Y2K Clock is Ticking

jkitfield@njdc.com

Defense Department officials are anxiously awaiting the long-anticipated moment known among some experts simply as "midnight crossing." It will arrive first in the Aleutian Islands as the clock strikes midnight in the western Pacific Dec. 31. Pentagon officials will be watching closely on the computer screens of a planned Year 2000 Operations Center, a multi-agency command-and-control center operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington.

How the Y2K problem affects the first nations that enter the new millennium will provide DoD officials with an early indication of exactly how Jan. 1, 2000 will be remembered in the history books.

DoD officials have been preparing for-and fretting over-the Y2K problem for years. The problem is buried in millions of lines of software code that use two digits to represent four-digit years. That will lead an unspecified amount of software around the world to read "00" not as 2000, but as 1900, possibly sending the world's cyber-infrastructure collapsing because computers cannot recognize the new millennium. Not surprisingly, given that its stock in trade is handling doomsday weapons, the Pentagon stars as the central character in the worst Y2K nightmare scenarios.

While the Pentagon has worked aggressively in recent years to fix the millennium bug-at an estimated cost of nearly $3 billion-the connectivity that is the hallmark of Defense operations makes predicting the cumulative impact of the problem all but impossible. The Defense Department operates more than 1.5 million computers, 10,000 data networks and 28,000 automated information systems. Even when electronics and communications components embedded in weapons systems are excluded, the Electronics Industries Alliance estimates there are more than 250 procurement line items in the Defense budget that refer primarily to electronics and communications equipment.

Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre, the Pentagon's Y2K point man, has acknowledged the difficulty of predicting the impact of the problem on such a vast network. "Probably one out of five days I wake up in a cold sweat, thinking Y2K is going to be much bigger than we thought," Hamre testified before Congress. "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."

In a report released earlier this year, the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem offered an even more sobering assessment of the likely impact of Y2K. The inability of computers to recognize dates starting on Jan. 1, 2000 is a "worldwide crisis," the authors concluded, and "one of the most serious and potentially devastating events this nation has ever encountered."

An Electronic Snowball

One of Y2K experts' biggest fears is a potential cascading effect as systems certified as Y2K compliant become infected with noncompliant code through their interactions with other systems. The result could be digital snowballing with widespread damage.

"The interdependent nature of technology systems makes the severity of possible disruptions difficult to predict. Adding to the confusion, there are still very few overall Year 2000 technology compliance assessments of infrastructure or industry sectors," warned the Senate report. "Consequently, the fundamental questions of risk and personal preparedness cannot be answered at this time."

The potential for a cascading effect raises particular concerns about nuclear weapons command and control. For instance, to avoid a situation in which the screens go blank at the nuclear weapons facilities in China or Russia, U.S. officials have been cooperating with their counterparts in those countries to share early-warning data.

Because of the relatively small size of China's nuclear forces, and their reliance on manual procedures rather than computer-generated commands, U.S. officials say they are relatively confident that no major incident will occur involving that nation's nuclear weapons. U.S. experts are clearly concerned, however, by the fact that more than 90 percent of China's computer software is pirated, meaning Chinese technicians have been unable to call in manufacturers for help and have not received Y2K software updates.

Air Force Gen. John Gordon, deputy director of the CIA, emphasized at a Senate Armed Services hearing last February that gaps in information make it hard to assess the likely scope of damage in foreign countries. But there is little doubt, he said, that the developing world will face the greatest threats of disruptions. "China will probably experience failures in key sectors such as telecommunications, electric power and banking," said Gordon.

Russia presents even more profound Y2K concerns. With 22,000 nuclear weapons scattered over 90 sites, 65 Soviet-made nuclear reactors, 715 tons of fissile material (enough plutonium and uranium for 40,000 nuclear weapons), and tens of thousands of nuclear scientists who have not been paid regularly in recent years, Russia amounts to the world's largest nuclear warehouse. The foundation on which it rests has already been systematically rocked by a decade's worth of political and economic upheavals, none more damaging than an economic crisis and devaluation of the ruble last fall.

By far the greatest concern is that Y2K will cause a glitch or false reading in Russia's already dangerously eroded early warning command-and-control system, leading to an accidental or mistaken launch command. As an indication of just how fragile that early-warning system is, experts point to the events of Jan. 25, 1995, when the Russian radar warning system misidentified the launch of a weather satellite in Norway as a nuclear attack. An alert message went all the way to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who for the first time in an emergency activated the "nuclear briefcase" long carried by Russian leaders. Eventually the mistake was identified.

Few doubt that Y2K could lead to false data with far worse consequences in that same command-and-control system. "Russia is extremely vulnerable to the Year 2000 problem," Sergei Fradkov, a former Soviet satellite technician now working on Wall Street, was quoted as saying recently in The Nation magazine. "If the date shifts to '0' for a brief moment, that fools the system into thinking there is a high probability of an attack in progress."

Because the default for failure in the Russian command-and-control system is reportedly to freeze the system, U.S. officials say they are not overly anxious about an accidental Y2K missile launch. But "they have not had the same level of urgency that we've had, they've come at the problem much later in the game, and they've been going through some fairly profound economic problems," DoD's Hamre testified earlier this year. "The Russians are undoubtedly going to have problems that they haven't anticipated."

U.S. officials also are disappointed that Russia so far has rejected their idea to establish joint command centers and trade personnel from their nuclear forces to guard against misunderstandings. Part of the problem reportedly is the anti-Western sentiment resulting from Russia's economic collapse and NATO's recent bombing of Yugoslavia. Privately, many U.S. officials suspect the Russians are simply too concerned about the poor state of their nuclear command-and-control system to allow U.S. military officers to view it up close.

Also worrisome to U.S. officials is the prospect of multiple meltdowns at Russian nuclear reactors. The White House recently gave its most pessimistic assessment to date of anticipated computer failures at Russian-designed nuclear plants in nine countries. President Clinton's Y2K czar, John Koskinen, has said one of his greatest international concerns is ensuring safe operation of 65 Russian nuclear plants, including one in eastern Russia near Alaska.

False Readings

In the United States, the total failure of a computer system as a result of Y2K is considered less likely than an unnoticed glitch that causes a system to produce erroneous data.

Take, for example, the NAVSTAR Global Positioning System (GPS), on which DoD depends heavily for precise navigation. Even if it seems to be working fine at the dawn of the millennium, it could be sending out erroneous data. A computer ground station-which uses dates to synchronize the signals from satellites and to maintain satellite uplinks-could inadvertently send false information and allow aircraft or ships to stray perilously close to one another.

While the Pentagon plans to have fully tested 100 percent of its mission-critical systems for Y2K compliance by the end of the year, officials warn that those systems ultimately will be depend on the civilian infrastructure. Major telephone and communications systems are expected to operate without significant disruptions, they note, and no one anticipates that planes will fall out of the sky. But regional blackouts and air-traffic problems are a possibility. The military's ability to respond to possible Y2K-related domestic disturbances also could be hindered by local communications breakdowns and power systems outages.

"The Defense Department is like a large ship headed toward an iceberg," says Marvin Langston, DoD's deputy assistant secretary for information policy. "We have successfully changed course to avoid the tip, but we must continue our efforts to ensure we miss the submerged portion."

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