Ever since the United States discovered in March that a Japanese company had sold the Soviets sophisticated submarine technology, Washington has been waiting for the next shoe to drop. Several shoes have dropped, most recently the disclosure this week that a Scottish firm had sold the Soviet Union technology to make their nuclear warheads more accurate.
Now conservative lawmakers on Capitol Hill say the Soviet Union is using technology from the Japanese company, Toshiba Machine Corporation, in other parts of the Navy. One congressional aide involved with technology-transfer issues says the same technology that allowed the Soviets to make super-quiet submarines is likely to be used to make their new class of larger aircraft carriers faster and quieter. Several members of Congress are expected to release information on these added uses next Tuesday.
This development, these congressmen say, is just a prelude to a much larger and more damaging disclosure, one that has been rumored for months. On Tuesday, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R) of California charged that several Japanese firms - including Toshiba Corporation, which says it was unaware of its subsidiary's dealings with the Soviets - ``have been heavily involved in illegally enhancing the microelectronic capability of Warsaw Pact nations.''
Mr. Hunter would not be specific, noting only that microelectronics is used in ``communications, jet aircraft, a myriad of military areas.'' Other congressional sources say the computer chip technology could be used in things like shoulder-carried rockets and general battlefield communications.
The White House immediately sought to play down Hunter's remarks, saying there is ``no new evidence'' that Japanese firms have sold technology to the East bloc. Others on the Hill claim that conservatives are trying to fan anti-Japanese feeling as the House and Senate try to reconcile their trade bills.
Regardless of the political motives behind such disclosures, the number of cases in which foreign, and even US, companies have sold sensitive military technology to the East bloc are mounting with surprising rapidity.
``We're seeing the tip of the iceberg,'' says Clyde Prestowitz, a former Reagan administration trade negotiator. ``There's been a massive avoidance of [official channels to control exports] for years ... and it's just dribbling out as people investigate.''
Mr. Prestowitz was talking about Cocom, or the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls, composed of NATO countries plus Japan, but excluding Iceland. Cocom seeks to regulate exports to communist countries and hold back those which could be used for military purposes.
Though probably the most damaging Cocom violation in recent years came from a Japanese firm (Toshiba Machine), the problem goes well beyond the Japanese borders, Prestowitz and others say.
For example, on Sunday, Newsday reported that Consarc Engineering, a Scottish subsidiary of a US company, sold the Soviets equipment and technology needed to produce an advanced material that can increase the accuracy of nuclear warheads. US government officials confirmed the report. The sale did not violate British or American export laws, and there was some question whether the Soviets already had most of the technology already.
Then last month, the Norwegian police released a report outlining a 10-year pattern of illegal sales of high-tech equipment to the Soviet Union by companies based in France, West Germany, and Italy, as well as in the US. The report said there were more than 100 diversions, some possibly more damaging than the Toshiba sale.
For months, there have been reports that at least two other Japanese companies have sold damaging technology to the Soviets. When Kazuo Kumagai, an employee of a Japanese trading company involved in the Toshiba scandal, wrote Cocom about Toshiba, he also detailed four or five other diversions. The first concerned Toshiba Machine. Another, says a Senate aide, involved the parent corporation, and that is the basis of Congressman Hunter's reference to microelectronic diversions to Warsaw Pact countries.
The rest involved other Japanese companies. Last December, when Pentagon officials were in Japan, they asked the Japanese government to investigate not only the Toshiba affair, but two other cases. When news of the two pending cases hit Tokyo recently, stocks of three Japanese companies - NEC, Mitsubishi Heavy Industry, and Sumitomo Heavy Industry - fell sharply. Analysts attributed some of the fall to the export issue.
Even as diversions come to the surface, the Reagan administration, which is adamantly opposed to proposed congressional sanctions against Cocom violators, says the West is beginning to plug the leaks.
``Diversion is decreasing,'' says Paul Freedenberg, acting undersecretary of Commerce. Dr. Freedenberg, who recently returned from a European trip to discuss technology diversions, says West European governments were ``very responsive'' to US pressure to tighten enforcements. Cocom members will meet in January to discuss monitoring and enforcement.
In September, the Japanese Diet (parliament) passed a law to stiffen penalties against Cocom violators. It extends the statute of limitations from three to five years, increases the maximum prison sentence from one to five years, raises the finacial penalty, and bans exports by the violator for three years. It also agreed to double the number of people monitoring exports to 80 - a number most experts feel is inadequate to catch diversions. (The US Commerce Department alone has 500 monitors.)
Norway's parliament is expected to pass a law that also boosts penalties later this month.