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Action Alert - Y2K Bug in the bomb?

Peace Movement Aotearoa

PO Box 9314, Wellington. Tel (04) 382 8129, fax (04) 382 8173,

Issued 24 November 1998

As you may recall, in April 1997 we reported in the PMA Newsletter that the British Ministry of Defence had announced it would be spending an estimated 100 million pounds sterling to ensure their missile guidance systems worked properly at the turn of the century. Our suggestion at the time was of course that this would be an ideal opportunity to disable the systems...

Alas, they did not take this up; since then, concern has been growing about the accidental firing of a missile with a nuclear warhead with a guidance system unable to cope with Y2K or a nuclear war started by computers with Y2K problems. The likelihood of this happening is obviously increased while nuclear weapons stay on alert.

This message is in three parts :

1) we have included below a copy of a Guardian article describing the problem, and the website where you can get more info;

2) If you are concerned about this possibility, or wish anyway to let the heads of nuclear weapons states know you want their arsenals de-alerted, there is a sample letter following which you could use to base your own letter on;

3) As well there are the contact details for the nuclear weapons states.

Thanks to the various individuals and organisations who helped to bring this alert together.

1) Guardian article

The year 2000 may bring chaos to nuclear bases, writes John Eason, a bug in the bomb

As the fireworks burst in the sky, heralding the Year 2000, could we see larger rockets taking to the air, bearing payloads of nuclear death and destruction?

It sounds far-fetched. Surely the worst the Millennium Bug could do is close down cash machines for a few days and cause a bit of confusion in supermarkets when fresh food is labelled 99 years past its sell-by date?

But the danger is all too real, according to The Bug In The Bomb, a report published today by Basic, the British American Security Information Council. It cites a test in 1993 by curious technicians at Norad, the US early warning radar network. They rolled the system's dates to January 1 2000. The result: a total systems blackout.

Thomas Neve of Basic says this scenario is more to be feared than the possibility that missiles confused by the date change will decide to launch themselves. "If everyone's completely blind or they get a false image, things start getting really dangerous," he says.

But if the danger has been known about for at least five years, surely remedial work is well in hand?
Michael R. Kraig and Herbert Scoville Jr, the report's authors, have no confidence in the measures taken by the US Department of Defense. They point out that last year the department published an impressive sounding five-point plan for knocking out the Year 2000 bug. Last June an audit found that out of 430 machines labelled Year 2000 compliant, only 109 had been correctly certified. The procedures were actually vague and ambiguous - for instance, validation through testing was not required before a lower manager certified a system; the only real requirement was that the manager signed the testing slip.

The report highlights the layers of complexity: no one check can be run for all the different weapons and warning systems; many systems incorporate chips and code which are now 'obsolete' and there is great difficulty finding experts to work with them; even if a system is 'de-bugged', it could still be 'infected' by another system.

Russia is sanguine about the Year 2000. Igor Sergeyev, the defence minister, said in August: "This problem mostly affects sectors where they use conventional computer technologies. There is no such danger [for nuclear weapons] since in the Strategic Missile Forces we use special technologies."

Brave words, but not echoed by Sergey Fradkov, a former Soviet satellite control technician now working in the US. "Russia is extremely vulnerable to the Year 2000 problem," he said. "If the date is used somewhere to track an incoming missile and the date shifts to 0000000 for a brief moment,
there is a division by zero - an extremely high value - that fools the system into thinking there is a high probability of an attack in progress."

The report's authors call for all the nuclear powers to work together on the problem. Nuclear systems should be taken off alert, they say, or nuclear warheads should be uncoupled from missiles.

The Ministry of Defence said that a comprehensive Year 2000 review was underway with all systems and it was confident there was no risk.

Guardian Computing online, 11 Nov 1998.

For more information about the report, see Basic at

2) Sample letter

(this particular one went to Clinton) :

Dear Mr. President:

According to the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), in the Executive Summary of its report THE BUG IN THE BOMB: The Impact of the Year 2000 Problem on Nuclear Weapons, "Initial research findings by a number of different agencies and teams of experts, both inside and outside the Department of Defense (DoD), have resulted in "no confidence" that the Pentagon's present program will meet the Year 2000 challenge."

With Y2K, we confront a dangerous global game of "Russian Roulette." According to BASIC, "The dangers of a Y2K meltdown, even if restricted to a few key systems, are intensified by the Russian and American policy of "launch on warning." This policy calls for nuclear retaliation after detection of another country's launch of missiles, but before the adversary's warheads impact. If Y2K breakdowns were to produce inaccurate early-warning data, or if communications and command channels were to be compromised, the combination of hair-trigger force postures and Y2K failures could be disastrous."

BASIC continues, "... Moreover, December 31, 1999 and January 1, 2000 are not the only dates that present problems; many such "bugs" exist for dates that occur prior to, or months and years later than, the year 2000...."
Here are just one of the report's conclusions: "For all of these reasons, there should be a "safety first" approach to Y2K and nuclear arsenals. All the nuclear weapons states should stand-down nuclear operations. This approach should include taking nuclear weapons off alert status or de-coupling nuclear warheads from delivery vehicles."

Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre has admitted that "Everything is so interconnected, it's very hard to know with any precision that we've got it fixed."

Therefore, I request that all U.S. nuclear weapons systems be de-activated before the various Y2K trigger dates, with the warheads physically removed from the missiles to prevent accidental launches. Please also urge your former Soviet counterparts to do likewise. This MUST be done before January 1st, 1999.

This action would help usher in an era of global cooperation on defusing the millennium bomb as much as humanly possible. It would certainly make clear the graveness of the situation to all governments on our small planet.

I consider this the duty of the U.S. Government to all life forms on Earth. Please inform me if you disagree, and if so why. Sincerely, Terry Cottam, Y2K Ottawa.

3) Contact details

for heads of government of nuclear weapons states :

President William J. Clinton
The White House
Washington, DC 20500, USA
tel +1-202-456-1111
fax +1-202-456-2461

President Boris N. Yeltsin
Office of the Government
Krasnopresenskaya 2
Moscow, RUSSIA
tel +7-095-925-3581
fax +7-095-205-4219

Prime Minister Tony Blair
Prime Minister's Office
10 Downing Street
London, SW 1A 2 AA, BRITAIN
tel +44-171-270-3000

President Jacques Chirac
Office du President, Palais De L'Elysee
55-57 rue du Faubourg St. Honore
75008 Paris, FRANCE
tel +33-1-4292-8100
fax +33-1-4742-2465

Premier Zhu Rongji
Office of the Premier
225 Chaoyangmennei Dajie, Dongsi
Beijing, P. R. CHINA

Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu
Office of the Prime Minister
3 Rehov Kaplan, Hakirya
Jerusalem 91007, ISRAEL
tel +972-2-705555
fax +972-2-664838

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee
Prime Minister's Office
South Block
New Delhi 110011, INDIA
tel +91-11-3013040
fax +91-11-3016857

Prime Minister Mohammad Nawaz Sharif
Office of the Prime Minister
Islamabad, PAKISTAN
telex 5742

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