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World: U.S. Expert Says Computer Bug A Problem For Nukes

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 13 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- An American researcher says the U.S. Defense Department has acknowledged that some nuclear systems may fail unpredictably due to the impact of the Year 2000 computer problem otherwise known as the "millennium bug."

Michael Kraig, a researcher at the British American Security Information Council, made the comment Thursday at a press conference in Washington to unveil a new report called "The Bug in the Bomb: The Impact of the Year 2000 Problem on Nuclear Weapons." The Council is an independent research organization that analyzes international security issues.

The millennium bug dates back to the 1960's and 1970's when technicians used questionable cost-cutting methods to create special microchips. In order to save space and money, the technicians programmed the chips to recognize years as two digits instead of four. For example, when the computer reads the digits 9 and 8, it determines the year is 1998. Unless the computers are reprogrammed, the year 2000 will register as 00 -- or 1900.

Experts say this is certain to create a number of logical inconsistencies, causing the computers to seriously malfunction or shut down altogether.

The Defense Department weapons and communication systems utilize millions of microchips and microprocessors. Kraig says these semi-independent systems are hard to locate and difficult to fix. He adds that the ultimate effects of multiple breakdowns in these systems are poorly understood and dangerously underestimated.

According to Kraig, the U.S. Defense Department has acknowledged that several "high risk systems" may not be repaired or tested in time, and that there are problems where repairs are not possible. He says the scenarios for what may happen range from accidental launches to inaccurate data by early warning systems to missiles blowing up in their silos.

Kraig says ill-defined concepts and operating procedures, imprecise estimates for final costs, ineffective management, insufficient standards for declaring systems Year 2000 compliant, and poor interdepartmental communications have all contributed to the breakdown in the repair process.

But Defense Department spokesperson Susan Hansen said the Year 2000 computer problem for nuclear forces is receiving the "highest" attention.

Said Hansen: "We feel very confident that we have addressed those particular needs."

Still Kraig says concerns remain even among the top echelon of the Defense Departments.

U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre is quoted in the weekly newspaper Defense News on October 19 as saying: "Probably one out of five days I wake up in a cold sweat thinking (the Year 2000 problem) is much bigger than we think. And then the other four days I think maybe we really are on top of it. Everything is so interconnected, it's very hard to know with any precision that we've got it fixed."

A few days earlier on October 13, Lieutenant General William Donahue, commander of the Air Force Communications and Information Center, told Airforce Printed News (AFPN) that "we have to expect that we will not get everything fixed and there will certainly be the 'known unknowns' -- known problems with unknown solutions -- and a few 'unknown unknowns."

Kraig says even U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen is involved with solving the problem. Earlier this year, Cohen mandated that the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) provide a detailed report on the status of all Year 2000 repairs for all nuclear command and control systems.

But Kraig says that although the report was produced in mid-September as an unclassified document, it still has not been released to the public and even congressional access to it has been limited.

Says Kraig: "This reluctance to provide information raises deep concerns about the ability of STRATCOM and the armed services to fix both the weapons themselves and the all-important support systems such as launch platforms, communications networks, logistics channels, and safety systems."

Kraig says the situation regarding nuclear weapons is even more serious in Russia where the government doesn't yet have a coherent Year 2000 program in effect. The problem is worsened by the fact that no one in the Russian nuclear sector will admit there's a problem, he adds.

Kraig says that Russia's and America's decision to share early-warning information and even exchange key military and civilian personnel to guard against an accidental launch is not enough to prevent a potential catastrophe from happening.

Kraig recommends that the U.S. and Russia, as well as all nuclear states, stand-down nuclear operations, including taking nuclear weapons off alert status and removing nuclear warheads from delivery vehicles.

Concludes Kraig: "Whatever option is chosen, policymakers must be given as much time and latitude as possible for making important decisions in an environment beset with (Year 2000) difficulties and uncertainties. By verifiably taking forces off alert on a multinational basis, leaders could be highly confident that there is no danger of a preemptive attack, thereby lessening the importance of reliance that might succumb to (Year 2000) failures."