Nuclear worries over year 2000 bug

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The Independent Online
A LEADING arms control group is calling on all nuclear powers to deactivate - or "decouple" in the jargon of Doomsday planning - their weapons, to avoid possible massive and hugely perilous systems failures brought on by the so-called millennium bug.

In a report published today, the British American Security Information Council (Basic) bluntly describes the Pentagon's efforts to meet the fast- approaching deadline as "a mess", with what it calls "severe and recurring problems across the spectrum". Russia, it says, has barely woken up to the year 2000, or Y2K, risk - in which computers may take the 00 to mean 1900 - even though the general decay of its military since the demise of the Soviet Union has made the danger even more acute.

For all the visible work already done to iron out the date recognition problem, Basic argues there is no way of knowing if "embedded" systems - that is semi-independent "systems-within-systems" - in the colossal American defence apparatus are being straightened out.

These could allow the Y2K bug to spread, unknown to America's defence controllers.

Repairing and testing affected systems could see costs "in the multi- billion dollar category", with no guarantee of success. As the US Deputy Defense Secretary, John Hamre, said recently: "Everything is so interconnected, it's very hard to know with any precision that we've got it fixed."

According to Basic, the biggest Y2K danger is not the ultimate nightmare of nuclear weapons either launching or exploding because of faulty computer information. Since it still requires human authorisation for a missile or warhead to be launched, this sort of catastrophe is "unrealistic".

Far more likely is the prospect of a leader, under pressure from hairtrigger response mechanisms, pressing the nuclear button on the basis of inaccurate data.

This is the real significance of September's early warning agreement between Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton in Moscow, which Basic would like to see leading to a joint and independent nuclear warning centre independent of the two national defence bodies.

Such a US-Russian agreement should form the basis of a broader pact between all nuclear-weapons states, declared and undeclared. Even so the danger of a rogue launch would remain. Far better, says Basic, to separate warheads from their delivery vehicles, and thus increase the time needed to launch an attack.