Among the many nightmare scenarios predicted for the year 2000, the most chilling involve the Defense Department. And with good reason: The Pentagon's operations are vast and enormously complex, its reliance on computers and high-tech systems is profound, and its stock-in-trade routinely involves doomsday weapons. Moreover, DoD efforts to address the glitches are seriously lagging.
"Time is running out to correct DoD systems that could malfunction or produce incorrect information when the year 2000 is encountered during automated data processing," concluded a recent General Accounting Office report. "The impact of these failures could be widespread, costly, and potentially disruptive to military operations worldwide."
Adding to the worries: the fear that Russia and China aren't prepared to deal with the Year 2000 problem--and that a computer error could trigger the accidental launch of one of their nuclear missiles.
"Our concern is that Russia and China have only a very rudimentary understanding of the Year 2000 problem, which is why we need to reach out to them to make sure they have custodial confidence in their own systems," said deputy Defense secretary John Hamre, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 4.
"We're very concerned, for instance, that the military leadership in Russia right now is coping with serious funding constraints. They are increasingly falling back on nuclear weapons to safeguard their national security; their early-warning system is fragile; and they don't have any program to deal with the year 2000."
The Pentagon is belatedly developing a program to share early-warning data between nuclear command-and-control organizations around the world. "We don't want to enter into the nightmare scenario where everyone's screen suddenly goes blank. That would be a very uncertain and worrisome environment for all of us," Hamre said.
Part of the problem is the sheer scope of defense activities. DoD operates more than 1.5 million computers, 10,000 data networks and 28,000 automated information systems. In a February survey, various defense agencies reported that more than half of the 730,000 personal computers they had examined had, to one degree or another, a Year 2000 problem.
Military ships and aircraft rely on the Global Positioning System (GPS) for precise navigation and targeting. The ground control stations, however, use dates to synchronize the signals from the satellites and to maintain satellite uplinks. Failure to correct Year 2000 irregularities could cause those stations to lose track of satellites or send erroneous information, conceivably allowing ships and aircraft to stray into dangerous or restricted waters or airspace.
"Frankly, I think we'll be lucky if on Jan. 1, 2000, the system just doesn't come on, because then we'll know we have a problem," said Hamre. "Our bigger fear is going to be that the system seems to work fine, but the data is unreliable. That's a far worse problem." According to Hamre, DoD has already spent $1.9 billion to address the Y2K problem, and it plans on spending another $1 billion in the next 12 months. Of its 2,900 mission-critical systems, Hamre testified that Defense has fixed or is replacing 2,000. The Pentagon is roughly four months behind, however, in evaluating, fixing and testing the remaining 900 systems.
"I would be the last person to suggest we're not going to have some nasty surprises, because I definitely think we will," the deputy Defense secretary said. Many of those surprises may lurk beyond the department's immediate horizon, however, in vast commercial global communications networks.
"That's a particularly difficult problem for DoD, because we've spent the last 25 years really netting together our computer systems and networks. ... We've also shifted from largely dedicated defense communications systems to commercial networks. So if Ma Bell's or Bell Atlantic's system fails on Year 2000, we're going to have mission failure, and I don't have any control over that," Hamre explained. Calling Y2K the "electronic equivalent of El Nino," Hamre predicted: "This is going to have implications for American society and the world that we can't even comprehend."
Given how loudly the clock is ticking, a number of experts believe it is already too late to try to identify, fix and adequately test systems that haven't yet been checked. In their collective view, the Pentagon should simply assume such systems will fail, and begin devising ways to work around the problem and making other contingency plans.