Balancing national security and freedom of commerce

April 1, 2005
Few people understand the challenges and pitfalls of balancing national security and economic freedom as well as the people involved in designing military and aerospace electronic and optical technologies.
John Keller
Editor in Chief
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Few people understand the challenges and pitfalls of balancing national security and economic freedom as well as the people involved in designing military and aerospace electronic and optical technologies. On the one hand, people in our industry want the freedom to sell their products essentially to whomever will pay the price. At the same time, they certainly do not want to provide material aid to enemies of the United States.

It is this goal of maintaining a robust and reasonable level of technology trade - internationally and domestically-as well as keeping crucial military technologies out of the hands of terrorists and other U.S. adversaries, that is proving to be increasingly complex and difficult.

At the root of the problem is the U.S. military’s growing reliance on commercial-off-the-shelf components and subsystems (COTS), and on open-systems architectures. The COTS movement is a double-edged sword: the technology is easily obtainable and relatively inexpensive, but everyone-friends and foes alike- have access to it.

Attempts to limit foreign access to U.S. technologies that could have military applications goes back a long way, even beyond the Cold War. The Axis and Allies jealously guarded “silver-bullet” technologies during World War II as the British developed radar, the Americans developed the Norden bombsight, and Nazi Germany developed the jet engine.

Denying their enemies access to these technologies was relatively straightforward because none of these technologies had civil use or sales. Military authorities could monitor these technologies closely, and about the only real threat was foreign espionage.

As World War II ended and the Cold War began, U.S. military and intelligence experts worked hard to keep newly emerging nuclear and digital computing technology out of the hands of the Soviet Union. Through most of the Cold War keeping tight control of military technology remained chiefly a matter of countering foreign intelligence agents.

Today, however, monitoring and controlling military technologies is far more daunting-and some experts contend it even might be impossible.

Some of the really big problems reared their ugly heads in the early 1990s as fundamental U.S. military procurement reform and an explosion in the power of affordable computing converged into a perfect storm.

It was the early 1990s when then-U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry issued his edict that gave rise to the COTS movement. Perry’s directive essentially ordered buyers of U.S. military systems and components to procure commercially as much as possible, and to make custom or mil-spec orders only when no other alternative was available.

At the same time we saw the beginnings of high-speed networked PCs that essentially made supercomputer technology available and affordable to anyone with software, networking, and computing expertise.

For more than a decade, then, much of the computing power available to U.S. researchers also has been available to declared and potential enemies. Where during the Cold War U.S. adversaries underwent a laborious and time-consuming process to develop computer technology internally, today they simply buy it off the shelf-just like the U.S. military.

The kind of powerful computer technology that comes from networked PCs can give anyone a powerful tool in nuclear weapons research, weather modeling that could yield tactics on how to deploy chemical and biological weapons, and a host of other advantages that only a relatively short time ago was not available to them.

Herein lies the dilemma. Should U.S. technology developers sell their products to whomever they want, or should the government step in and strengthen technology export controls in what some consider a futile effort to keep important technology away from terrorists?

Each time the U.S. government seeks to limit technology sales abroad-be it microprocessors, satellite technology, night-vision equipment, or other militarily applicable technology-lobby groups sprout up around technology communities to press for relaxing or eliminating these regulations. Often the rationale revolves around the maxim: if we don’t sell it, then somebody else will.

This economic incentive has led some to conclude that export restrictions are a lost cause. Shortly before leaving office in early 2001, President Bill Clinton relaxed export limits on high-power computer systems, concluding, “there are no meaningful or effective control measures for computer hardware that address the technological and marketplace challenges.”

Impossible? Maybe. At least members of the Clinton Administration thought so.

Now comes one of the latest attempts to keep military technology out of the wrong hands-in this case, Iran. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security reportedly is overseeing about 80 investigations of foreign arms brokers, Iranian military agents, and U.S. companies on suspicion of smuggling sensitive technologies to Iran for military applications.

These cases involve electronic and optoelectronic technologies such as night-vision goggles, global-positioning systems, and computer parts for missiles. In their defense, some of the accused argue that products sold not only are not dangerous, but also are easily available on the Internet.

As U.S. authorities go down the road of limiting overseas technology sales once again, their jobs will be more difficult than ever before. To succeed, which is doubtful at best, they must strike a balance between free commerce and national security by not overreacting and limiting too many technology sales, but also by keeping tight controls of the most sensitive technologies.

In the final analysis, technology export limitations probably will not work. What that means is the U.S. technological edge will erode. This is bad news . . . and good news. Bad news because familiar military tactics most likely will have to change. Good news, however, because this could usher in a new wave of technological innovation.

Perhaps the answer to the technology proliferation dilemma lies not in limiting the flow of technology to potential foes, but instead to new thinking on how to counter COTS technologies on the battlefield.

We will see how this unfolds in the next few years.

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