1998 Congressional Hearings
Special Weapons
Nuclear, Chemical, Biological and Missile


Statement by

Dr. Peter Leitner
Author, "Decontrolling Strategic Technology, 1990-1992"

before the

Joint Economic Committee
United States Congress

Tuesday, April 28, 1998

"Technology Decontrols: Striking at the Heart of U.S. National Security"


      Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, I am honored to appear before you today to discuss the issue of technology transfer and the release of so-called dual use technologies to potential military adversaries and countries engaged in nuclear, chemical, biological, and missile proliferation. I am obliged to point out that I am appearing today as a private citizen and not as a representative of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

      As we meet today, the administration appears poised to announce yet another round of unilateral supercomputer decontrols. This time it is feared by many that administration excesses will extend well above the current unjustifiable 7,000 MTOP level. In 1995, "President Clinton [unilaterally] decontrolled computers up to 2,000 MTOPS [from the previous CoCom ceiling of 260 MTOPS] for all users and up to 7,000 MTOPS for civilian use in countries such as Russia"1 and China. Providing access to even greater processing power will impart to potential adversaries and proliferators the ability to pursue design, modeling, prototyping, and development work across the entire spectrum of weapons of mass destruction. The weapons design establishments of Russia and the People's Republic of China stand to reap the greatest benefit from further decontrol.

      There is growing speculation that the Clinton administration's furious push to decontrol supercomputers, widely seen as a payoff for generous campaign support and contributions,2 was also intended to underwrite Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) signatures by providing an avenue for weapons testing, stockpile stewardship, and ongoing weapons development without the need for the physical initiation of a nuclear chain reaction.

      On February 24, 1997, Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy announced:

The 1996 signature of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) has become an undoubted success in the struggle for nuclear disarmament. At the expert meetings in London in December 1995 and Vienna in May 1996, which preceded the CTBT signature, special attention was paid to the issue of maintaining security of the nuclear powers' respective arsenals under conditions of discontinued on-site testing. Nuclear arsenal security maintenance is impossible without simulation of physical processes and mathematical algorithms on high-performance parallel computers, which are currently produced in the United States and Japan. In the interests of signing the CTBT in the shortest possible time, the U.S. and Russian experts mutually agreed on the necessity of selling modern high-performance computers to Russia.3

Going Virtual -- What Does It Mean?

      Virtual testing, modeling, and simulation are essential to clandestinely maintain or advance nuclear weapons technology. As the planet shows no sign of nearing the point where nuclear weapons are banned, it is reasonable to assume that current or aspiring nuclear weapons states will vigorously attempt to acquire high-performance computers to advance their nuclear programs with a degree of covertness hitherto impossible to achieve.

      The weapons-related research envisioned for the U.S. National Ignition Facility would rely on high-performance computers and test equipment to explore a range of activities potential adversaries may duplicate. These include:4

Radiation flow: In most thermonuclear devices X-radiation emitted by the primary supplies the energy to implode the secondary. Understanding the flow of this radiation is important for predicting the effects on weapon performance of changes that might arise over time.

Properties of matter: Two properties of matter that are important at the high-energy densities of a nuclear explosion are equation of state and opacity. The equation of state is the relationship among a material's pressure, density, and temperature expressed over wide ranges of these variables. Opacity is a fundamental property of how radiation is absorbed and emitted by a material. The correct equation of state is required to solve any compressible hydrodynamics problem accurately, including weapons design. Radiation opacities of very hot matter are critical to understanding the radiation flow in a nuclear weapon.

Mix and hydrodynamics: These experiments involve the actual testing of extremely low-yield fission devices (as low as the equivalent of several pounds of TNT) within a confined environment . . . to study the physics of the primary component of thermonuclear warheads by simulating, often with high explosives, the intense pressures and heat on weapons materials. (The behavior of weapons materials under these extreme conditions is termed 'hydrodynamic' because they seem to flow like incompressible liquids.) Hydrodynamic experiments are intended to closely simulate, using non-nuclear substitutes, the operation of the primary component of a nuclear weapon, which normally consists of high explosive and fissionable material (the plutonium pit). In hydrodynamic experiments, the properties of surrogate pits can be studied up to the point where an actual weapon releases fission energy. High explosives are used to implode a surrogate non-fissile material while special X-ray devices (dynamic radiography) monitor the behavior of the surrogate material under these hydrodynamic conditions.5

X-ray laser research: Supercomputer-based experiments could provide data for comparison with codes and could be used to further interpret the results of past underground experiments on nuclear-pumped X-ray lasers.

