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Y2K long shot - US Russian nuclear war

By John Donnelly, Boston Globe staff.

21 Nov 1999

WASHINGTON -- It would be the world's most extreme Y2K computer glitch.

As improbable as it may be, the possibility of a mistaken launch of nuclear missiles just as the world celebrates the new millennium has antiatomic activists pushing anew for *disarmament* of all US and Russian nuclear missiles.

US officials say flatly that Y2K computer problems will not cause any accidental launch of a nuclear missile.

But arms control specialists cannot completely rule out a Y2K doomsday scenario, which could start with computer malfunctions in Russia that cause early-warning systems to give erroneous indications of a missile attack.

Then, under this hypothetical scenario, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin could order the activation of the country's "dead hand" system, which ensures nuclear retaliation in case an attack kills the entire Moscow leadership. Next, the Y2K bug could shut down the communication between Russia's central command and the dead hand computer apparatus, which would proceed to launch missiles on the basis of the false indications of an incoming attack.

And that, according to some disarmament activists, could bring nuclear holocaust as Russia sends hundreds of nuclear missiles toward the United States.

Much would have to go wrong for such a cataclysmic event to occur, but such technical and human error is not absolutely out of the question, some arms specialists warn.

Earlier this year, to add another layer of safety to prevent an accidental launch, President Clinton and Yeltsin created a joint Y2K control room at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. There Russian and US officials will sit side-by-side beginning in late December to minimize the chances of a Y2K-triggered false alarm.

But the scenario described above is based on a "Dr. Strangelove"-like system that exists in Russia, notably the dead hand computer program, which remains in the hands of Moscow despite the joint command center in Colorado.

And the scenario comes against a backdrop of rising Russian anger against the United States, the most recent point of conflict occurring last week in Clinton's pointed criticism of the war in Chechnya. Pentagon officials say Russia has embarked on a campaign of nuclear muscle-flexing to show its displeasure, including a recent test of two submarine-launched missiles and Russia's threats to send nuclear bombers to Cuba and Vietnam.

But an ongoing worry persists around Russia's deteriorating and incomplete early-missile warning system, underscoring the dangers of having an estimated 5,000 Russian and US nuclear missiles on a hair-trigger -- Y2K or no Y2K.

While the missiles are no longer targeted on cities and nuclear sites, they are loaded with guidance systems that, on the United States side, can be programmed in as little time as 10 seconds, literally a flip of the switch and then two computer keystrokes, analysts said.

"Even if the Y2K risks are low, it's important for people to appreciate the overall risks here," said Bruce Blair, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and a recipient this year of a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant," who has written extensively about possible doomsday nuclear scenarios, including the dead hand possibility.

In the view of Blair and others, Y2K is a unique event, and thus the threat cannot be calculated.

"It is inestimable," Blair said. "Anyone who claims to know the probability of Y2K early-warning failure in Russia is pulling it out of thin air."

In recent months, US and Russian officials have tried to assure the public that Y2K poses no risk of a nuclear shoot-out.

Following a federal government report on the Y2K problem earlier this month, the White House said in a statement: "Y2K problems will not cause nuclear weapons to launch themselves. Nuclear weapons launch requires human intervention."

A Pentagon official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the worries of Y2K problems with Russia's nuclear system "have gotten blown way out of proportion. We expect minor glitches in Russia, nothing of great severity."

At the Colorado center, American officials will share data from the US global early warning network.

But distrust lingers, even at the joint command center. US officials will not share everything from the early-warning network for fear of giving away secrets to the Russians, and the Russians have rejected US requests to set up another joint Y2K control center in Russia because of their own wariness of giving away intelligence secrets.

Ill feeling has gradually built up between the two nation's militaries since the early euphoria following the breakup of the Soviet Union. It deepened among the Russian military hierarchy in recent months with the expansion of NATO eastward to include three more countries; with NATO's war against Serb forces in Kosovo; and with US intentions to build a national missile defense system that would violate the antiballistic missile treaty.

Five US arms control specialists, some working for the Clinton administration or Congress and some at universities, have said recently that their contacts in Russia have dried up because Russian intelligence agents have told scientists to cease contacts with Americans.

In the last month, the possible Y2K threat has galvanized many antinuclear activists, including Helen M. Caldicott, author Jonathan Schell, and former arms negotiator Paul Nitze, who have called on Clinton in full-page newspaper advertisements to "de-alert" thousands of nuclear missiles. De-alerting literally means taking missiles off high alert, removing the hair trigger by dismantling missile components.

Last summer, Representative Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, introduced a resolution calling for immediate de-alerting of nuclear missiles.

But US and Russian officials have rejected the idea. US Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said in Moscow recently that de-alerting was "off the table."

The obstacles, according to Pentagon officials and arms control specialists, lie in verification and lack of trust.

"As long as the US and Russia see each as potential adversaries, this is going to be the situation" of missiles on hair-trigger, said Theodore A. Postol, a MIT professor of science, technology, and national security policy. "That will also be the situation if one side sees itself as vulnerable to a damaging strike."

That now would be Russia, because its nuclear forces are "extremely vulnerable to a US strike," Postol said. Many Russian nuclear missiles are either in silos or are collected together in corrugated steel buildings, making them a possible lucrative target in a nuclear war. Many US nuclear missiles, in comparison, are on submarines, which can evade detection.

A US arms control official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said de-alerting would be extremely difficult in practice because of the difficulty of verification. "You have to imagine all sorts of shenanigans there would be over verification," the official said. "Once you mention the word 'verification,' the idea loses some of its attractiveness."

But for some arms control analysts, there seems little reason to keep so many missiles on high alert a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

"What's the threat? Does anyone think there is going to be a bolt-out-of-the-blue attack?" said Joseph Cirincione, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank. "Does anyone believe that the Russians would do this for some reason, that they would try to do a preemptive strike? I think it's just insane at this point."

Blair, the Brookings analyst who has had extensive contacts with Russian counterparts, said while both the United States and Russia find a preemptive strike scenario "bizarre," the issue cannot be totally dismissed because of Russia's rising distrust of the United States.

Asked if the Y2K doomsday scenario, which has been so roundly dismissed by US officials, was cause for losing sleep, Blair did not respond reassuringly.

"Why should you sleep at night? Why should you sleep if nobody knows? Maybe you need a sleeping pill," he said. "You can hope and trust that the probability is extremely small. But we certainly don't know that."

*** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. ***

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