The Guardian August 4, 1999


Y2K and the threat of global nuclear catastrophe

by Dr Hannah Middleton

Year 2000 (Y2K) problems are likely to affect the computer systems that 
coordinate strategic nuclear weapons systems. Many respected experts are 
warning that due to Y2K problems these systems, both in the US and Russia, 
pose an unacceptable risk of accidental nuclear war. The immediate stakes 
are so high, and the potential for global catastrophe so clear, that 
mutually verified de-alerting in the face of the Y2K computer problem must 
take precedence over all other considerations of politics and national 
security.

The largest, oldest, and least Y2K compliant computerised systems in the 
world are those that are part of the communications, command, control and 
intelligence functions of the strategic nuclear weapons complexes of Russia 
and the US.

The US Y2K compliance program for strategic nuclear weapons is not expected 
to be anywhere near complete by December 1999. Similarly, the Russian 
strategic nuclear weapon system will be subject to massive Y2K problems.

The Y2K problem

The Y2K problem is buried in millions of lines of software code that use 
two digits to represent four-digit years. That will lead some software 
around the world to read "00" not as 2000, but 1900, and possibly cause 
computers to crash or issue false data. No one knows for sure what will 
happen.

The biggest fear is that, even in modernised nations that have been working 
to lessen the impact of Y2K, a cascading effect will occur.

A US Senate Y2K panel reported that: "The interdependent nature of 
technology systems makes the severity of possible disruptions difficult to 
predict.

An audit of one US nuclear reactor, conducted by the US Nuclear Regulatory 
Commission, revealed that a single nuclear power plant had 1,304 separate 
software items and embedded chips affected by the Y2K bug.

In the worst-case scenario, even systems that are Y2K compliant will be 
infected with the Y2K bug as a result of their connection to non-compliant 
systems. They, in turn, will contaminate others.

The nuclear hair-trigger

Both the US and Russia continue to keep the bulk of their nuclear missiles 
on high level alert. Within just a few minutes of receiving instructions to 
fire, a large fraction of the US and Russian land-based rockets (which are 
armed with about 2,000 and 3,500 warheads respectively) could begin their 
25-minute flights over the North Pole to their targets.

Less than 15 minutes after receiving the order to attack, six US Trident 
submarines at sea could fire about 1,000 warheads and several Russian 
ballistic missile submarines could launch between 300 and 400.

In sum, the two major nuclear weapons states are ready to fire a total of 
more than 5,000 nuclear weapons at each other within half an hour.

Both powers operate a "launch on warning" policy, with nuclear forces in a 
constant state of readiness to launch nuclear weapons on the mere warning 
of an attack.

The rushed nature of the process, from warning to decision to action in 15 
minutes or so, risks causing an apocalyptic mistake. The possibility of 
accidents is made worse by the Y2K problem.

US bases in Australia

At the stroke of midnight on December 31, inhabitants of the small Pacific 
islands will become the first people to enter the year 2000. They will be 
followed by the first industrialised countries  New Zealand, Australia 
and Japan.

American officials will be watching to see how the Y2K phenomenon affects 
them, to find out what happens when modern, computer-reliant nations cross 
into the new millennium?

The US military will be watching what happens at its military facilities in 
Australia since any malfunctions in its nuclear command and control system 
will show up first in the US bases, especially the ballistic missile launch 
detection and other satellite intelligence collection systems at Pine Gap, 
and the Trident submarine communications transmitter site at North West 
Cape.

Nuclear accident

The greatest concern is that Y2K will cause malfunctions in the early 
warning network and command-and-control system of the nuclear weapon 
states, leading to an accidental or mistaken launch command.

The fallibility of these early warning systems has been demonstrated by 
false alarms and even the accidental transmission of launch codes which 
have occurred at both US and Russian nuclear missile installations, caused 
by computer error or misinterpretation of data.

On January 25, 1995, for example, a Russian radar warning system detected a 
rocket launch off Norway.

A ballistic missile launched from a US submarine in those waters could hit 
Moscow within 15 minutes, so an alert message was sent up the command chain 
all the way to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who for the first time in 
an emergency activated the "nuclear briefcase" carried by Russian leaders.

The unidentified "missile" turned out to be a US weather probe launched by 
the Norwegians.

Eliminating the risk

The risk of accidental nuclear war, however small, is not a risk the planet 
and humanity should be subjected to.

And the risk can be eliminated by taking nuclear weapons off hair-trigger 
alert.

The Canberra Commission, organised by the Australian Government in 1996, 
strongly recommended that strategic nuclear missiles be taken off hair-
trigger alert as a first step toward the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Whether it is seen as a first step to elimination of nuclear weapons, or as 
a simple commonsense measure to ensure that we do not greet the new 
millennium with global nuclear catastrophe, de-alerting makes good sense.

If strategic nuclear weapons are taken off alert, accidental nuclear war 
between the US and Russia cannot happen. De-alerting will cost nothing and 
it can improve the atmosphere of trust between the nuclear powers. It can 
be implemented by simple executive order.

There should be a "safety first" approach to Y2K and nuclear arsenals.

The only responsible solution is for them all to be taken off alert status, 
preferably with the decoupling of nuclear warheads from delivery vehicles. 
All strategic and tactical nuclear weapons should be placed in a status in 
which at least hours and preferably days would be required to launch them.

World-wide campaign

The danger that a Y2K-related computer malfunction could trigger an 
accidental global nuclear war has impelled more than 170 international 
peace, environmental, anti-nuclear, trade union, and church groups to write 
to Presidents Yeltsin and Clinton, demanding that strategic nuclear weapons 
be taken off their current hair-trigger launch status over the Y2K period.

The letter is being released on Hiroshima Day in Sydney, Adelaide, 
Auckland, Moscow, London, New York, San Francisco, Toronto, and Costa Rica.

You can help

Write to Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, asking him to make 
representations to Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin to take strategic nuclear 
weapons off hair-trigger alert during the Y2K rollover period.

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