U.S. Relaxes Export Controls on Supercomputers

By Diamond, Howard | Arms Control Today, July/August 1999 | Go to article overview

U.S. Relaxes Export Controls on Supercomputers


Diamond, Howard, Arms Control Today


RESPONDING TO ADVANCES in computer technology, President Clinton revised export control thresholds for high-performance computers (HPCs) on July 1, claiming that without the changes both the U.S. computer industry and national security would suffer. The Clinton administration relaxed HPC export controls in 1995 and again in 1996, but reports of U.S. supercomputers finding their way to Russian and Chinese military research facilities prompted Congress to reverse some of the administration's changes in November 1998. Most of the July 1 revisions took effect immediately, but changes in the controls on HPC sales to military-related users in countries of security or proliferation concern will not be implemented until a 180-day review period established by Congress in 1998 expires.

The United States controls HPC exports through a four-tier system based on the perceived threat posed by the recipient state. Restrictions range from simple record-keeping requirements for HPC sales to states in Tier 1, which includes Canada, Mexico and most U.S. allies, to a virtual embargo on sales to the so-called rogue states in Tier 4, including Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria. Tier 2 states, including most of South America, much of Asia, Slovenia, South Africa and South Korea, can purchase most HPCs with only record-keeping requirements but need licenses from the Commerce Department for higher-end systems.

The changes announced on July 1 moved Brazil and new NATO members Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into Tier 1 and raised the threshold for HPCs exported to Tier 2 countries, which require an individual license, from 10,000 million theoretical operations per second (MTOPS) to 20,000 MTOPS. White House Chief of Staff John Podesta said the Tier 2 upper limit would be reviewed in six months and probably raised to 32,000-36,000 MTOPS, with additional reviews to follow every six months. No changes were announced for Tier 4 controls.

The third tier, which has been the center of conflict between Congress and the administration, includes a wide variety of states considered to be of proliferation or national security concern. Tier 3 states include Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, Vietnam and most Middle East, Maghreb, former-Soviet Union and non-NATO Central European states, with different export controls for civilian and military users.

The new Tier 3 controls, unless rejected by Congress, will take effect in February 2000 and will raise the individual licensing level for military end-users from 2,000 to 6,500 MTOPS. …

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