Computer codes: The development of nuclear weapons has depended heavily on complex computer codes and supercomputers. The codes encompass a broad range of physics including motion of material, transport of electromagnetic radiation, neutrons and charged particles, interaction of radiation and particles with matter, properties of materials, nuclear reactions, atomic and plasma physics, and more. In general, these processes are coupled together in complex ways applicable to the extreme conditions of temperature, pressure, and density in a nuclear weapon and to the very short time scales that characterize a nuclear explosion.

Weapons effects: Nuclear weapons effects used to be investigated by exposing various kinds of military and commercial hardware to the radiation from actual nuclear explosions. These tests were generally conducted in tunnels and were designed so that the hardware was exposed only to the radiation from the explosion and not the blast. The data were used to harden the equipment to reduce its vulnerability during nuclear conflict. Without nuclear testing, radiation must be simulated in above-ground facilities and by numerical calculations.

Verification Technologies Made Irrelevant

      On a prima facie level most would instinctively argue that eliminating nuclear chain-reaction explosions from the planet is highly desirable and would help make the world a safer place. However, the reverse may actually be the case; that is, the elimination of physical tests and their migration to cyberspace may make the world a more dangerous place. Can such a counterintuitive proposition be true? Consider the trillions of dollars' worth of detection, monitoring, and early-warning infrastructure designed to identify and measure foreign nuclear weapons programs that would be rendered useless by virtual testing.

      The term national technical means of verification (NTM) is often used to describe satellite-borne sensors, but it is more generally accepted as covering all (long-range) sensors with which the inspected country does not interfere or interact. Ships, submarines, aircraft, and satellites can all carry monitoring equipment employed without cooperation of the monitored country. Ground-based systems include over-the-horizon (OTH) radar and seismic monitors. Acoustic sensors will continue to provide the main underwater NTM for monitoring treaty compliance.

      The first of the high-technology methods of treaty monitoring were the U.S. VELA satellites, designed in the 1960s to monitor the Limited Test Ban Treaty. Their task was to detect nuclear explosions in space and the atmosphere.6

At precisely 0100 GMT on Sept. 22, 1979, an American satellite recorded an image that made intelligence analysts' blood run cold. Looking down over the Indian Ocean, sensors aboard a VELA satellite were momentarily overwhelmed by two closely spaced flashes of light. There was only one known explanation for this bizarre phenomenon. Someone had detonated a nuclear explosion. The list of suspects quickly narrowed to the only two countries at the time that had the materials, expertise, and motivation to build a nuclear weapon: South Africa and Israel. Both denied responsibility.7

      This event was not confirmed until 1997, when Aziz Pahad, South African deputy foreign minister, stated "that his nation detonated a nuclear weapon in the atmosphere vindicating data from a then-aging Vela satellite."8 Pahad's statements were confirmed by the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa.

Without strong evidence of a nuclear test no Administration official is going to charge another nation with violating a test ban treaty, for example. Los Alamos and the U.S. Energy Dept. have expended approximately $50 million to develop a new generation of space-based nuclear detection sensors, but they may never get into orbit. Pentagon budget woes could preclude inclusion of EMP sensors on next-generation [ ] satellites, according to Los Alamos officials.

Researchers who developed the new sensors said it is ironic that funding constraints could force a decision to keep the detectors grounded. After all, had the old Vela satellite been equipped with a functioning EMP detector, it would have confirmed that the optical flash in September 1979 was a nuclear blast. The White House panel subsequently stated that, because nuclear detonations had such critical ramifications and possible consequences, it was imperative that systems capable of providing timely, reliable corroboration of an explosion be developed and deployed.9

      The following types of verification technologies, among others, would be rendered ineffective or irrelevant by the migration of nuclear weapons testing to supercomputer-based simulation and modeling.

SPACED-BASED OPTICS AND SENSORS. Several satellites, such as [                              ], have telescopes and an array of detectors that are sensitive to various regions of the electromagnetic spectrum.

RADAR. Lightweight space-based radar aboard satellites such as [                                    ], which are capable of penetrating heavy cloud layers and monitoring surface disturbances at suspected nuclear test sites.

LISTENING POSTS. Hydroacoustic stations located on Ascension, Wake, and Moresby Islands and off the western coasts of the United States and Canada and Infrasound arrays in the United States and Australia detect underwater and suboceanic events and distinguish between explosions in the water and earthquakes under the oceans. Some seismic stations located on islands or continental coastlines may be particularly useful since they will be able to detect the T phase--an underwater acoustic wave converted to a seismic wave at the edge of the landmass.

