Y2K is coming, ready or not. Right now, mostly not. And despite desperate efforts to correct the monumentally shortsighted failure to program the world’s computers and computer chips with complete date codes, some disruption is now inevitable when the clocks tick over at midnight at the end of the year.
Most worrisome, because of their vast potential for destruction, are the world’s nuclear weapons arsenals and nuclear power plants. For if the network of interconnected systems collapses and cascades into systemic infrastructure failures, power and communications could be lost worldwide. Restoration may be delayed or even impossible in a world where everything else has snapped to a halt. In the chaos and confusion that would follow no one knows what would happen to nuclear bombs and nuclear reactors. In the truly worst-case scenario, accidental nuclear war and/or reactor meltdowns could release enough deadly radioactivity to return the planet to the insects.
Probably nothing will happen immediately. All the world’s 36,000 nuclear weapons could simply cease to function as the Y2K wave rolls over them. But a newly released report from the respected and independently funded British American Security Information Council (BASIC) warns of the possibility of accidental or mistaken launch of nuclear weapons. The authors acknowledge that this is highly improbable. Most nuclear launch systems require manual activation. But given the existing hairtrigger, launch-on-warning systems on which so many nuclear weapons are still balanced, such a launch, however implausible, could take place within ninety seconds of computer failure in the warning systems. If all military warning, tracking and interception systems were down, bombs could be hitting targets within minutes. The US military is aware of the danger and is working desperately to establish cooperative procedures with Russia, China and other nuclear powers to avert what Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre has called “the nightmare condition.”
The greatest danger comes from Russian and Chinese missiles. Currently, at least thirteen Chinese nuclear missiles are thought to be capable of reaching the West Coast of the United States. Until Clinton’s visit to China last June, some of the Chinese missiles were reportedly targeted on US cities. As a result of recent understandings, both nations have agreed to de-target their nuclear missiles. But such an agreement is currently unverified and provides flimsy protection, since missiles can be retargeted in ten seconds. As the Y2K digital tsunami moves west from the international date line in the Pacific, China and Russia will become the first nuclear nations to face possible computer failures–almost half a day earlier than the United States. All contact and communications could be lost or disrupted. Launch-site commanders could be left literally in the dark, trying to read the meaning of silence.
On a recent visit to Russia, Defense Secretary William Cohen offered to share early-warning information and exchange up to eighty observers, who would be stationed at the Russian and US launch and communications centers during Y2K. Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev rejected the proposal with a bland assurance that “there is no such danger [for nuclear weapons] since in the Strategic Missile Forces we use special technologies.”