Year 2000 Problem And Nuclear Weapons Apocalypse

Year 2000 Problem And Nuclear Weapons Apocalypse Or Annoyance Essay, Research Paper Year 2000 Problem and Nuclear Weapons: Apocalypse or Annoyance? The inherent and unavoidable unreliability of computers is about to be stressed, to some unknown and unknowable extent, by a seemingly trivial “feature”–the Year 2000 (Y2K) problem.

Year 2000 Problem And Nuclear Weapons Apocalypse Or Annoyance Essay, Research Paper

Year 2000 Problem and Nuclear Weapons: Apocalypse or Annoyance?

The inherent and unavoidable unreliability of computers is about to be stressed, to some unknown and unknowable extent, by a seemingly trivial “feature”–the Year 2000 (Y2K) problem. Systems and application programs that use dates to perform calculations, comparisons, or sorting may generate incorrect results working with years after 1999.

A Two Digit Problem

The problem arises from the use of two digits to represent year data in many computer hardware and software implementations. In the early years of computer development and use, memory costs were high, and processing speed slow, so the use of two digit years (98) versus the full four digit year (1998) seemed like a good idea. It used less memory, which helped maintain acceptable processing speed, and introduced few anomalies at mid-century. Dates were typically represented by the six character date pattern (YYMMDD), and simple arithmetic could use the last two digits of the year, which worked fine as long as the computations did not extend into the next century.

When a computer determined a person’s age, for example, it would subtract the two digit year of birth (example: 53 for 1953) from the current two digit date-year (98 for 1998), producing the correct solution (45 years). But, on 01 January 2000, the shortened date-year becomes 00. Now, however, the simple arithmetic process produces an age of minus 45, obviously an incorrect age.

Another date related computer process is date sequencing. The year 00 would incorrectly appear in the sequence of 00, 97, 98, 99. Faulty sequencing may mani-fest itself in a variety of ways, most of which are unknown and the subject of considerable speculation. Many implementations will treat the data at face value, canceling accounts or disposing of perishable products which are apparently dated to 1900 rather than 2000.

Results of Y2K

Some applications may simply lock up if faulty mathematical logic such as negative numbers are introduced. Other applications may go to default values. Some implementations may continue to perpetuate the data error, compounding the error at each iteration of the date dependent mathematical computation. The results could be seriously damaging to maintaining the integrity of any automated information system.

Any device that contains a microprocessor or a microcontroller dependent on a timing sequence may encounter Y2K problems, as may a variety of software systems. Microcontrollers, which are pervasive in things like stop lights and automatic door locks, are microchips that control events by executing a series of instructions. Microprocessors, found in computers, communications equipment, building security systems, elevators, cash registers, and medical equipment, are microchips that control events by executing a series of instructions based on inputs received, or it makes decisions after processing data.

Fixing the Y2K bug is complicated by the fact that computer hardware, operating system, applications, and interfaces system components are interdependently and inextricably intertwined. Date dependent software may be obscurely buried among millions of other lines of code of varying complexity. So, in order to fix the problem, all the date dependent areas in each system component must be identified and adjusted. Failing to correct even a single incident of code could compromise the entire system.

Nuclear War Implications

The Y2K Problem has attracted growing attention in the computer and commercial sectors, but it is only in recent weeks that the potential implications of this problem for the danger of nuclear war have become public. Because of the secrecy and sensitivity of strategic warfighting systems, there are currently few definitive answers, but many important questions that must be addressed in coming months by the nuclear weapon states. (Continued on page 3)

The considerable uncertainties as to the impact of the Y2K problem on society generally are vastly magnified in the nuclear context. Contemplating the probable effects on society generally, prognosticators anticipate that the impact of the Y2K problem will be somewhere between annoying and catastrophic. The range of uncertainty of the impact of Y2K on nuclear weapons is even greater, ranging between barely noticeable and literally apocalyptic. While many nuclear-related information systems will surely be fixed well in advance of the new millennium, at present this is a conjecture rather than a matter of public record.

