U.S. Argues for Curb on Western Exports Of Personal Computers to the Soviet Bloc

By Gerald F. Seib and Eduardo Lachica
The Wall Street Journal

January 31, 1984

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. is trying to convince its major trading partners that personal computers, like the ones Americans use to balance their checkbooks and play Space Invaders, shouldn't fall into the hands of Soviet generals.

Reagan administration officials maintain that personal computers have a growing number of military uses, including battlefield communications and weapons positioning. As a result, the U.S. is trying to persuade the Coordinating Committee on Export Control, which sets restrictions for the Western allies and Japan, to slap controls on the export of personal computers to the Soviet bloc. The U.S. has been raising the issue for several months, and it hopes the committee will reach a decision at a meeting in Paris this spring.

But how, critics ask, can the West possibly hope to control the flow of machines that can be bought off the shelf of a local department store and packed in a suitcase bound for Moscow?

Defense officials acknowledge that it's a knotty problem, and they admit that some personal computers are bound to get to the Soviet bloc. But they say the U.S. shouldn't give up trying to stop big shipments just because a few machines are bound to slip by.

"That would be like saying because you can buy a bag of marijuana in Lafayette Park (opposite the White House), there shouldn't be controls on heroin," argues one senior Pentagon official. "It isn't wise to facilitate Soviet importation of tens of thousands of these things."

Still, the skeptics are resisting. Even some top U.S. Commerce Department officials doubt that personal computers can be controlled. And while some allies are sympathetic, Defense Department officials say, they think the U.S. proposal is too ambitious. But the Reagan administration worries that too much U.S. computer know-how is reaching Moscow. In the past few months, customs agents in Sweden have seized tons of American-made computer equipment headed for the Soviet Union. The U.S. efforts to limit personal computer sales show that Washington wants to keep small as well as large computers away from Soviet military technicians.

Defense officials would like the Western nations and Japan to agree to require export licenses to export most recent models of personal computers to the Soviet bloc. They have proposed that restrictions start with personal computers that can handle information in blocs as large as 16 "bits."

The International Business Machines Corp. personal computer is a 16-bit machine, meaning that it handles 16 bits, or units, of information at a time. Some U.S. officials even would like export restraints on less-powerful machines, such as the Apple Computer Inc. IIe, which handles eight bits of information at once. But some allies think that 16-bit computers are in such wide circulation today that the controls should start with the new generation of 32-bit personal computers, like Apple's new Macintosh, U.S. officials say.

At this point, defense officials maintain, the Western countries and Japan are using a decade-old list of export restrictions that let the powerful new generations of personal computers slip through the cracks. The existing rules set restrictions on computers that are fast or have large memories, including the big mainframe computers and the minicomputers of the time.

All sides agree that computer technology has bounded forward since then. "Personal computers are now as powerful as 1970s mainframes," says David Hanna, president of Altos Computer Systems of San Jose.

At this point, U.S. companies are further into the personal-computer market than any in Europe or Japan. Thus, the U.S. may have extra credibility in calling for restrictions, because its own companies will be affected more than those of other countries.

There isn't much dispute that the Soviets could find some military applications for Western personal computers. Because of compact size and mobility, personal computers are being considered for a growing number of military applications, including targeting, weapons design and transmission of classified information. The U.S. has used battlefield computers in both Lebanon and Grenada, Defense officials say.

"There are a lot of things you can do with them that are very exciting," says Donald R. Lasher, who was head of the Army Computer Systems Command before becoming executive assistant to the chairman of International Telephone & Telegraph Corp. He says the machines will be much more useful once experts compose software programs to better link machines into a system for military applications.

Even some computer manufacturers say they can understand the U.S. desire to control exports. "The technology on our company's product is at the front end of several technology curves," says Samuel Wiegand, chairman and president of GRiD Systems Corp., a Mountain View, Calif. company that makes a powerful personal computer. "I can see why they would want to do it. But it's certainly going to be difficult." To press their case, Pentagon officials recently met with executives from IBM.

Defense officials assert that the West can maintain its technological edge in the small-computer business if it blocks large shipments to the Eastern bloc. Pentagon experts maintain that the Soviets simply can't produce sophisticated machines of their own, or even copy Western models.

"We really think that with controls on, we can limit the flow of these things," one Pentagon specialist says. "We've seen what they can produce, and it's junk."

Copyright (c) 1984, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.