Millenium Nightmare Looms

Like virtually every American company or government organization, the Defense Department faces a twofold challenge in preparing its vast communications systems for the year 2000. Not only must its own systems function as the clock strikes midnight at the close of Dec. 31, 1999, but the computer systems of its critical customers and suppliers must also work. The difference in the realm of national security is that the ostensible "customers" are Russia and China, and the supplies they could accidentally deliver are nuclear-tipped missiles.

"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," Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee this summer. The situation is so worrisome, in fact, that the Pentagon is belatedly developing a program to share the early-warning data developed by its nuclear command-and-control organization with potential adversaries.

"We're very concerned, for instance, that the military leadership in Russia right now is coping with serious funding constraints," Hamre said. "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."

Growing concerns about the year 2000 problem-which threatens to send the world's cyber-infrastructure crashing because so much embedded computer software cannot recognize the new millennium-dramatically underscores the central irony of what has been called a "revolution in military affairs." Hyper-speed advances in command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance are changing the nature of modern warfare. U.S. commanders now fully expect to dominate future battlefields through the rapid collection, digitization, computer manipulation and dissemination of information. As the year 2000 problem and recent intrusions into DoD computer systems by hackers dramatically illustrate, however, the military's heavy reliance on advanced computers and information systems represents a glaring vulnerability.

"The way our communications networks are set up in a global context now has really changed the way we traditionally think about defense," Lt. Gen. Kenneth Minihan, director of the National Security Agency, told Senators this summer. "While these networks have many advantages, our technical ability to network has outpaced our ability to provide security within those networks. So the Y2K problem is really a manifestation of a larger, festering problem. Our vulnerability has largely shifted from the defense industrial base that we used to think about, to our information infrastructure."

According to Minihan, that vulnerability is already being probed and exploited by global adversaries. "We don't know in this nation to what degree structured attacks on [computer and communications systems] are occurring, because unlike hackers the purpose of adversaries is not to be discovered, and our reporting criteria for these attacks are not well developed," he said. "But they will take critical advantage of our Y2K vulnerabilities. In our view, unstructured attacks against our networks are occurring everyday. We are well into information age conflict."


Perhaps not surprisingly, of all the nightmare scenarios woven around the year 2000 problem some of the most chilling involve the Defense Department. Operating doomsday weapons, after all, is the Pentagon's stock in trade. Its operations are vast and enormously complex and it relies heavily on high-tech, chip-embedded systems. And by most recent measures, DoD efforts to avert the problem 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," a recent General Accounting Office report concluded. "The impact of these failures could be widespread, costly and potentially disruptive to military operations worldwide."

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. Even when electronics and communications components embedded in weapons systems are excluded, the Electronic Industries Alliance estimates there are more than 250 procurement line items in the Defense budget that refer primarily to electronics and communications equipment. And in a February survey, various Defense agencies reported that more than half of the 730,000 personal computers they had checked had a year 2000 problem.

Potential glitches range from the mundane to the terrifying. The Defense Logistics Agency, for instance, uses an automated system to manage the Defense Department's vast inventory of supplies. Because the system uses dates to target stale items for automatic deletion, it erroneously tagged more than 90,000 items to be discarded before the problem was discovered in 1996.

Military ships and aircraft, meanwhile, rely on the Global Positioning System (GPS) for precise navigation and targeting. Ground control stations, however, use dates to synchronize the signals from the satellites and maintain satellite uplinks. Failure to correct year 2000 problems 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 January 1, 2000, the system just doesn't come on, because then we'll know we have a problem," Hamre said. "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 already has spent $1.9 billion on the Y2K problem, and it plans on spending another $1 billion in the next 12 months. Hamre said earlier this year that of the Pentagon's 2,900 mission-critical systems, 2,000 already have been fixed or are being replaced. 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," Hamre said. Many of those surprises may be lurking beyond the Defense Department's immediate horizon, however, in global commercial 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," said Hamre. "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. That's why I call the year 2000 problem the electronic equivalent of El Niño."

Satellites and Communications

The nationwide confusion that erupted earlier this year when a communications satellite malfunctioned, interrupting service to tens of thousands of pagers, underscored the critical but often unseen part satellites play in modern communications.

One of the largest space programs in the Defense budget, for example, remains the Milstar satellite program, under which a satellite network is being developed to provide the President and military commanders with secure, survivable communications for commanding U.S. military forces worldwide. In fiscal 1999, the Pentagon requested $550.9 million for Milstar, which is being deployed by prime contractor Lockheed Martin and principal subcontractors TRW and Hughes. DoD also requested $660 million in fiscal 1999 for Titan Heavy Launch Vehicles needed to put the satellites into orbit.

DoD also requested a total of $732 million in fiscal 1999 for the Space-Based Infrared System, a network of satellites designed to provide initial warning of a ballistic missile attack against the United States. SBIRS, the surveillance backbone of an eventual national missile defense system, is being developed and operated by Lockheed Martin in its high-orbit variant. The competition for the contract to develop a low-orbit variant involves a TRW and Hughes team against one led by Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

The NAVSTAR Global Positioning System so critical to the military's precision navigation and targeting systems would get $258.6 million in fiscal 1999 under the Clinton administration's budget request. Boeing manufactured the first 28 satellites for the system, the last one was launched in 1997. The prime contractor for the next 21 satellites will be Lockheed Martin. Boeing also is manufacturing 33 NAVSTAR satellites.

The Army's Defense Satellite Communications System, meanwhile, would receive $126.8 million in fiscal 1999 under administration plans. DSCS is designed to provide wide-band, anti-jam communications in support of both strategic and tactical command-and-control systems.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec