Retooling The Soviet Military: Dangerous Decontrol Actions On Machine Tools

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Precise Machine Tools: The Quintessential Controlled Item

In recent weeks, the United States has substantially accommodated the demands of its allies — especially the West Germans — for a relaxation of export controls on machine tools. These are devices used to manufacture other machines; the more sophisticated the machine tool, the more formidable its ability to: produce machines for shape and form metals, ceramics and composites; mill quiet propellers for ships and submarines; and manufacture with extreme precision such things as silent bearings, propulsion systems and aircraft components.

Obviously, such sophisticated machine tools (particularly those featuring positioning accuracies better than plus-or-minus 10 microns) have considerable strategic significance. In fact, machine tools epitomize the type of technology the West’s Coordinating Committee for Export Controls (COCOM) was created to deny potential adversaries.

Sub-10 micron machine tools meet each of the three criteria set by COCOM and accordingly their transfer to the Soviet Union has, until recently, been proscribed. They represent: 1) products and technologies specially designed for military production or used in peacetimedirect assistance to the development and production of military weapons systems; and 3) items which the Soviet Union and its allies have a severe deficiency in producing or acquiring on their own. principally for weapons system production; 2) products and technologies which would provide


  1. Soviet Uses of Sub-10 Micron Machine Tools

    In the Soviet Union, highly accurate machine tools are principally utilized for military purposes. As a practical matter, only the Soviet military-industrial base has the requisite skills to employ such machines and only the Soviet armed forces have a real requirement for tools with accuracies better than plus-or-minus 10 microns. At the very least, those machine tools having unnecessarily advance machining capability that actually do come to be situated in Soviet civilian plants will constitute a major enhancement of the USSR’s wartime surge production potential.

    In addition, a number of the machine tools in this class are specially designed to meet military production requirements. Moreover, given the inherent capability of high precision machine tools to manufacture critical parts and subassemblies that could be used to upgrade machines not specifically designed for military applications, it is probable that such redesigning will occur.


  3. Military Applications of Accurate Machine Tools

    A recent study by the Defense Department(1) illustrates just how widespread are the military uses the Soviets can make of machine tools with accuracies of plus-or-minus 5-9 microns. According to this analysis, such devices would facilitate or upgrade Soviet production of "high precision components such as air bearings, rotary compressors, periscopes, aircraft engine housings, helicopter main shaft bearings, planetary gears, templates for precision machining of ballistic shapes, rotary tables for machine tools, servo valves, machine gear housings and missile accelerometers."

    In addition, this study indicates that "opto-mechanical devices found in advanced targeting systems," "miniaturized guidance systems in state-of-the-art missiles," "the advanced warheads found in cruise missiles," and the "manufacture of composite surfaces and structural components" all depend critically upon the use of sub-10 micron machining. It is worth noting that, with respect to the last of these, the ability accurately to machine the dies and molds for composite materials can be determinative when it comes to imparting "stealthy" and aerodynamic characteristics to the manned and unmanned systems in which such composites are increasingly being used.


  5. The Soviets Are Desperate for Western Machine Tools

    Finally, the Soviet Union and its allies simply do not have the indigenous capability to produce sub-10 micron machine tools in quantity. While Moscow has been obtaining a number of such tools from West Germany in recent years in violation of COCOM guidelines, this quantity has been well short of Soviet military requirements. As a result, the USSR has faced an acute — and widening — gap relative to the West with respect to the capacity for efficient manufacture of state-of-the-art defense systems.

    Accordingly, Moscow has been extremely anxious to obtain a wholesale relaxation of Western controls on the export of highly accurate machine tools. In this effort, it has found willing partners in Western machine tool manufacturers. Hoping for new opportunities to export their wares, West German, French, British, Italian and even American contractors have brought great pressure to bear on COCOM member nations to relax the plus-or-minus 10 micron standard.

"Contracting Out" U.S. Government Policy-Making

In mid-February, at a meeting of COCOM’s executive committee, the United States reluctantly acceded to this pressure. With essentially no regard for the strategic consequences of its action, the Bush Administration agreed to liberalize the COCOM controls to a new, plus-or-minus five micron standard for Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. It was even prepared to give East European states access to still more accurate machines (i.e., plus-or-minus three micron) provided, the rest of COCOM would agree to differentiate between the Soviet Union (which would be held to a plus-or-minus five micron standard).

While the allies refused to accept this American offer, and roundly criticized the United States for failing to give the USSR the same favorable treatment it was prepared to accord the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe, it appears that they largely got what they wanted in a subsequent "ad hoc" working group meeting. This session, held from 19-22 February in Paris, was supposed to hammer out the details that would govern transfers of plus-or-minus 5-9 micron machine tools to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Before the U.S. representatives left for this working group meeting, the National Security Council decided to call a senior interagency group to define the American negotiating position. Following protracted discussion, agreement was reached and a formal instruction cable was sent to the delegation.

Unfortunately, the State Department — the agency charged with heading the delegation — chose to disregard important aspects of these instructions. More remarkable still, the department authorized the creation of a so-called "Wise Men" working group, comprised of individuals from the Netherlands, West Germany, Italy, France and the United States. None of these individuals was an employee of his government. In fact, all of them work for machine tool manufacturing companies or trade associations with a direct and vested interest in the liberalized export of such tools.

Despite this obvious conflict of interest, the "Wise Men" were commissioned to develop an agreed document which could be used to guide COCOM’s deliberations on the machine tool decisions before it. In practice, however, this document (now known as COCOM Working Paper 5) is very likely to become the COCOM decision; for example, the West Germans — who are delighted with the "Wise Men’s" product — have already described it as an "inviolable package."

Why Are The Germans Happy?

On virtually every score, Working Paper 5 departs from the U.S. interagency-agreed guidance. Instead of explicitly prohibiting the transfer of certain related technologies, the paper would effectively leave such determinations to national decisions — a formula certain to result in their release to the Soviets. There are no processing rate limits on the relevant 32-bit computers. Where specific language banning sale of tilting axes machines should have been, there is only an ambiguous footnote.

In a similar fashion, instead of differentiating with respect to position accuracy on the basis of end-users (i.e., Soviet versus East European), the Working Paper would have COCOM differentiate by machine type. (This arrangement virtually guarantees that, by picking and choosing, the Soviet Union will be able to obtain sophisticated tools with the grinding, milling or turning characteristics it requires.) What is more, position accuracy parameters are recommended to be reduced even beyond the plus-or-minus 5 micron level laid down as the U.S. position at the COCOM executive committee meeting. And perhaps most troubling of all, the transfer of production technology — as opposed to simple assembly data — is explicitly authorized by the Working Paper.

Obviously, by any reasonable definition, this outcome — if finally agreed by COCOM — would represent a rout for the United States negotiating position. Working Paper 5 is but the latest example, if among the most egregious, of the insidious effort to eliminate COCOM as an effective mechanism for technology security. This Working Paper is made no more compatible with U.S. security interests for its being the predictable result of a government officials’ derogation of responsibility for public policy to interested private parties.

The Chinese Windfall

Adding insult to injury is the fact that the "Wise Men’s" efforts will provide a windfall for the Chinese government. In recent years, the PRC has enjoyed a preferred standing in terms of access to Western high technology. Utilizing a concept known as the "Green Line," COCOM has allowed Beijing to obtain militarily relevant technology that has, at least until now, been proscribed for sale to Moscow and its allies.

The "Wise Men" realized that, unless the "Green Line" were adjusted, the result of their deliberations would be to grant Eastern Europe and the USSR an opportunity to obtain more accurate machine tools than the Chinese could. Consequently, Working Paper 5 recommends liberalizing the limits on sales to China. It will surely be regarded by those who perpetrated the brutal Tiananmen Square massacre and subsequent repression as one more sign of the West’s willingness to look the other way in the interest of making money.

The Intensification of Soviet Technology Theft

Yet another development that raises doubts about the wisdom of liberalizing the Soviet Union’s access to strategically significant technology like machine tools is the mounting evidence that the USSR is redoubling its technology acquisition efforts, including those run in conjunction with the intelligence services of Moscow’s East European allies.

Indeed, there are many indications that this hardy perennial of the KGB’s foreign operations is thriving in the current atmosphere of lax Western technology security and burgeoning trade initiatives with Eastern Europe. As Congress considers the funding levels for the U.S. military in the coming fiscal year, it would do well to ask the Bush Administration how much greater the defense burden we face will likely be as a result of the improvements made to Soviet weapon systems by purloined or legally acquired Western dual-use technology.

The Bush Administration Should Reject the "Wise Men’s" Recommendations

The Center for Security Policy believes that the Bush Administration has made a strategic error of epic proportions in agreeing to cut the COCOM precision standard for controlled machine tools to plus-or-minus five microns. The damage to Western security interests likely to arise from this action will, however, be greatly compounded should the United States now accede to Working Paper 5.

The Administration has ample grounds for rejecting this document; after all it was not the product of formal governmental negotiations and it departs dramatically — in fact, recklessly — from established guidance. What is more, the "Wise Men" have set the stage for a massive run on a critical strategic technology, one that has the potential to facilitate the retooling of the Soviet military-industrial base and to reduce the qualitative advantages on which Western security has long depended.

Consequently, the Center urges President Bush to veto COCOM’s adoption of the "Wise Men’s" recommendations and to ensure that henceforth U.S. policy in the technology security area is made by government officials, not contractor personnel with vested interests potentially at odds with those of the Nation.

1. "Machine Tool Positioning Accuracy Finer than 10 Microns: Strategic Importance," the Department of Defense, 29 January 1990.


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