Complex Systems Make Compliance Difficult

In principle, the STRATCOM and USSPACE-COM operating environments, as well as those of supporting intelligence activities, represent discrete highly-visible mission-critical implementations which are obvious candidates for robust Y2K compliance. In practice, this strategic nuclear warfighting infrastructure is a vast system-of-systems that constitutes the single most complex automated information system currently in existence. In June 1998, Fred Kaplan reported in the Boston Globe that a 1993 test of missile warning systems for Y2K compliance produced a shutdown of the system.

In principle, many Y2K problems should solve themselves through the phase-out of older systems which are most vulnerable to Y2K, and most difficult to fix. Roughly half of DoD’s desktop computers, generally those of more recent vintage, have been found to be Y2K compliant. However, in practice, nuclear warfighting commands will enter the new millennium using at least some systems that date to the 1960s. For example, the new Defense Message System (DMS) is being phased in to replace the Automated Digital Network (AUTODIN) which dates to the 1960s, but due to problems with implementation of multi-level security in the new DMS, USSTRATCOM will continue to use the elderly AUTODIN system past the end of the millennium.

What will happen to American nuclear forces on the first day of the new millennium? Probably nothing. The most commonly encountered Y2K glitches will almost certainly consist of minor annoyances for system operators that pose little risk to the rest of the world. And more significant system failures would almost certainly be fail-safe rather than fail-deadly: Y2K is far more likely to prevent missiles from launching when ordered, than to cause missiles to launch themselves un-ordered.

The implausibility of the most compelling sce-nario–missiles leaping unbidden from their silos the second the new millennium dawns–should not diminish concerns about the risk of accidental nuclear war resulting from the Y2K problem. Complex systems unavoidably display unpredictable emergent properties. The normal vagaries of the Windows 95 operating environment that are the daily torment of desktop computer users are but a dim premonition of the potential for vastly more complex nuclear command and control systems to exhibit “undocumented features.”

American strategic command and control systems will experience unprecedented stress during the year 2000, due both to unresolved internal Y2K problems, and Y2K back-contamination from other system interfaces. The precise nature of this stress is difficult to anticipate at this time, and may be difficult to diagnose at the time. Concerns about Y2K will surely complicate the normally challenging fault isolation process, as every normal glitch will require the added step of seeking a Y2K explanation. This will introduce new levels of doubt and uncertainty concerning system integrity, both for positive control of nuclear attack forces as well as for strategic intelligence and warning systems.

Y2K Compliance of Other Nuclear States

Providing robust assurance that Y2K will not substantially increase the risk of accidental nuclear war requires not only ensuring American Y2K compliance, but also Y2K compliance of the other nuclear weapons states, and assurances of such Y2K compliance.

The Defense Department is not unaware of the importance of this problem, and in early June 1998 Defense Secretary Cohen met with Russian Defense Minister Sergeyev to address the Y2K problem. Cohen noted that “early warning would be important; what happens in the year 2000 with computers if they suddenly shut down, how would they interpret that and how will they react to that.” He also noted that the Russians had stated that “they calibrate their computers differently than we do in the United States, in the West, and they don’t foresee a problem.”

The core of the Y2K risk derives from the more general nuclear danger under current conditions. Despite a variety of force reduction and detargeting initiatives, most of the world’s nuclear forces remain on the hair-trigger alert that is a legacy of Cold War fears of a “bolt-from-the-blue” sneak attack. With the end of the Cold War it has become increasingly apparent that such high alert levels are unwarranted, and are in fact contributory to the risk of accidental or inadvertent nuclear war. Standing down from such high readiness levels is long overdue, and should be a high priority for the nuclear weapons states. While some might suggest that Y2K concerns mandate the immediate de-alerting of nuclear forces, in the real world these arguments are unlikely to move decision makers, though they would almost certainly contribute to public alarm.

