Russians ask for Y2K help with nukes
- By Bob Brewin, Dan Verton
- Sep 03, 1999
Russia lags far behind in its efforts to fix potential Year 2000 problems that threaten its command and control systems and nuclear warhead storage facilities, according to a Pentagon message that details high-level talks between the U.S. Defense Department and the Russian Ministry of Defense.
The message, sent late last month by the Defense Attache Office in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, discloses that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD) has decided to bypass "due to time constraints" the laborious system-certification process that requires programmers to examine every line of code to determine whether it contains Year 2000 bugs.
Instead, the message said the Russians have decided to go directly to live testing of systems to locate Year 2000 errors in the 100 systems they have identified as mission-critical.
The message provided detailed highlights of meetings held last month between delegations headed by Edward Warner, assistant secretary of Defense for strategy and threat reduction, and Gen.-Col. Valery Manilov of the Russian MOD. The MOD team asked a delegation from the Pentagon to provide assistance from "key U.S. software vendors to address Y2K certification and information-assurance issues."
Members of the Pentagon delegation included Warner and representatives from the Joint Staff and the U.S. Space Command. The Russian delegation included representatives from the General Staff Y2K Directorate, the Strategic Rocket Directorate, which controls the Russian nuclear weapons arsenal, and others.
Government and industry officials familiar with the federal Year 2000 effort said the memo indicated just how far behind the Russians were in preparing computer systems that control nuclear weapons and other nuclear facilities. Year 2000 failures in those systems have U.S. and Russian Defense officials concerned about the systems reporting false nuclear attacks.
"Anyone who is surprised the Russians are behind in their Y2K preparations hasn't been paying attention," said a senior Clinton administration official.
Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of the Information Technology Association of America's Enterprise Solutions Division, called the level of support Russia requested "no surprise" given the number of warnings and concerns expressed by the CIA and other national security agencies over the possible consequences of computer failures. Although the fact that discussions have been restarted is "encouraging," Grkavac said there probably is enough time left for the Russian MOD to address "only the most critical of the mission-critical systems."
A Pentagon source close to the negotiations said the talks remain at a "low level," but that Secretary of Defense William Cohen plans to visit Moscow next week for high-level talks on Year 2000 preparedness and cooperation. "In principle, we've reached an agreement, but there are still details that need to be worked out," the Pentagon source said.
Bruce McConnell, director of the International Y2K Cooperation Center, which was founded under the United Nation's auspices, said the memo was encouraging because it indicated Russia was reaching out for help. "We're really glad to see the Russians reach out and work with the international community and get help when they need it," he said.
In addition, given the delay in cooperating on Year 2000 fixes caused by the war in Kosovo, which strained relations between Russia and the United States, Grkavac's comments on timing "are probably not too far off of the mark," one source said. "My money would be on looking only at the most critical systems."
The late August meeting also focused on what the message described as "measures to be taken by [the Russian] MOD in ensuring security and accountability of the MOD nuclear warheads during the Y2K transition period."
The Russians have "undertaken the creation of Y2K monitoring and control centers at its nuclear weapons storage sites,'' but the Russians need U.S. assistance in equipping the centers, according to the attache message.
The Russians asked the Pentagon to help furnish it with equipment for those monitoring and control centers, including "computers, copiers, fax and communications equipment, portable power generators, emergency response vehicles, utility repair vehicles, warhead handling and transport vehicles, and environmental monitoring equipment."
Both sides also edged closer to an agreement on Russian participation on the Center for Strategic Stability, set up by the Pentagon in Colorado Springs, Colo., to ensure that Year 2000 errors in both nations' C2 systems or nuclear control systems could not lead to an accidental launch, according to the memo. Both sides reached "general consensus" on a draft statement on Russian participation in that center "with the intent of having a document signed by...[Cohen] and the Russian MOD at their upcoming meeting,'' slated for Sept. 13.
Communications specialists from both sides already have agreed to install a "secure and highly reliable link'' between the Colorado Springs center and a Russian command center in Moscow that will include a dedicated terrestrial circuit and a backup satellite link.
A high-ranking DOD official familiar with the Moscow talks said the Russians' requests for assistance probably should be discounted "because their requests tend to be a mix of what they need and what they want. They think we're Santa Claus.''
This DOD official, speaking on background, added that the Pentagon has received assurance from the Russians that their key nuclear C2 systems will not be damaged by the Year 2000 bug. "We are also working with them to ensure that their nuclear custodial sites are not adversely affected by Y2K,'' the DOD official added. Another DOD official said it was hard to determine the extent of Russian Year 2000 problems "because they don't tell us everything.'' But, she added, "if they are far behind, they are working hard to catch up."
The high-ranking DOD official declined to comment directly on the contents of the attache's message, but he did say that the "time constraints" associated with fixing Russian mission-critical systems was a real concern, and the Pentagon's efforts to help the Russians were impeded by their cessation of Year 2000 talks and joint efforts over the NATO bombing of Serbia. "Because of that pause, months of valuable discussions were lost,'' the official said.