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Nuclear weapons and the millennium bug


The New Internationalist

315 / August 1999

Special four-page pullout


Nuclear weapons and the millennium bug

© The New Internationalist 1999
With permission for Internet circulation -
other copyright restrictions apply.


Doomsday scenarios were bound to explode into life as the year 2000 (Y2K)
neared but the danger of nuclear disaster being triggered by the millennium
bug in computers is very real. Even some of the military departments
responsible are saying their weapons systems will not be fully 'Y2K
compliant'. Yet political leaders still refuse to take missile systems and
nuclear submarines off 'alert status' because this would mean lowering
their guard. The insainity of having nuclear weapons at all - of holding in
readiness warheads that could wipe out human civilization within minutes -
has never been more evident.

The 'New Internationalist' urges the governments of all the nuclear powers
to remove their weapons from alert status throughout the danger period,
which begins this month, and to restart initiatives to rid the world of
nuclear weapons - permanently.

"Probably one out of five days I wake up in a cold sweat thinking ]Y2K] is
much bigger than we think, and then the other four days I think maybe we
really are on top of it. Everything is so interconnected, it's hard to know
with any precision whether we have got it fixed."

UD Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre.


[Graphic: map showing "The geography of nuclear warfare, 1999"]


Y2K Q & A

* What is the origin of the millennium bug?

Programmers in the 1960s decided to conserve computer memory by using only
two digits to designate the year in computers' internal clocks, with the
first two digits assumed to be 19. Unless corrected, microchips and systems
may misinterpret year 2000 as 1900 and malfunction. The latest estimates
expect at least two per cent of all microchips to malfunction when the date
rolls over from 99 to 00.


* What kind of computers are vulnerable?

The Y2K (Year 2000) problem primarily affects two kinds of equipment:
mainframe computer systems run by big institutions or businesses; and
microchips, or 'embedded processors'. There are an estimated 15 billion
microchips worldwide, embedded in everything from smoke detectors to
sewerage systems, alarms to automobiles.

The essence of the Y2K flaw is that it is unpredictable. It could make a
computer stop dead or it could cause havoc by producing invalid data which
is not immediately detected. (Watch your pay packets carefully over the
next year ... ) The failure of just one chip can set off a chain of events,
bringing down whole systems.


* Do nuclear weapons rely on computers?

Nuclear weapons and their associated command, control and communications
systems are completely dependent on computers and microchips. The US and
Russia in particular monitor each other using interdependent radar,
satellite and communications systems. The weapons themselves use millions
of microchips, and over the years the military has tried to reduce costs by
using 'commercial-off-the-shelf chips' (COTS) which may well be susceptible
to the Y2K problem. The only way to make sure a system is Y2K compliant is
to check it laboriously line by line, chip by chip.


* But surely that's what the military are doing, aren't they?

They have been trying but failing. The US Naval Audit Service admitted on 4
January this year that 'the Strategic Systems Programs will not meet the
Department of Defense and Navy Target Completion Dates for their mission
support and infrastructure.' According to Brookings Institute analyst Bruce
Blair, two systems, which are the primary mode of communications with
ballistic missile submarines, will not be Y2K compliant by the turn of the
century. As of June 1999 264 mission-critical systems in the US Department
of Defense are still not yet Y2K compliant.


* Why on earth can't they get it together?

They've got huge problems. Much of the software currently in use is based
upon virtually extinct programming languages that hardly anyone understands
any more. The subsystems they have to test are so numerous and varied that
they may not even be able to locate them. And even when they do, the
microchips may have a date-specific program written into them that can't be
amended. Dry-run testing all systems and sub-systems in every conceivable
scenario is fantastically time-consuming.


* But if they'd checked it all we'd be safe?

Even if the military systems were completely error-free we would not be out
of the woods. Any interface with another system could introduce bad data
and wreak havoc. For example, US communications from Strategic Command to
its nuclear submarines in the Mediterranean travel partly over the, Italian
telephone system.


* Could a computer failure automatically launch a nuclear missile?

