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2000 Bug May Induce Risky Nuclear Limbo

Source: The Sun
              February 6, 1999

London- The millennium computer bug may trigger all kinds of chaos across the world when clocks strike midnight at the end of this year, but it won't accidentally fire off any nuclear weapons.

Experts believe that the risk of an accidental firing of nuclear weapons as clocks tick into 2000 is about zero.

That is very good news considering that the United States has just over 12,000 nuclear weapons in its stockpile, and Russia 22,500.

"Warheads won't explode in their silos due to computer error. They won't launch by mistake (at midnight)," said Michael Kraig, author of a report published by the independent research group, the British American Security Information Council.

Nothing would happen at midnight on Dec 31, but disaster may strike in the hours after midnight.

The worry is that millennium bug-induced failures in communications systems and early warning radar might set off a nuclear exchange later.

Something similar nearly happened in 1980. US nuclear warning personnel saw what turned out to be phantom Russian missiles homing in on the United States.

Checks showed this was a false alarm, caused by a faulty chip costing less than US50 cents (RM1.90).

The millennium bug problem, where some computers may be unable to handle as the century change from 1999 to 2000, has reawakened fears that the world faces an accidental nuclear holocaust.

Most worries centre on Russia. Kraig said that although the United States has some gaps in its anti-millennium bug preparations, much progress had been made. Russian preparations were not so impressive.

"Russia has no programme. Early warning data sharing may not be agreed."

"What are they doing? They are doing nothing."

Kraig praised the agreement last September between US President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin under which Washington and Moscow agreed to exchange key personnel who would work together to make sure phantom launches were quickly spotted.

But he said more direct moves, such as switching off systems, should be taken.

"The dangers of a Y2K meltdown, even if restricted to a few key systems, are intensified by the Russian and American policy of launch on warning...," Kraig said in the report published in December. If Y2K breakdowns produce inaccurate early-warning data, or if communications and command channels are compromised, the combination of hair-trigger force postures and Y2K failures could be disastrous.

"For all this reasons, there should be a safety-first approach to Y2K and nuclear arsenals.

"All the nuclear weapons states should stand down nuclear operations. This approach should include taking nuclear weapons off alert status or decoupling nuclear weapons from delivert vehicles," the report said.

Olivia Bosch, research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), believes it is unlikely the United States or Russia will agree publicly to switch systems off.

"If they switched them off, some bad guys might come in and make mischief. They might, in fact, switch them off and not tell anybody."

She was confident too, that all would be well. I'm confident that preparations are in hand. One can't be 100% sure that will work prefectly, but all the good intentions are there."

Some experts worry that these "bad guys" - rogue states, for example - might seek to exploit any confusion caused by a communications blackout or a failure in US or Russian defence systems.

Mischief-makers, tes absolutely, they will always be looking at opportunities to say, look, a US computer went weong and did this," said Paul Beaver, consultant at the defence publisher, Janes.

Edwin Lyman, scientific director at the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington DC, does not believe there is a danger of any spontaneous launches of nuclear weapons, but that disruption in information and surveillance could lead to instability.

Lyman agrees that Russia's preparations are lagging, but said this was not surprising.

"I believe the Russian government is doing its best, but realistically, given the state of Russia's economy, it has to address immediate day-to-days needs - even food and clothing is not being supplied adequately.

"In the face of such immediacy, it's hard to see how a problem 11 months away would get the level of financing," Lyman said.

Janes' Beaver said: "I'm concerned with two areas (in Russia): the capacity of the nuclear powers generation system to cope, and whether air defence screen and computer driven early-warning systems will still be compatible."

Other dates might also trip up computers. "I'm more concerned about nine, nine, ninety-nine and the leap year in 2000. Sime computer programmes don't include the leap year in 2000," he said.

Some computer calenders don't realise 2000 is a leap year.

Leap years are fixed using a complicated formula going back 400 years for adjusting dates to offset a slight imbalance between the length of a year and the amount of time the earth revolves around the sun.

Nine, nine, ninety-nine is shorthand for Sept 9, 1999.

Computer programmers often used a cluster of nines to signal to a computer programme that it must switch off. - Reuters.

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