US objects to sale of supercomputer

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 April, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 April, 1999, 12:00am

American officials have objected to the Observatory's planned purchase of a supercomputer which breaches military technology export rules.

The order for the Cray SV1 computer from Silicon Graphics comes at a time of hardline policy in Washington against hi-tech transfers to nuclear powers such as China.

The computer's sale is facing obstacles under new export rules set by the Clinton administration.

It is hoped the $10 million Cray supercomputer, ordered in February, will enable the Observatory to issue more detailed weather forecasts.

'I can't say whether or not we will have difficulty but we will comply with the full licensing requirements,' the Observatory's assistant director, Lam Chiu-ying, said.

The sale order has failed to obtain approval under a 10-day review procedure, according to the Silicon Graphics office in Hong Kong.

This means at least one of the departments of Defence, Commerce, Energy and State, or the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, has raised objections to the sale.

The Cray computer runs at 21,000 million theoretical operations per second (MTOPS), a measure of a computer's processing power.

Under federal rules, supercomputers above 10,000 MTOPS require an export licence to countries or city-states such as Hong Kong.

For countries such as China, the sale of computers as low as 2,000 MTOPS requires a licence if the customer has military links.

The Observatory's new agreement last week with the mainland Civil Aviation Administration to exchange technical instrumentation could blur the distinction between the SAR's and the mainland's status for US federal regulators.

A new 90-day review of the sale now requires Silicon Graphics to provide complete details of the deal and its purpose.

The purchase comes at a particularly sensitive time.

SGI has been investigated twice by the US Commerce Department for the sale of supercomputers to China and Russia in 1996.

Hong Kong-based Automated Systems is also facing trial on charges of importing strategic commodities without a licence.

It allegedly diverted a Sun Microsystems computer to a military research institute in the mainland. China was forced to return the computer to the US.