not a new problem. Congress, in approving the first export control law in 1949, gave the president authority to license, and thereby restrict, exports and reexports of US products. Presidential use of this authority to embargo grain and pipeline equipment to the Soviets has been vigorously debated, but national-security controls have received considerably less attention.

The Export Administration Act does not prevent the Soviets and their East European allies from acquiring by stealth high technology from NATO countries and Japan. Recently, Japan's foreign minister said his country's high technology directly contributed to the Soviet military buildup. Since November, customs officials in the US, West Germany, Sweden, and Britain have seized US high-tech equipment being smuggled to the USSR.

Enforcing export control prohibitions is complicated, because the list of goods and technologies we claim to control contains many items of questionable significance to Soviet military development. Over the past decade this list grew, but the Office of Management and Budget reduced funds for enforcing export controls and the bureaucracy to investigate license applications.

In their present form export controls burden the overwhelming number of reputable exporters. We continue to require licenses for many products freely available to the Soviets from other exporting nations. In too many instances US exporters wait months for license application approvals while foreign exporters ship orders.

Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige said the export control list could be reduced by 50 percent without placing militarily sensitive technology in the hands of enemies. But paring down the control list involves making subjective judgments about which goods and technologies are critical to enhancing Moscow's strategic capabilities. Executive-branch decisionmaking is burdened by a bitter struggle between the Commerce Department on the one hand,and the Defense Department and the Customs Service on the other hand, for jurisdiction over which agency will be responsible for enforcing controls.

Congress is now rewriting the Export Administration Act. Advocates of stimulating exports and proponents of stricter controls have furiously debated the elimination or retention of certain controls. Framed in these terms, many of the proposed amendments to the act are legislative placebos for the problem of making the export control law more effective. We cannot completely stem the flow of Western technology to the East. But we can delay its transfer, which would disrupt Soviet weapons development, because Soviet military planners count on the prospective acquisition of Western technology.

A legislative prescription to reform the Export Administration Act should include:

First: Reduce the number of goods subject to export controls. Our NATO allies require licensing for only the most advanced items on a common list of goods which guides the export control policies of our major allies. This practice would reduce the number of US export licenses by 50 percent.

Second: Congress should provide the financial resources to ensure the proper investigation and technical evaluation of export license applications.

Third: The Paris-based Coordinating Committee, founded in 1949 by NATO countries to coordinate allied export control laws, needs to be strengthened.

Fourth: Congress should consolidate within one Cabinet-level department the responsibility for developing, enforcing, and coordinating export control policy.

Fifth: Because the executive branch has been unable to develop a selective list of militarily critical technologies, Congress should authorize funds for its General Accounting Office to undertake this task.

Sixth: Most important, government must caution American business of the necessity to exercise care in the sale and export of militarily critical goods and technologies. American business has a responsibility to make the government aware of suspicious purchases or other red flags that indicate the possibility of an illegal export.

It is imperative that the Soviet Union not think of Western advanced technology as its national resource. An effective Export Administration Act demands cooperation between government and business and imposes responsibilities on both. The promotion of exports and the protection of our national security are not mutually exclusive propositions.

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