The Pentagon has reached an agreement to set up a joint warning center with Russia to help avoid an accidental launch of nuclear weapons that could result from system malfunctions caused by Year 2000-related computer problems.
The Defense Department intends to provide Russians working in that facility with the kind of data that was closely guarded by the former adversaries during the Cold War and much of the post-Cold War era: real-time tracks of potential missile launches derived from a global system of satellites and sensors.
The plan is aimed at providing Russia with missile launch data in case its critical systems fail because of Year 2000 date code problems, said John Hamre, deputy secretary of Defense, testifying last week at a joint hearing of the House Subcommittee on Government Management, Information and Technology and the Subcommittee on Technology.
While the Pentagon is not concerned that Russia will launch missiles if its computer systems malfunction because of Year 2000 problems, "we are less than optimistic that Russian early-warning systems will function" because of Year 2000 problems, Hamre said. "It is possible that Russian computer screens could go blank."
DOD plans to locate the new Center for Year 2000 Strategic Stability within a facility in Colorado Springs, Colorado, home of the U.S. Space Command and the North American Air Defense Command, which can track missile launches worldwide.
Hamre said DOD has modeled the strategic stability center after the joint Cold War-era Berlin air traffic control center, in which Russian, French, English and American air traffic controllers worked side by side to guide commercial aircraft in the air corridors leading to Berlin.
Hamre said the new strategic stability center would provide Russian officials at the Colorado Springs center with missile launch data from highly classified U.S. early-warning systems that provide a global view of possible launches of missiles. Russian personnel will be given access to computer screens "that will allow them to look at our data," Hamre said during an ad hoc press briefing after the hearing. Hamre added that the Russians will not be able to manipulate that data.
U.S. missile launch detection systems are so refined that the space command has installed a terminal at an Air Force installation in Kuwait that can detect possible launches of Iraqi Scud tactical missiles. Those missiles are much smaller and harder to detect than the intercontinental ballistic missiles used by the Russian strategic rocket force.
If needed, Russia also will be able to install its own secure communications lines directly into the center linking the Russian personnel there to commanders in Moscow, Hamre said.
Last September, President Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin reached a broad agreement to set up a system to share early-warning data about long-range missile launches.
Establishment of the Year 2000 center is the first in a series of moves that could lead to the development of a system that would provide a "steady flow of data" from sensor systems operated by each nation to the national command centers of the other country, according to Edward Warner, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for strategy and threat reduction.
Warner said at a Pentagon press briefing that he expects the Russians and Americans to jointly man the Year 2000 center with "early launch warning specialists" from about the middle of December to perhaps the middle of January "to monitor things across the transition of the new millennium."
Warner, who returned in late February from a trip to Russia, where he met with high-ranking Russian military officials, added that the United States also offered to help Russia with a wide range of other Year 2000 issues. The Pentagon stands ready to "share ideas about management techniques and key technologies or approaches that can be used to identify, remedy and test computer systems that have Y2K-related potential difficulties," he said.
John Pike, a defense analyst with the Federation of American Scientists, said the joint early-warning center evokes a famous scene from "Dr. Strangelove," a movie that satirized Cold War tensions.
In that movie, when the fictional president suggests that the military allow the Russians into the fictionalized War Room, an American Air Force general objects, "We can't let the Russians see the 'Big Board.' " The new center, Pike said, "finally means that we are going to let the Russians see the Big Board." But, Pike added, he is concerned that it has taken so long to do so "since we have been discussing joint early warning with the Russians since 1991."