U.S., Russia support joint warning center

More than six months after negotiations began, U.S. and Russian Federation officials last week signed a statement supporting the creation of a joint warning center that would help avoid an accidental launch of nuclear weapons resulting from system malfunctions caused by Year 2000-related computer problems.

Defense Secretary William Cohen and Russian Federation Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev signed the agreement Sept. 13 in Moscow, after the U.S.-led NATO air campaign in Yugoslavia compelled the Russians to put planning for the center on the back burner indefinitely.

A spokesman for the Defense Department said the agreement enables the negotiations to move into the next phase, which will focus on the cooperative effort in greater detail. According to the spokesman, a Russian delegation will be arriving at U.S. Space Command in Colorado this week to begin the first series of detailed discussions.

The new Center for Year 2000 Strategic Stability will be located at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo., and will be staffed by Russian and U.S. military representatives during the Year 2000 transition period from late December through mid-January.

Military officers from both countries will sit side by side and exchange information related to the Year 2000 date change in an effort to avoid misperceptions surrounding the status of each other's nuclear forces. The center also will be linked via voice communications networks to other command centers in the United States and Russia.

The creation of the joint warning center stems from concerns that Year 2000 failures could cause some nuclear command and control systems to crash, which could be interpreted as the sign of an impending first strike. However, during previous congressional testimony on the issue, Defense Department officials assured lawmakers that there is virtually no chance of an accidental launching of nuclear missiles caused by a Year 2000-related computer failure.

Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem, and Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), committee vice chairman, praised the Russian decision to move forward on Year 2000 cooperation and also pushed for both countries to consider keeping the center operational for weeks after the scheduled closing date of Jan. 15.

Although the agreement marks a "very positive development...the effects of Y2K will be felt long after January, [and] Russian and U.S. officials must seriously consider extending the life of the center until March," Dodd said.

"The greatest Y2K danger comes not from the threat of an accidental launch, but from the threat of Y2K glitches being misinterpreted by personnel on either side of the Atlantic," Bennett said. "The establishment of the Colorado Springs center is a well-written insurance policy against Y2K-induced conflict among the preeminent nuclear powers."

John Pike, a defense and intelligence analyst with the Federation of American Scientists, called the decision to move forward at this stage in the game "better than nothing, but...not much better than nothing."

Pike said though the Year 2000 outlook for Russia appears to be gloomy, it is not too late to start this type of effort. "The Russians are taking a Russian approach to matters by patching a few things up, and waiting for the rest to break," he said.

Other observers have expressed concern that by not inviting China to take part in the Year 2000 warning center, DOD may be excluding another very important player in the global Year 2000 stability campaign. Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of the Information Technology Association's Enterprise Solutions Division, said China's situation is not as bad as Russia's, but its government has been battling a major software pirating problem that may complicate its Year 2000 status.

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