Such public alarm would not be entirely misplaced, as sustaining high alert levels would seem to be directly contributory to the nexus between the Y2K problem and the risk of accidental or inadvertent nuclear war. Initially presenting Y2K glitches would almost certainly have the consequence of rendering information systems inoperable to a greater or lesser extent. But the mandate to sustain very high alert levels could impel system operators to improvise technical implementations and operational procedures. Normally contingency procedures may also in turn manifest Y2K anomalies. System integrity may also face coincidental compromises from a variety of factors, ranging from solar-storm induced communications outages to heightened security due to warnings of terrorist attacks.

Difficult Choices

At this point, operators and commanders may face difficult choices between reducing the overall readiness of nuclear warfighting forces, and making changes in the operational practices of those forces to compensate for degradations in command and control capabilities. Such difficult choices would not be made in isolation, but might simultaneously confront system operators in more than one country, creating complex interactions among partially degraded command and control networks and nuclear warfighting forces. Random events, such as solar storms or sounding rocket launches, could further perturb the situation. In practice, such tightly-coupled interactions are all rather unlikely, given the poor track record of the American intelligence community in monitoring the alert status of Soviet forces during the Cold War. But technological “accidents” seem inexorably to result from seemingly trivial technical problems compounding in unlikely ways to produce surprising and occasionally catastrophic results.

There is obviously considerable potential for public alarm here, whatever the actual underlying risks of Y2K leading to accidental nuclear war. One obvious step would simply be to take all nuclear forces off alert, pending robust resolution of any lingering doubts concerning Y2K compliance. While there are certainly many compelling reasons for de-alerting nuclear forces, it would probably be counterproductive to suggest that the Y2K problem mandates immediate de-alerting as the only prudent step for ensuring that the new millennium dawn with a nuclear apocalypse.

Steps Needed to Address Y2K Issues

Several relatively straightforward steps are clearly called for, both to address the actual potential for the increased risk of accidental nuclear war due to Y2K, and to address potential public concerns.

The first step would be a continuation of Awareness Phase activities to include familiarizing information system operators with likely symptoms of Y2K non-compliance, to reduce the degree of confusion or alarm that may accompany unexpected system performance. Because of the high level of vigilance that currently attends strategic command and control operations, care must be taken to ensure that Y2K-induced glitches are not mistaken for malevolent assaults by adversaries.

The second step would be implementation of robust contingency planning detailing alternate means of fulfilling affected information system missions in the event of a critical failure induced by Y2K problems. These should include defaulting functions to appropriate manual operation if needed. It is exceedingly unlikely that Y2K problems would induce the generation of apparently valid launch authorizations, given the complexity and redundancy of existing launch authorization mechanisms and procedures. Nonetheless, given equally remote likelihood of a “bolt-from-the-blue” sneak attack, a requirement to verbally authenticate apparently valid launch orders would provide an additional risk reduction measure.

The third, and most critical, step would be direction from the National Command Authority that, as a matter of national policy, system operators and commanders should accept reductions in alert status and warfighting readiness pending resolution of Y2K induced problems, rather than attempting to sustain high alert rates through implementing or improvising contingency plans that could contribute to increasing the risk of accidental or inadvertent nuclear war. These are not priorities that can be chosen by commanders on the scene, particularly when faced with puzzling or alarming system failures possibly induced by Y2K problems.

The next step would be the completion of an independent Y2K compliance audit of STRATCOM, USSPACECOM, and supporting intelligence activities. While the full report would surely be highly classified, some portion of the audit and Y2K compliance certification could surely be released to the public, confirming that the American strategic command and control system is Y2K compliant, and that robust measures are in place to counter Y2K interface problems caused by potentially non-compliant American systems.

Y2K Certification from Nuclear States

An American working group, consisting of participants from nuclear weapons agencies and agencies concerned with information assurance issues, should be established to make formal Y2K compliance presentations to all the other nuclear states (declared and otherwise). The focus of these activities would include a rehearsal of the nature of the problem, representations concerning American Y2K compliance initiatives, offers of technical assistance, and a request for reciprocal compliance certification.