RADIONUCLIDE MONITORING NETWORK. A new effort is underway to detect Xenon-133 and Argon-37 seepage into the atmosphere days or weeks after a nuclear weapons test.10 The inadvertent release of noble gases during clandestine nuclear tests, both above and below ground, represents an important verification technique. As nuclear explosions produce xenon isotopes, and xenon can be detected in the atmosphere, its concentration determined by noble-gas monitoring is very useful.11

SEISMIC DETECTORS. The United States has set up a worldwide network of seismic detectors, like those used to measure earthquakes, that can gauge the explosive force of large underground nuclear tests. Research programs funded by the Department of Defense improved monitoring methods for detecting and locating seismic events, for discriminating the seismic signals of explosions from those of earthquakes, and for estimating explosive yield based on seismic magnitude determinations.

A 1-kiloton nuclear explosion creates a seismic signal of 4.0. There are about 7,500 seismic events worldwide each year with magnitudes > 4.0. At this magnitude, all such events in continental regions could be detected and identified with current or planned networks. If, however, a country were able to decouple successfully a 1-kiloton explosion in a large underground cavity, the muffled seismic signal generated by the explosion might be equivalent to 0.015 kilotons and have a seismic magnitude of 2.5. Although a detection threshold of 2.5 could be achieved, there are over 100,000 events worldwide each year with magnitudes > 2.5. Even if event discrimination were 99% successful, many events would still not be identified by seismic means alone. Furthermore, at this level, one must distinguish possible nuclear tests not only from earthquakes but also from chemical explosions used for legitimate industrial purposes.12

Aiding and Abetting Proliferation

      One of the lessons learned from the destruction of Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program was that a proliferant may be quite willing to settle for hydrodynamic testing of its prototype nuclear weapons as an uneasy certification for including them into its arsenal.

The Iraqis were designing exclusively implosion-type nuclear weapons. Their apparent exclusive focus on U235 as a fuel is, therefore, puzzling because plutonium is the preferred fuel for an implosion weapon [as] . . . the mass of high explosives required to initiate the nuclear detonation can be far smaller. On the other hand, given enough U235 it is virtually impossible to design a nuclear device which will not detonate with a significant nuclear yield.13

The Iraqi nuclear weapon design, which appeared to consist of a solid sphere of uranium, incorporated sufficient HEU to be very nearly one full critical mass in its normal state. The more nearly critical the mass in the pit, or core, the more likely the weapon will explode with a significant nuclear yield, even if the design of the explosive set is relatively unsophisticated. Furthermore, the majority of the weight involved in an early-design implosion-type nuclear weapon is consumed by the large quantity of high explosives needed to compress the metal of the pit; the more closely the pit approaches criticality, the less explosive is needed to compress the pit to supercritical densities and trigger the nuclear detonation, and thus the lighter, smaller, and more deliverable the weapon will be.14

      Given the limited access to fissile materials facing most potential proliferants and the threat of a preemptive strike by a wary neighbor, as we saw in 1981 when Israel destroyed the Iraqi Osirak reactor, proliferants cannot readily engage in physical testing along the lines of the superpower model. U.S. actions to promote the availability of high-performance supercomputers will likely contribute to the proliferation problem by facilitating access to modeling and simulation, which will give clandestine bomb makers greater confidence in the functionality of their designs. This increased level of confidence may be all that a belligerent may require to make the decision to deploy a weapon. Sophisticated modeling and simulation will enable clandestine programs to advance closer to the design and development of true thermonuclear weapons.

      From a historic perspective it is interesting to note that the concept of a comprehensive test ban was repeatedly forwarded by the Russians throughout the 1980s and consistently rejected by the United States. In the 1990s a strange reversal occurred with the United States advocating a CTBT and the Russians becoming reluctant to go along. This shift parallels the explosion in high-speed computing potential emanating from the United States and the relatively stagnant progress of Russian indigenous capabilities. There may be much truth in the statement of a MINATOM official that: "The United States has made much better provisions than Russia for giving up nuclear testing. Supercomputers used for virtual-reality modeling of the processes of nuclear explosions have played a decisive role in that."

      If the Russian claim that the United States reneged on a promise of supercomputer technology in exchange for accession to the CTBT is accurate, then the very value of this treaty must be questioned. If, as a price for Russia's signature, the Clinton administration was willing to provide the means of circumventing both its spirit and explicit goals, then the treaty should be regarded as little more than a sham to be rejected by the U.S. Senate.

