Nuclear Party Poopers
At 11:59 p.m., Dec. 31, 1999, just as you're about to pop those millennium champagne corks, you might want to switch on the telly to check whether there's an emergency broadcasting signal interrupting Dick Clark. If so, you may want to stay tuned, according to some experts, to check whether it's the electric grid going down, the dams releasing their waters ... or a nuclear holocaust.That's right. All those celebratory Year 2000 party plans may be ungraciously interrupted by an accidental nuclear war, brought to you by the Year 2000 computer glitch -- otherwise known as the Y2K problem. Unfortunately, that's not the opinion of some group of camouflaged survivalist fruitcakes scrubbing out their existence in Idaho. Just listen to the Oct. 19, 1998, testimony of the Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre:"Probably one out of five days I wake up in a cold sweat thinking [Y2K] 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 really hard to know with any precision that we've got it fixed."Hamre is not referring to any Y2K problems that might arise with his digital watch or VCR. The problem is that among the estimated 15 billion tiny computers called microchips embedded in the world's machinery -- from your clock radio to your ATM -- a few million are involved in the nuclear weaponry maintained by the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, China, Israel, Pakistan, India -- and possibly North Korea. Many of these microchips have timing devices that could incorrectly register the change of the year 2000 -- noted only by the last two digits "00" -- as a change to the year 1900. The consequences of such misreadings are currently unknown.When it comes to highly sophisticated military weaponry, including nuclear weapons, that uncertainty might remain until we actually experience the date change. "We may not be able to find all the computer and network interfaces that have date-dependent processing," said Lt. General William Donahue, U.S. Air Force communications and information center commander, on Oct. 13 of this year. "We have to expect that we will not get everything fixed and there will certainly be the Ôknown unknowns' -- known problems with unknown solutions -- and a few Ôunknown unknowns.' "The situation is potentially so grave that the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), headed by former chief U.S. arms control negotiator Paul Warnke, issued a report last month calling for taking nuclear weapons off "alert, ready-to-launch" status because "the potential effects of the Year 2000 computer date change on specific nuclear weapons systems are highly uncertain and almost entirely unpredictable."What must be underlined is that even critics such as BASIC do not foresee the Y2K problem in and of itself setting off a nuclear missile. In their report's executive summary, they flatly state, "The prototypical Ôworst case' scenario -- a nuclear weapon exploding or a missile launching directly because of Y2K-related failures -- is not plausible." But in their report on the issue (available at www.basicint.org), BASIC cited two "realistic worst-case scenarios" of major concern. First, in the attempt to service the problem, particularly under stressful time constraints, the possibility exists that a non-nuclear propellant-based fire could be sparked, combusting the warheads' conventional bombs, which are used to detonate the nuclear bombs. The result would be that "radioactive material could disperse and contaminate wide swaths of territory." But, as the report's author Michael Kraig admitted in an interview, that's an ongoing concern with or without the Y2K problem. The more serious possibility, the "nightmare scenario," is that the Y2K failures will cause the radar screens of one or another of the nuclear powers to go dark. Systems are now set up to interpret such interference as a warning sign of incoming nuclear attack, and to respond by launching their own nuclear warheads.This possibility is taken so seriously that the United States and Russia are now negotiating the placement of experts in each other's countries' strategic communications centers on New Year's Eve, 1999. "We need to make sure there is no chance someone will be blindsided if the radar screens of any country using nuclear weapons go blank," said William Curtis, director of the Pentagon's 2000 compliance office earlier this month. "That is a cause for panic. You don't know whether it's an attack on your system."Susan Hanson, public affairs officer with the secretary of defense, says the military has been addressing the Y2K issue with a five-step approach. "The leadership of this department is convinced they have taken the steps to make sure that all of the U.S. strategic [nuclear] command systems have gone through all the steps to make sure that our Year 2000 problems are taken care of," Hanson said last week. She added that the "strategic command folks," who manage the nuclear command and control systems, "are telling us that they believe that all of those steps for their unique systems will be completed by the end of this calendar year."This spring, says U.S. Air Force Capt. Stephen Doub, of the U.S. Strategic Command in Nebraska, "there is going to be an operational evaluation, which is an end-to-end test with all the people involved." The tests are necessary because not only must the weapons' own computers be Y2K compliant -- all of the computers with which the weapons systems interface or connect to in any fashion must also be Y2K compliant.But just two months ago, the Pentagon inspector general's office released an audit showing that the agency responsible for maintaining the U.S. nuclear stockpile had never independently tested three of its most important computer systems, even though earlier in the year this agency had reported no Y2K problems. The agency defended itself by claiming others were responsible for such testing. Last month an assistant inspector general told the New York Times that this agency "was by no means alone in failing to bring in outsiders for an independent test, or to maintain adequate records of testing."Still, the DOD's Hanson says, "We feel fairly comfortable here that we have addressed the matters that are of concern raised in that particular [the BASIC] report. ...While we have these weapons as our deterrent force, we do not want to see them in any way, the basis for this [nuclear deterrence], negated by some technical glitch such as the Year 2000."Hanson says "a lot more definitive statements on this issue" should be forthcoming in early 1999 from the government. Among the confidence-building steps that the government has taken was a series of discussions between President Clinton and Russia's President Yeltsin on the Y2K problem this past fall. Defense secretary William Cohen is pursuing the necessary discussions with the European nuclear powers through NATO. When asked how the United States is handling unacknowledged nuclear powers such as Israel, Hanson responded, "We're getting way off my beat here with regard to the Year 2000, sir. I'm sorry. I don't want to get into who's a nuclear power and who isn't. That's not in my portfolio."Asked whether she was personally concerned about the Y2K nuclear danger and would spend the millennial celebration in a fallout shelter, Hanson said: "I tell you, I'm not an alarmist type person. I must admit I'm not one of those sorts of people who's going to be in whatever's described as a Ônuclear free zone' or whatever. I have confidence, and I don't feel I'm being overly naive or rosy-tinted. While, as our deputy secretary said, there may be nuisances or inconveniences as a result of this [Y2K problem], I don't foresee any crisis at the moment. ...The deputy secretary said he was moderately optimistic that we would have everything addressed here in our department. No one knows with total clairvoyance what will occur. But he saw this more as a matter of inconvenience or nuisance as opposed to a crisis situation."