Extending Secretary Cohen’s initial June meetings, the United States should formally request that all nuclear weapons states implement formal Y2K compliance certification for their nuclear command and control systems. This compliance certification should be validated by some independent entity within each country, consistent with domestic Y2K compliance procedures. The final outcome of this process would be formal public statements by the nuclear weapon states of their Y2K compliance.

None of these initiatives can guarantee the eradication of the millennium bug from nuclear command and control systems, just as there is no guarantee against nuclear war other than the elimination of nuclear weapons. But systematic initiatives taken today could significantly contribute to reducing the risk of accidental nuclear war, and certainly contribute to reducing public anxieties concerning this risk.

Status of DoD Y2K Compliance in Nuclear War-Fighting Systems

The status of Y2K compliance in the American strategic nuclear warfighting community is not presently a matter of public record. There are no unclassified materials that provide a systematic assessment of the status of Y2K efforts, critical intelligence or warning support. at US Strategic Command (STRATCOM) at US Space Command (USSPACECOM), their subordinate components, or other intelligence and communications organizations (such as NRO or NSA).

The extent of this uncertainty, and a glimpse at the current situation in the nuclear arena, is provided by the April 1998 release of the Joint Staff Year 2000 Data file. This compendium of nearly a thousand systems includes 90 associated with USSPACECOM, and another 121 systems associated with STRATCOM. While the basis for inclusion in this database is unclear, it appears to be either highly selective or extremely incomplete, since the inventoried systems associated with intelligence agencies represent only a small fraction of the publicly known systems, which in turn are surely only a very small fraction of the “systems” (however that term might be defined) that pose potential Y2K problems.

STRATCOM Inventories Systems

STRATCOM systems listed in the Joint Staff database range from the Route Analysis and Penetration System (ROPES), the Strategic War Planning System (SWPS), to the Terrain Contour Map (TERCOM) Placement & Evaluation Program. USSPACECOM systems include the Automated Tracking and Monitoring System, the NORAD Forward Automated Reporting System Upgrade, and the Command Center Processing and Display System Replacement. The difficulty of defining what constitutes a “system” and the importance of assessing interfaces between “systems” is apparent in comparing the STRATCOM and USSPACECOM inventories in the Joint Staff database. Many of the USSPACECOM entries correspond to individual operating locations–each tracking radar site is counted as a “system.” The STRATCOM inventory apparently consists almost entirely of software modules implemented at USSTRATCOM headquarters. While these differences surely reflect differences in the mission and organization of these two commands, presumably much of the routine administrative functionality of the STRATCOM systems have counterparts at USSPACECOM which are simply not called out in the latter’s database inventory.

Systems Beat Assessment Phase Deadline

Many (but not all) STRATCOM systems are listed as having been certified as compliant with the Assessment Phase of DoD’s five-phase compliance effort as of 31 March 1997, a few months prior to DoD’s initial goal, and well ahead of the current DoD deadline. USSPACECOM systems were generally certified as compliant with this phase as of 02 October 1997.

As of April 1998, however, essentially no STRATCOM or USSPACECOM systems was reported to have passed the more important, and difficult, subsequent phases of Renovation, Validation or Implementation. The DoD goal for completion of the final Implementation Phase for mission-critical systems is 31 December 1998. If these nuclear warfighting commands have made substantial progress towards this goal, much less the critical intervening Renovation and Validation phases, they had apparently not reported this to the Joint Staff as of nine months prior to deadline. -JEP


At the invitation of its Commander, General Eugene Habiger, a five person FAS delegation visited the Strategic Command (STRATCOM) Headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska. While there, FAS received a briefing and, in turn, described the FAS proposal to reduce START levels to 1,000 strategic warheads, while de-MIRVing the U.S. and Russian forces (and securing the de-MIRVing of the forces of Britain and France). This article is based on information received there and elsewhere.

