Nuclear millennium?

A report warns of possible Y2K consequences for nuclear weapons systems

In this country, the excitement about the possible consequences of the Y2K problem is not too great. In the USA, on the other hand, panic is already spreading and the computer bug is mingling with apocalyptic fears of the end of the world. The problem is known to stem from the fact that previously only two digits were used for the internal clock of computers and chips to represent the date, which can lead to misinterpretation and thus disruption of programs that use dates when the year 2000 comes around.

Pessimists believe that the entire infrastructure of a country, based on computer systems, could be paralyzed: Airplanes fall from the sky, water and electricity supplies are interrupted, electronic banking systems fail, and many machines and devices with embedded chips no longer function. And then, of course, could be accidentally launched atomic bombs that devastated the world. Nuclear weapons rely on many computer systems and millions of embedded chips that must operate accurately. Particularly because they are always on alert and a routine begins when the launch of an enemy nuclear bomb is registered, launching a counter-strike before impact, nuclear weapons systems are especially at risk.

By the year 2000, no one will know what could have really happened if all systems were not revised. The report by the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), an organization that advocates the disarmament and prohibition of nuclear weapons, seizes the moment and warns specifically of the consequences of the millennium problem for U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons systems. While the optimists’ scenario is that the millennium problem will at most lead to a slowdown of computer systems, the pessimists’ scenario ames that a nuclear power could launch nuclear bombs due to a faulty warning or that nuclear weapons could explode or be launched due to a fault, which in turn could lead to a setback of another nuclear power.

In view of the complex and hardly comprehensible networking of a multitude of, moreover, often relatively autonomous systems, no one could, according to BASIC, guarantee with absolute certainty that all individual subsystems had actually been checked. After all, it is necessary to check computer programs line by line and all embedded microprocessors and chips. To see if the problems had really been eliminated at all levels, tests were urgently needed on all systems if they were to remain on alert and ready to launch within the shortest possible time – with a window of between 15 and 30 minutes after the detected launch of an enemy missile. There is considerable concern, even among Defense Department specialists, that the Y2K cleanup program is being executed sufficiently well. The Pentagon has already acknowledged the existence of high-risk systems that cannot be repaired in time or at all. A specialist commissioned by the Congress had even reported a "catastrophic mismanagement" spoken.

Not only the transition from 31. 12. 99 on 01. 01. 2000 could create unpredictable problems, but also earlier or later data. Even if a subsystem was one hundred percent clean of the Y2K error, this would not be a guarantee that the connection with "infected" systems do not reintroduce erroneous data into the system: "Because of these subtle but insidious internal system effects, Defense Secretary John Hamre had acknowledged that ‘it’s all so interrelated that it’s very hard to know exactly whether we’ve solved it.’"

Computer experts estimate that two to five percent of all existing chips cause problems with the date change. While this would seem to indicate low security risks, BASIC believes that poor functioning of embedded chips could also lead to partial or complete failure of the subsystem, which in turn could produce partial or complete failure of the larger system and then failures of all associated external systems. Moreover, it is not known which chips are affected, which are often old and about which there is no information from the manufacturer.

If little is known about the condition of U.S. nuclear systems, the situation of Russian nuclear systems is even more unknown, and they often operate with older computer systems, compounded by the poor general condition of Russian weapons systems and the disintegration of the army. A recent report by the Russian Ministry of Defense acknowledged the possibility of disruptions in the Russian Army’s computer systems and the possibility of problems at the turn of the millennium in about 50,000 of the more than 9,000 computers in Rubland and in half of the 50 operating systems and 100 programs used by the Russian government. And, of course, the Y2K problem could affect not only Russian and U.S. weapons systems, but also the nuclear weapons systems of France, the United Kingdom, India, Pakistan, Israel, or China.

BASIC suggests that in order to prevent possible catastrophes, at least the nuclear warheads should be removed from the projectiles, the strategy "launch at warning" and to include all nuclear states in the safeguards beyond the Russian-American initiative to conduct further disarmament and to change the targeting of nuclear weapons to each other’s targets. Both the U.S. and Russian defense ministries, however, have denied that the Y2K problem could lead to any threats. In September, the U.S. Department of Defense announced that it had already (or was in the process of)?) 42 percent of the main computer systems had been made error-free …