U.S. to share Y2K nuclear data

The Pentagon plans to share data with the world's other nuclear powers to ensure that the Year 2000 millennium bug does not lead to an accidental nuclear exchange.

John Hamre, deputy secretary of Defense, last week told the Senate Armed Services Committee that while the Pentagon does not believe the Year 2000 problem will cause an accidental nuclear exchange, the department intends to mitigate the risk with operational procedures that call for sharing data about nuclear early-warning systems and missile warnings—- information zealously guarded during the Cold War —- with Russia and other nuclear nations.

Concerns such as this, Hamre added, have elevated the Year 2000 from an information technology issue to "a national security issue."

Hamre said the Pentagon plans to set up a formal, cooperative Year 2000 program with other nuclear nations to ensure "that the screens don't go blank" in the world's nuclear command and control centers because of bad Year 2000 date code. Hamre said the U.S. Strategic Command (Stratcom), which controls the U.S. nuclear triad of manned bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-based missiles from its headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., has already held "technical discussions" with its counterparts in Russia.

Stratcom officials could not comment before press time. However, Brig. Gen. Robert Behler, Stratcom's director of command, control, communications and computer systems, in May told intercom, an Air Force Communications Agency publication, that the command would carry out an end-to-end systems test during a 1999 exercise to check the Year 2000 conversion work.

"The [Year 2000] problem is serious because it could disrupt system operations required for nuclear planning or create erroneous data used to make command and control decisions," Behler said.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Kenneth Minihan, director of the National Security Agency, a super-secret eavesdropping agency also charged with computer security, told the Senate hearing that the United States is concerned that military leaders of other nations have not yet grasped the potential implications of perilous date code problems in their systems.

"Countries that represent threats" in the nuclear arena "have only emerging awareness of [the Year 2000 problem]," Minihan said. "Their academics are aware...but it has not yet made it into their military.... Our concern is that Russia and China have only a rudimentary understanding" of the impact that the Year 2000 could have on their nuclear command and control systems.

Paul Strassmann, who was the Pentagon's director of Defense information in the Bush administration, said the true extent of the Year 2000 problem for governments around the world is "deeply, deeply buried in a mess of code that nobody understands." He said the key to a successful intergovernmental agreement will be the ability to move beyond diplomacy and study the computer code used in critical systems. That may prove challenging in Russia because old Soviet computer code was traditionally "handmade," which will further complicate the pro-cess, Strassmann said.

Also testifying before the committee, Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) sounded a sharp warning that the Year 2000 problem also could impact the operation of a variety of computer systems used to control the civilian and military infrastructure worldwide.

Bennett warned of power disruptions in transportation systems due to Year 2000 glitches in the computer systems that control most of the world's infrastructure. Bennett said the United States faces power "brownouts and blackouts" at the turn of the century. He quickly added, "I believe the U.S. power grid will survive [the Year 2000].... But I cannot make the same claim about other countries."

Hamre testified that he is concerned that computer hackers, who already have made many incursions into military and civilian computer systems, will try to leverage the potential confusion caused by the Year 2000 problem. "Hackers will take advantage of Y2K," Hamre said.

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