Nuclear systems could crash in 2000, study says
- By Gregory Slabodkin
- Nov 23, 1998
The Defense Departments nuclear arsenal may be at greater risk from date code
problems than DOD has publicly acknowledged, according to a report from the British
American Security Information Council, an independent research organization.
The report, The Bug in the Bomb: The Impact of the Year 2000 Problem on Nuclear
Weapons, concludes that the Pentagon has only recently recognized that the year 2000
problem could result in the crash of nuclear weapons and related command and control
Senior DOD officials, including deputy Defense secretary John Hamre, have consistently
said that the Pentagon has given its nuclear stockpile and C2 systems the highest priority
for year 2000 remediation. But BASICs report said date code fixes for nuclear
command and control systems are far from complete. The Washington think tank analyzes and
disseminates information on current security issues pertaining to Europe, Russia and the
Michael Kraig, author of the report and a fellow at BASIC, cited statements made by
Adm. Richard Mies, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, at a Sept. 25 DOD Year 2000
Steering Committee. Mies said that 11 mission critical STRATCOM systems were not fixed and
that 12 additional systems were still in the testing phase, Kraig said.
Hamre has been saying publicly that all nuclear systems are fixed or are
undergoing testing, but during the Sept. 25 meeting Adm. Mies made contradictory
statements, Kraig said. According to the briefing slides, there are two
unnamed command and control systems in particular that are still [unfixed] that could
Date code errors could shut down communications between nuclear commanders, create
logistical logjams and disturb operations in Trident submarines, B-52 bombers and
Intercontinental Ballistic Missile launch centers, Kraig said.
DOD officials strongly disagreed with the BASIC report.
STRATCOM has done an end-to-end year 2000 review of all its systems, including
everything from early-warning satellites to nuclear safety controls, DOD spokeswoman Susan
Hansen said. There are 77 systems that are being tracked by STRATCOM and, although some
system fixes will spill over into next year, DOD will have nine months to do the final
tests and required corrections, Hansen said.
This is an area we now feel fairly good about, Hamre told reporters last
month about the departments U.S. nuclear command and control systems.
The Sept. 25 DOD meeting included a briefing from STRATCOM on the status of year 2000
repairs for all nuclear command and control systems. An August memorandum from Defense
Secretary William Cohen ordered STRATCOM, which has its headquarters at Offutt Air Force
Base, Neb., to provide a detailed report.
Although the STRATCOM report is an unclassified document, the Joint Chiefs of Staff
have blocked public access to the report on the year 2000 and nuclear command and control
systems, Kraig said. BASIC has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the
report, he said.
This reluctance to provide information on project findings raises deep concerns
about the ability of STRATCOM and the armed services to fix both the weapons themselves
and the all-important support systems such as launch platforms, communications networks,
logistics channels and safety systems, the BASIC report said.
The United States currently has about 8,400 nuclear weapons in its arsenal, with about
2,400 of them on alert, Kraig said. Under STRATCOMs Strategic War Planning System,
an umbrella network that encompasses all the commands systems, there are about 5,000
pieces of computer equipment and software programs that help run nuclear operations, he
Making matters worse is that Russias nuclear systems are decaying and in danger
of year 2000 failures, Kraig said. Russia retains about 6,200 nuclear weapons with about
2,000 of them on alert, he said.
U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons remain on hair trigger alert, and Russian early
warning systems have deteriorated drastically, the report said. The
combination could have disastrous consequences, a fact that led to the September agreement
between Clinton and Yeltsin on sharing early-warning data.
DOD and its Russian counterpart are working on a program to share early-warning system
and missile threat data to prevent an accidental exchange of nuclear weapons in the event
of year 2000 problems, Kraig said. But DODs own systems may not be fixed in time, he
The department also lost key personnel in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of
Defense for Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence, complicating its year 2000
efforts, the report said.
This exodus included many experts on information technology, leaving the entire
program rudderless for several months, the report said. It is still not clear
that recent organizational restructuring and new civilian appointments have adequately
addressed the need for rational and consistent central management.
BASIC recommends that Congress get involved, Kraig said. Decoupling [of warheads]
and other options are implementable by 2000 if Congress gets active on this issue quickly
and becomes a part of the Y2K contingency planning process, he said.