Unlikely. Most nuclear missiles have built-in security systems to avoid
accidental launches. The missile would probably disable itself.


* So what's the problem?

If the military computer systems collapse there could be false
early-warning information or a blank-out, leaving both sides ignorant of
what the other is doing. A malfunctioning system could wrongly suggest that
an enemy missile had been launched and cause a commander to authorize a
missile launch in response.

This almost happened on 3 June 1980 when US nuclear command centres showed
that Soviet missiles had been launched. Bomber crews started their engines
and Minuteman missiles were readied for launch. Technicians recognized this
as a false alarm only just in time. The malfunctioning was traced back to
the failure of one microchip costing 46 cents.


* But that was during the Cold War...

US insistence on retaining the right to launch a pre-emptive suike has led
Russia to overturn its previous policy of 'no first use'. Both Russia and
the US have a policy of launching nuclear missiles 'on warning'. Missiles
are kept on high-alert status in order that they could be fired as soon as
an enemy launch was detected. Of the 36,000 nuclear weapons remaining in
the world 5,000 sit in silos on high-alert status. These missiles can be
fired in about 15 minutes and reach their target cities in another 30


* But surely missiles are no longer targeted on foreign countries?

It is true that all the main nuclear powers (the US, Britain, France,
Russia and China) have agreed to stop targeting 'enemy' cities. But
retargeting would only take ten seconds. And in the event of a computer
malfunction, some experts atgue that a missile could revert to its last
targeting instructions.


* Aren't most nuclear weapons carried on submarines these days?

Yes, and these submarines, powered by nuclear reactors, are completely
dependent on computers, unable even to raise a periscope without them. In
one recent case involving a British Trident submarine, the nuclear-power
plant was accidentally turned off and the submarine started to plummet to
the ocean floor. Luckily, the reactor was turned back on before the
submarine imploded from the pressure of being beyond its maximum design
depth. But if Y2K problems caused the glitch there might be no way of
restarting the reactor.


* You only mention Britain and the US. What about the other nuclear powers?

There is worryingly little information about their nuclear checking. But
what there is suggests India, Pakistan, Israel, France and China ar behind
the US and Britain in their preparations for the general Y2K problem, with
China and Pakistan lagging furthest behind. US intelligence sources
testified to Congress: 'Its late start in addressing Y2K issues suggests
Beijing will fail to solve many of its Y2K problems in the limited time
remaining, and will probably experience failures in key sectors such as
telecommunications, electric power and banking.' But China is less of a
worry because it does not keep its nuclear weapons on high alert and has a
'no first use' policy.


* What about Russia?

Until February 1999 Russia was denying that its nuclear forces could face
Y2K difficulties. But according to Russian scientists now working in the
US, the financially starved Russian military and its antiquated computer
systems are bound to be prone to failure. Since then Russia has
acknowledged it has a problem and asked for financial and technical
assistance. The chair the State Communications Committee, Aleksandr
Krupnov, sais recently: 'Who knows if the country will be ready? I can't
give any guarantees.:

The most worrying element is Russia's nuclear control system, called
'Perimeter'. According to 'Jane's Intelligence Review', if Moscow looked
like it was under attack, or even if command links to key Russian leaders
were interrupted, Perimeter would automatically launch a communications
missile that would in turn transmit the codes to launch thousands of
nuclear weapons.


* But surely if the US and the Russians know about the Y2K problem they will
realize any warnings on New Year's Eve are likely to be false alarms?

The two countries were laying plans for a jointly operated early warning
centre that might help this. But when war in the Balkans broke out Russia
broke off co-operation on this. Besides, I January 2000 is not the only
date to worry about. There are other dates on which systems could


* Such as?

Such as 21 August 1999, when the internal clock of the Global Positioning
System (by which the world now measures time, using signals from
satellites) will roll over to include the year 2000, with possible
calamitous results for any country whose satellite receivers haven't been
properly configured.


* So what do we do?


nuclear powers to stand down from nuclear operations. This would
involve taking all nuclear weapons on board submarines and in land-
based silos off alert status and de-coupling all nuclear warheads from
their delivery vehicles.

