Russia’s deteriorating nuclear force is causing some experts to worry that a year-2000 computer glitch could spawn a false signal from early warning radars or satellites that the country is under attack.
Bruce Blair, a Brookings Institution analyst and leading authority on Russia’s sprawling atomic arsenal, said the Strategic Rocket Force operates on a hair-trigger “launch on warning” doctrine.
As the century changes on Dec. 31, a computer-generated false signal could send rocketeers on quickly paced launch procedures for Russia’s 756 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
“They have about 2,000 weapons they can fire at the United States on a moment’s notice, and the main option for firing them is ‘launch on warning’ at a time when their early warning network is deteriorating badly and at a time when they’re suspicious of the West,” said Mr. Blair, who as an Air Force officer in the 1970s manned a U.S. Minuteman missile silo.
Asked the odds of a false signal triggering an ICBM launch, Mr. Blair said, “It’s clear that the likelihood of such an event is higher as a result of Y2K than it would otherwise… . [But] this should in all likelihood be a case of fail safe and not fail deadly.”
The Pentagon, however, says there is no chance for a deadly miscalculation. The department has gone to extraordinary lengths diplomatically and financially to make sure New Year’s Eve does not turn into a real-life “The Day After.”
Its most visible guard against a calamity is the Center for Year 2000 Strategic Stability at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. There, beginning Dec. 30, Russian and American officers will sit side by side at computer screens 24-hours a day. Their job: Monitor data from U.S. Space Command sensors, primarily long-range radars and satellites that detect the heat of a rocket blastoff.
“We really do not worry about Russia, missiles going off, or early-warning systems getting false reports or anything like that,” said Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre. “We’re confident that will not be the case.”
Added Peter Verga, a Pentagon policy-maker, “If an early warning radar in Russia fails, we think it would be because the power went out, which is a local time-zone problem, and not because there’s a fundamental problem within the system.”
The department, which has spent $3.6 billion on year-2000 compliance, has invested $10 million in Russian weapons computers to ensure they don’t misread the date rollover to 2000. Technicians also ridded the Moscow-Washington “hot line” of any potential bugs and installed backup telephone connections.
At Peterson, a missile launch anywhere in the world will be picked up by Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites and then tracked by radars.
Inside the Peterson center, officers will know the launch location and time, whether the rocket is an ICBM or space vehicle, the “threat fan” of potential targets and projected impact point.
The center has communications links to Moscow’s warning center so Russian officers in the United States can verify any launch activity detected back home.
Space Command believes that by 4 p.m. (ET) Dec. 31 the millennium rollover in Moscow officials will know if Russia’s warning system is glitch-free.
U.S. military forces are on Greenwich Mean Time and will enter the new century at 7 p.m. (ET).
“Once we get through the Moscow rollover, we’ll have a very good indication of how Moscow has gotten through the rollover,” said Maj. Perry Nouis, a spokesman for the U.S. Space Command. “We think it’s going to be a quiet night for everybody. That’s what our hope is.”
Steven Zaloga, an expert on Russian strategic weapons and an aerospace consultant, said Moscow lost a large share of its ICBM-tracking radars with the breakaway of old Soviet republics. For example, Latvia recently shut down the radar on its soil.
Russia’s other mechanism for monitoring U.S. missiles, the system of orbiting Oko infrared satellites, has wide gaps in coverage because Moscow lacks the money to replace them.
“Their early warning system has so many gaps and problems with it, one would hope they have the sense to appreciate that they may get some kind of false readings,” Mr. Zaloga said.
“Their command-and-control network is in very, very bad shape,” he added.
“They don’t have reliable missile early warning, which is really a critical element of command and control. The problem I see with the Russian government, it has a very unsophisticated and naive view of nuclear forces. The Russian military over the years has held a monopoly on distribution of information on nuclear forces.”
Still, Mr. Zaloga concluded that the Russians exercise sufficient human control in Moscow to head off any rash decisions on New Year’s Eve.
He said that in the early 1980s, shortly after the first Oko went into space, a satellite sent back a false-positive based on a heat signature from the sun appearing on the horizon. Fortunately, he said, a Russian officer dismissed the signal as bogus and did not initiate alert procedures.
“These missiles don’t go off automatically,” Mr. Zaloga said. “There is a human element in the Russian command-and-control system.”
One thing is clear. Moscow and Washington approach the date switch amid worsening relations and mistrust.
Russia is particularly jittery over three developments: NATO expansion to its old Soviet borders; the air war on Serbia that showed the power and reach of American strategic bombers; and the U.S. intention to build a national defense against ballistic missiles.
Meanwhile, Washington has protested Russia’s brutal military crackdown in Chechnya and is growing concerned over Moscow’s increasingly bellicose statements on nuclear weapons.
In Beijing earlier this month, Russian President Boris Yeltsin said President Clinton “has forgotten Russia is a great power that possesses a nuclear arsenal.”
Last week, Col. Gen. Vladimir Yakovlev, chief of the country’s Strategic Rocket Force, was quoted as saying, “Russia, for objective reasons, is forced to lower the threshold for using nuclear weapons… . “
Mr. Blair sees the acid atmosphere as possibly leading to nuclear miscalculation. He also sees shortfalls in Pentagon planning.
For example, at the Peterson year-2000 center, Russian officers will not see the raw data that pours into the top-secret national warning center at Cheyenne Mountain 12 miles away. Instead, they will view processed signals.
The arrangement raises a dicey scenario. If Moscow’s system says it is under attack, who do the Russians believe? Their own data or assurances from an American air base?
“The sole point of contact between the two militaries will be here at Peterson to make sure that no one in either country operates in a vacuum,” Maj. Nouis said.
Said Mr. Blair, “As far as I can tell, we have fixed the Y2K problems with our nuclear forces. The Russians have not. They have admitted they are behind schedule… . This Y2K center is just a Band-Aid that diverts attention from the deeper problem of deterioration of Russian control over their nuclear arsenal”
Peter Pry’s book, “War Scare: Russia and America on the Nuclear Brink,” documents the poor state of the old Soviet arsenal. One would expect him to sound the alarm over the looming 2000 date change. But he’s not.
“A lot of people on the left and right have really hyped the Y2K thing for different ulterior motives,” Mr. Pry said. “I think it’s been much exaggerated, the dangers of an electronic glitch, something going radically wrong with their computer system … It’s hard for me to imagine a false attack happening.”
Mr. Pry, a staffer on the House Armed Services Committee, said one prospect does worry him: how will the Russian generals react if an early-warning radar blacks out?
“That could be dangerous,” he said. “Then you have the general staff wondering, why did it black out. ‘Is this the first wave of attack?’ “
Mr. Pry said year-2000 pessimists point to a 1995 incident as evidence of how Russia’s weakening nuclear control could produce a fatal mistake.
In January of that year, Russian nuclear forces went on alert after the launch of a Norwegian weather rocket. Some Russians initially misinterpreted the flight as a U.S. submarine ballistic missile fired as the first stage of an all-out attack.
But rather than viewing the incident as a precursor to year-2000, Mr. Pry said it is a better indication of Russian mistrust toward the West.
“There was no mechanical failure or computer failure,” said the ex-CIA analyst. “It was a human failure.”