If high-performance computers were made available to the Russian nuclear weapons design bureaus the historical database accumulated from their previous nuclear tests will be the most significant factor in maintaining their stockpiles. In the absence of physical testing they would be able to simulate a wide range of nuclear weapons design alternatives including a variety of unboosted and boosted primaries, secondaries, and nuclear directed-energy designs.15

In addition, the modeling and simulation efforts will help them to maintain a knowledgeable scientific cadre and to continue to verify the validity of calculational methods and databases. Under a test ban, only computer calculations will be able to approximate the operation of an entire nuclear weapon. Other states would also recognize the value of advanced simulation research in helping to develop or maintain nuclear weapon programs. In addition, high-performance computers may make it possible for micro-physics regimes of directed-energy nuclear weapon concepts to be investigated as well.16

      Few were happy when the United States helped the United Kingdom become a nuclear power. Even fewer were pleased when the United States helped the French develop an independent nuclear capability. Assisting the Russians in maintaining and further developing their nuclear arsenal is outrageous. Unfortunately, U.S. nuclear proliferation activities do not end there. If the persistent rumors are true that the United States is even considering providing aid to China to sustain its nuclear weapons modernization program in a CTBT environment, then alarm bells should be sounding on Capitol Hill on the unintended consequences of reckless disarmament.

      Will the synergistic effect of the CTBT and the decontrol of supercomputers make the world a safer place or a more dangerous place? Our uncertainty anticipating the nuclear intentions of potential adversaries will increase as the result of an increasingly opaque window into their programs. As to whether this will translate into a quantifiable increase in the risk of nuclear war or terrorism intuitively the answer appears to be yes, but how much is uncertain.

      U.S. willingness to trade supercomputer technology for treaty signatories and its own rush toward virtual testing make a farce of pretensions to high moral ground in criticizing others for rejecting the CTBT. "Pakistan or India . . . could be forgiven for suspecting that the five major nuclear powers, which asserted for years that testing was critical to maintaining deterrence, have now advanced beyond the need for nuclear tests. All the more reason, perhaps, for them to oppose the treaty."17

National Security vs. Market Share

      The level of irresponsibility displayed by this administration toward our current national security and the legacy of physical security being left for our children are the most distressing developments of all. The blind pursuit of market share and the disregard of our national security were again demonstrated by the February 1998 U.S. proposal to the Wassenaar export control forum for the accelerated de-listing of virtually all telecommunications technology and equipment. If this proposal goes through it will result in free and open access by even the rogue states to state-of-the-art optical fibers, transmission equipment, switches, repeaters, high-speed computer network systems, advanced encryption, etc., which forms the backbone of military battle management, air defense, command and control, missile launch, and joint R&D development efforts.

      As one of the architects of this so-called Wassenaar regime, the United States agreed to incorporate a series of "validity notes" in the text. Essentially, these notes are trap doors that are timed to spring open this fall and drop several key technologies from any form of international export control. The two principal technologies poised to fall out are telecommunications and machine tools.

      To maintain these items on the export control lists requires unanimity from the member states. Unfortunately, as the organization's membership has expanded to include countries that were historically the target of export controls -- some of which still should be -- the likelihood of these controls surviving beyond this fall is very remote. Certainly, British proposals to maintain telecommunications as an item of control face great difficulty in overcoming U.S. calls for immediate pre-emptive decontrol. The weak U.S. position in seeking to extend machine tool controls beyond the fall deadline must be taken with a grain of salt as Wassenaar members that are also machine tool builders will demand decontrol at least equivalent to U.S. telecommunication proposals. After all, the United States continues to take the lead in scrapping national security controls in favor of market share.

      As most Wassenaar member nations rely upon this list as the basis for their domestic export control systems, when a technology falls from that list it also disappears from their domestic systems as well. The result is the unrestrained export and re-export of commodities and technologies, which in the hands of potential adversaries will prove deadly.

      To compound these problems in a most spectacular fashion is the pending administration decision to perpetrate another technological fiction known as the MD-17. Basically the MD-17 is the brand-new C-17 painted blue and white and incorporating some other minor cosmetic changes so that it may soon be termed a "civil" aircraft by the administration. This action appears to be motivated purely around attempts to lower the unit cost of this $170 million strategic airlifter so the U.S. military can afford to buy more of them. The game is to free this aircraft from the control of the ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) administered by the State Department and place it under the jurisdiction of the extraordinarily weak CCL (Commodity Control List) run by the Commerce Department. If the MD-17 is termed a civil airliner it will no longer be subject to sanctions such as those imposed upon the PRC after the Tiananman Square massacres. It will be free to be sold to China so long as a Department of Commerce export license is obtained. Unfortunately as the Commerce Department controls are extraordinarily non-specific when it comes to "non-military" transport craft, you can expect to see the PLAAF flying MD-17's in future military adventures.