In addition to removing us all from immediate danger, these moves would
give a fresh impetus to a nuclear-disarmament process which has fallen into

The 'New lntemationaiist' believes last year's nuclear tests by India and
Pakistan demonstrated that the nuclear status quo - in which five powers
are allowed to have nuclear weapons but all others are prohibited from
developing them - is not only morally bankrupt but also completely

The way forward has been shown by the Mandela Government in South Africa
which, on coming to power, unilaterally dismantled the nuclear-weapons
capability which had been developed by the apartheid regime. South Africa
is now playing a lead role in the international campaign for the abolition
of nuclear weapons. In June 1998, along with Brazil, Egypt, Ireland,
Mexico, New Zealand, Slovenia and Sweden, it launched the 'Middle Powers
Initiative' which criticized the nuclear powers and demanded that they
start work immediately to get rid of their nuclear arsenals.



TO HELP RAISE THE ALARM, the NI suggests that readers send letters to the
governments of all the nuclear powers (with the exception of China, the
only one with a 'no first use' policy). The following sample text may help:

'I am writing to convey my extreme concern over the possibility that Year
2000 (Y2K)-related computer failures in nuclear-weapons systems may lead to
an unacceptable risk of nuclear war by accident or miscalculation.

'Because none of the nuclear-weapons states can guarantee that their nuclear-
related computer systems are Y2K compliant, the only responsible solution
is for them all to stand down nuclear operations. This should include
taking nuclear weapons off alert status and decoupling nuclear warheads
from delivery vehicles.

'I strongly urge that you remove all strategic and tactical nuclear weapons
from 'hair trigger' alert and place them in a status in which at least
hours and preferably days would be required to launch them.

'The immediate stakes are so high, and the potentialfor 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.'



Britain: Prime Minister Tony Blair, 10 Downing St, London SWl A 2AA.

France: President Jacques Chirac, Palais de I'Elysee, 55 rue de Faubourg St
Honore, 75008 Paris.

India: Prime Minister Atal Behari Vaipayee, South Block, New Delhi 110011.

Israel: Prime Minister Ehud Barak, PO Box 187, Kiryat Ben-Gurion, Jerusalem

Pakistan: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Prime Minister's Secretariat, Islamabad.

Russia: President Boris Yeltsin, Krasnopresenskaya-2, Moscow.

United States. President Bill Clinton, White House, Washington DC.




Middle Powers Initiative, 126 Rogers St, Cambridge, MA 02142, US. Tel: +1
617 492 9189. Fax: +1 617 868 2560. E-mail:


Disarmament and Security Centre, PO Box 8390, Christchurch. Tel/Fax: +64 3
348 1353. E-mail:


Friends of the Earth Sydney, Suite 15, 1st Floor, 104 Bathurst St, Sydney,
NSW, 2000. Tel: +61 2 9283 2006. Fax: +61 2 9283 2005. Web:

Greenpeace Asia, Web:


CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), 162 Holloway Rd, London N7 8DQ.
Tel: +44 171 700 2393. E-mail:


Physicians for Global Survival, 145 Spruce St #208, Ottawa, Ont KIR 6PI.
Tel: +1 613 233 1982. Fax: +1 613 233 9028. E-mail:


Irish CND, Tel: +353 21 506 41 1. E-mail:


British American Security Information Council, 1900 L St NW-725, Washington
DC 20036. Tel: +1 202 785 1266. E-mail:



Sangers Y2K News Reports

Gary North's Y2K Links/ Forums

The Detroit News Y2K Watch

Y2K Today

Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND)

British American Security Information Council (BASIC)

Federation of American Scientists

People for Nuclear Disarmament (Western Australia)



A General in full uniform says:

"I can finally and categorically state...that despite the carping of the
pacifists and doom-mongers...our nuclear forces will be completely Y2K 31 March 2000."


"The Titanic sank in an ocean that was 99-per-cent free of icebergs."

- Y2K microchip systems expert Mark Frautschi


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