Disarmament and Presidential Guidance

If and when the Russian Duma ratifies START II, the biggest remaining obstacle to further disarmament will lie in the U.S. Presidential guidance for strategic forces, Presidential Decision Directive 60 (PDD60) . Here are outlined, in general terms, what U.S. policy requires of strategic forces. Currently this requires more than 2,000 deployed U.S. nuclear warheads.

This is more than is necessary. For example, notwithstanding the Sino-Soviet split of 1954, and the ability of missiles to be retargeted instantly, the current guidance is interpreted to mean that the United States be able to target both Russia and China simultaneously. It also appears to require that the U.S. be able to “dig out” and destroy about 18 highly hardened underground command posts in Russia–even though some of these, at least, would harbor the decision-makers required for negotiations to halt the war.

PDD60 requires that the U.S. target large numbers of Russian military bases as if they were poised, as they once were, to invade Western Europe, instead of being manned now by often unpaid, and sometimes starving, Russian recruits. It requires that the strategic force be able to strike large numbers of Russian industrial targets–making somewhat irrelevant U.S. guidance to avoid metropolitan areas since the metropolitan population would eventually die anyway without survival industry.

New Guidance for Reduced Forces Needed

The current STRATCOM command has told the Administration that it will require new guidance if projected START III levels of 2,000-2,500 are to be reduced. Having watched the force come down from more than 10,000 deployed strategic weapons, no doubt many STRATCOM officials feel that 2,000 warheads at the ready would be a skeleton force, every bit of which is required to maintain “deterrence as we know it.”

In fact, however, 2,000 deployed strategic nuclear warheads, even 1,000, is an enormous number, capable of destroying Russia many times over. Since Russia is no longer communist, and lacks both the ideology and the economy to mount a world threat, why are so many U.S. weapons being kept at the ready? Instead, we should mothball them through disarmament with a view to getting Russian forces down in number and off alert–something that is not possible while their weapons are being targeted by us with such effectiveness.

Deterrence as STRATCOM knows it seems to be tied up with the notion of “extended deterrence” which appears on many graphs shown at STRATCOM. Extended deterrence, a term invented by Herman Kahn, was distinguished from ordinary deterrence and was sometimes called by him “Type II” deterrence. According to the theory, an attack upon ones own country could be credibly deterred by threats to reply in kind. But deterrence of an attack upon allies required, for its credibility, being able to substantially disarm the forces of the other side. Without this ability, the U.S. who initiated a nuclear attack on behalf of an ally, would fear having its own country attacked in response. According to informed officials, the US does not “depend” upon extended deterrence and it will, in any case, “run out at low enough START levels”, i.e. at low START levels extended deterrence will cease to be an option.

The proper guidance, today, would embody policy goals of simple deterrence and flexibility. This would require a U.S. strategic force of no more than a few hundred warheads targeted simultaneously on nothing and everything. Based on a revised guidance, which would require less than a year to organize, START could continue a steady decline rather than the leveling off indicated by the current START III goal.

Today, however, with the Russian strategic force in some decline, and our highly accurate Trident submarines poised to attack from off the Norwegian coast, (only 15 minutes of missile flight time), even

such an experienced expert as Senator Sam Nunn, former Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has written that “from the conservative perspective of the Russian military, the only way to preserve Russia’s deterrent credibility is to declare–as Russia recently did–its readiness to ‘launch on warning’.”

Moreover, in the calculations describing the outcome of a U.S. attack, STRATCOM uses the dangerous assumption that any residual Russian missiles will be targeted on U.S. forces rather than on U.S. cities–something that could, in any case, be changed by the Russians quickly in a crisis.

On May 12, for the third time, President Yeltsin referred to the possibility of going far below 2,000 warheads by asserting that START III could see “even deeper cuts–of two or three times” beyond START II’s limits of 3,000 to 3,500. We should be willing to go as low as the Russians will. And if it requires changing the current guidance, so much the better.