      The MD-17 will provide the PRC with the long-range military logistics support it currently lacks. This capability to deliver military supplies in any weather, over great distances, to even the most remote and austere ground locations will provide the missing link to PRC power projection needs. The lack of strategic and tactical airlift has been one of the principal factors limiting PRC expansionist ambitions. Once such aircraft are made available and incorporated into their military doctrine the critical mass may be reached for PRC decisionmakers for the military supported pursuit of historic territorial claims and the securing of vulnerable oil resources to their East, South, and West.

      If experience is any guide we should also anticipate with a considerable degree of confidence that this "civil" aircraft will quickly become the target of PRC manufacturing ambitions as well. Considering the fact that the infamous Columbus, Ohio "Plant 85" where critical parts for the C-17 were manufactured was sold to the PRC the Chinese should be well positioned to begin manufacturing this aircraft locally. That transfer, and the subsequent diversion of some key equipment to a Chinese missile factory, is reportedly the subject of a federal grand jury investigation.

      The critical mass issue is one of the greatest unknowns in predicting future events. One thing is certain however the continuing hemorrhage of U.S. and western "dual-use" technology will manifest itself in Chinese military capabilities. Where the "red-line" exists in the PRC's strategic calculus between capabilities, confidence, and mission requirements can only be inferred at this point. But what is certain is that the unique Chinese world outlook, practicality, military doctrine, national requirements, and geopolitical/military position will result in strategic surprise for the U.S. both in terms of where they will apply military force and the unique manner in which it will be applied.

      Recent head-to-head competition between Russia and China to supply Iran with a nuclear reactor complex demonstrates the increasing willingness to collaborate with potential customers rather than cooperate with the West on proliferation issues. The current portrayal of the Chinese as being forthcoming on proliferation matters is a political fiction. Their backing away from Iranian nuclear cooperation was the result of losing out to the Russians on the reactor complex deal. Any appearance of a more judicious approach by the PRC is just that "appearance." It the Russians fail to deliver under their new contract then the PRC will certainly be first in line to offer the Iranians whatever they want.


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Endnotes

1 Journal of Commerce (November 25, 1996):1A.

2 Michael Waller, Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council, Testimony before the House National Security Committee, Subcommittee on Military Research and Development (March 13, 1997).

3 ITAR-TASS (February 26, 1997) Press Release, Information Department, Ministry of Atomic Energy of Russia, Presented by G.A. Kaurov, Department Head, February 24, 1997.

4 U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Arms Control and Nonproliferation, The National Ignition Facility and the Issue of Nonproliferation, 1996, www.doe.gov/html/doe/whatsnew/nif.

5 Michael Veiluva, John Burroughs, Jacqueline Caabasso, Andrew Liichterman. Laboratory Testing in a Test Ban/ Non-Proliferation Regime (Western States Legal Foundation, April 1995). http://www.chemistry.ucsc.edu/anderso/UC_CORP/testban.html.

6 "Means to an End," International Defense Review Vol. 24; No. 5 (May 1, 1981):413.

7 Jim Wilson. "Finding Hidden Nukes," Popular Mechanics (May 1997):48.

8 William B. Scott. "Admission of 1979 Nuclear Test Finally Validates Vela Data," Aviation Week & Space Technology Vol. 147, No. 3 (July 21, 1997):33.

9 Ibid

10 Wilson, op. cit., 50.

11 Prototype International Data Center, Report of the Radionuclide Export Group, www.cdidc.org:65120/librarybox/ExpertGroup/8dec95radio.html.

12 Prototype International Data Center, Contributing to Societal Needs, http://earth.agu.org/revgeophys/va..4.html.

13 Peter D. Zimmerman, Iraq's Nuclear Achievements: Components, Sources, and Stature, U.S. Congressional Research Service Report #93-323F (February 18, 1993).

14 Ibid.

15 U.S. Department of Energy, The National Ignition Facility and the Issue of Nonproliferation www.doe.gov/html/doe/whatsnew/nif/nonpro2.html.

16 Ibid.

17 W. Wayt Gibbs. "Computer Bombs: Scientists Debate U.S. Plans For 'Virtual Testing' of Nuclear Weapons" Scientific American (March 1997): 16.