Air Force passes Y2K test with flying colors

Senior Air Force officials last week said they are confident the service would be able to go to war Jan. 1, 2000, after a critical Year 2000 exercise that involved dozens of the service's aircraft and key command and control systems revealed no major system failures.

The Y2K Flag exercise conducted last week at Moody Air Force Base, Ga., and Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., tested all critical systems needed by the Air Force to be able to go to war. In addition to command and control centers, the test involved fighter jets, such as the F-15 and F-16, as well as the full gamut of intelligence and reconnaissance aircraft.

"We'll be flying and fighting in January 2000 for sure," said Brig. Gen. Gary Ambrose, director of the Air Force Y2K Office. "We tested the whole [architecture] from sensor to shooter, [with only] minor failures and nuisance-like problems."

For example, some display systems experienced minor hiccups during the leap-year date change, requiring operators to manually reset the systems. However, no major command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I) systems went blank or stopped operating, and critical information continued to flow, he said.

The Y2K Flag exercise was developed and carried out much like the Air Force's standard Red Flag series of exercises. Red Flag exercises, which are conducted up to six times each year, provide realistic combat training for pilots and C3I operators and can involve up to 100 aircraft, 300 aircrew members and more than 1,000 support people.

The portion of the exercise at Eglin Air Force Base focused on testing the Air Force's airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems, such as the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System. The AWACS is considered a mission-critical platform for the Air Force because of its role in identifying and directing fighter jets to enemy targets from more than 200 miles away.

"From a data-sharing [and] ISR standpoint, this is probably the most robust test we've done to date," Ambrose said.

Lt. Col. Willie Nunn, a member of the 605th Test Squadron specializing in AWACS testing and evaluation, said the AWACS aircraft continue to use 1970s- vintage computer systems and, surprisingly, experienced "no major" Year 2000 glitches. "With AWACS, we're talking about very early technology," Nunn said. "With these types of older systems, there are very few clock changes involved in the processing," he said.

Nunn said all of the AWACS' computer systems, which control programs ranging from mission planning to aircraft navigation, were tested for all major Year 2000-related date changes, including Sept. 9, 1999, and Jan. 1, Feb. 29 and March 1 in 2000. No major failures were recorded.

However, the 32 AWACS aircraft operated by the Air Force are scheduled to receive upgrades to most of their onboard computers that control the planes' radar and communications suites.

While the delivery of the upgraded systems is contingent upon future Defense budgets, one of the enhanced AWACS will be flown and tested for Year 2000 bugs during the upcoming Joint Expeditionary Aerospace Force Experiment 1999 exercise, Nunn said. JEFX 99 is expected to be "the granddaddy of Y2K testing," he said.

Tim Bass, president and chief executive officer of security consulting firm The Silk Road Group Ltd., who has consulted with the Air Force on many security issues, said the largest risk involving the Year 2000 date change is the effects of "malicious code insertion" during remediation efforts, in which people fixing a program introduce a virus or other code that causes harm.

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