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Washington Journal: Official Says U.S. Defense Safe From Computer Bug

Washington, 25 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A leading U.S. Defense Department official says that none of America's critical defense systems will be affected by the Year 2000 computer problem.

John Hamre, Deputy of Secretary of Defense, made the comment Wednesday during a hearing held by the Senate Armed Services Committee on potential threats to U.S. national security caused by a computer problem known as the "millennium bug."

The computer problem came from programmers who were trying to save space and used two digits to represent the year instead of four. Thus, the year 2000 would be written as 00. Date-dependent systems may mistake this as 1900 when making calculations using the date. This could cause some computer systems to malfunction, issue errors or shut down altogether.

Today, the U.S. Defense Department relies on over 1.5 million computers, 28,000 systems and 10,000 networks. Hamre said of these, the U.S. has 2,300 critical systems that are an integral part of America's defense. Those systems range from fire control systems in fighter jets, to bombing navigation systems on planes, to a radar system on a ship at sea, he said.

Hamre said that currently the Defense Department had fixed and tested 1,722 of those systems, and expects to have all of them fixed by December 31, 1999. He says full priority will be given to systems that the U.S. military needs to go to war.

Hamre said: "The Department of Defense will not fail the American people. We will be able to protect and defend the United States on the first of January in the year 2000, on the second of January, and every day after that."

Hamre said the Defense Department also stands ready to help domestically if there are problems arising from the computer problem. For example, Hamre says the Defense Department has the capability to set up air traffic control operations for about 30 airports. But he added that the military will not aid domestic U.S. agencies at the expense of the department's war fighting abilities.

Hamre also said America's nuclear command and control system will also be ready for the millennium.

He said: "There is not going to be any question from America's nuclear command and control system. We'll be ready for the year 2000."

Hamre said that concerns raised by members of the U.S. Congress over the safety of Russia's nuclear arsenal from the computer bug were also being addressed.

Hamre said last week's talks in Moscow between the U.S. and Russian Defense Departments on the Year 2000 problem were successful and added that follow-up technical discussions would continue next week.

Additionally, Hamre said the U.S. has asked the Russians to participate in a joint early warning center to be constructed in Colorado. He said the center would be operational by the fall and Russian officers would be able to monitor U.S. systems at the center in person to ensure that there are no accidents involving computer systems that control nuclear weapons.