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.