The Hindu
Saturday, August 08, 1998 
SECTION: Opinion


The millennium wars 

Date: 08-08-1998 :: Pg: 13 :: Col: d 

By Gerald Segal 

You have heard the scary stories about how computer failure at the dawn of the millennium will cause serious economic damage, but what happens to the military when the millennium arrives? Astoundingly for institutions geared to fretting about worst cases, Defence Ministries have barely begun to ask themselves that question. With military heads so firmly buried in the sands of time, the risks are becoming ever more disturbing. Could the result be a millennium war? 

Even though we live in an age of increasingly high technology warfare, there is a depressingly simple and stupid mistake at the heart of our ``smart weapons''. Military computer systems, like their civilian counterparts, were designed with a two-digit date - for example 98 instead of 1998 - but when the clock ticks to the year 2000, many systems will think it will be 1900 and malfunction or seize up entirely. Welcome to the so-called ``Millennium Bug'' or ``Y2K problem''. 

The motto of defence planners who are beginning to move past the first stage of denying there is a real problem is drawn from the 1980's sci-fi classic ``The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy'' - ``Don't Panic!'' But as they turn their clocks forward to hunt bugs, even the most energetic hunters are resigned to missing some. 

In the British Ministry of Defence there are some 700 staff who expect to spend pound 200 millions (without counting their own salaries) to find the answers in the 500-or-so days to the Millennium. The American Department of Defence says they have already spent $1.9 billions on Millennium-related problems. 

Some of the more obvious problems such as individual weapon's guidance and firing systems with many embedded chips and run by complex software programmes appear to be easiest to modernise. But the task is not simple when you recall that worldwide there are estimated to be 15 billion microchips and a modern car has 100 of its own. A U.S. submarine or fighter aircraft depends on hundreds of thousands of chips and the systems that command such weapons uses more than a million. 

Complex systems - systems of systems in the military jargon - are a bug hunter's nightmare. Israel has just realised that it will have no effective air defence on 1 January 2000 unless the native computer talent is rapidly mobilised. In one of the great post- Cold War ironies, the U.S. is spending millions of dollars to help Russia ensure it has a working air defence system. There is already plenty of evidence after the end of the Cold War how Russia's decaying defence establishment may result in the launch of even its nuclear arsenal because of mistakes in its air defence and command and control systems. 

The U.S. and the U.K. are beginning to fret that by having to make rapid adjustments and by using foreign computer programmers such as in India to repair these problems, the result may be seriously compromised reliability and security of weapons systems. And as the modern armed forces of the U.S. and the U.K. ``war game'' the Y2K problem, they are growing more worried about military contingencies that result from economic collapse. East Asia's economic meltdown reminded them that riots, as we saw on the streets of Jakarta, can quickly get out of control when panicked people think their money is worthless. There are also serious concerns about how the collapse of vulnerable public utilities may cause emergencies that require military assistance. The collapse of Quebec's power grid in ice storms this winter or the failure of a U.S. communication satellite controlling pagers have made defence planners worried about what happens when the computers controlling other public services such as water supplies or power plants begin to fail. 

A particular bad dream in NATO is the weaknesses derived from the failure of allies in modern integrated warfare to take the issue seriously. Canada, Australia, and more recently the Netherlands and Italy are beginning to take action. But American and British officials are now explicitly worried about how Japan, Germany and especially France see Y2K as an ``Anglo-Saxon obsession''. The most cynical NATO Governments (but not their major multinational corporations) see the issue as an attempt to distract Europe from meeting the computer modernisation challenge involved in the conversion to the new single European currency. 

Western allies further afield have other reasons for myopia. Some Arab countries, whose calendars may not be about to turn to 2000, still have vulnerable chips and software in their weapons systems that they bought from Western countries. When Western governments briefed military attaches from developing countries recently about the Y2K problem, some thought this was another ruse for Western companies to sell yet more equipment at high prices. 

Given the late and patchy response to the Y2K problem, it is hard to be sure whether we will ``merely'' have a large number of civil emergencies or the real risk of major war. Consider the most likely first major hot spot of the Millennium - the Taiwan Straits. In March 2000, Taiwan will hold a presidential election in which a candidate of the pro- independence party may well be the front-runner. It is a pretty safe bet that China, as it did in 1995-96, will try to threaten Taiwan by mobilising troops and firing missiles. Will the U.S., as it did in 1996, send two aircraft carrier battle groups and deter a Chinese attack? 

The Y2K problem could complicate everyone's calculation. Taiwan's economy may be in a mess with riots on the streets because banks are closed, air traffic control is frozen, nuclear power plants have shut down and water supplies are contaminated. China's ``information warriors'' who hack into Taiwan's computer networks may have caused some of this chaos. If the poorer and less technologically dependent Chinese military is less affected, it might feel now is the time for a military strike. But will China's missiles fire accurately? China's already dodgy command and control systems are likely to be seriously degraded. And of course, how will the high-tech U.S. Navy shape up? Will communication be unreliable, will Australian and Japanese allies be paralysed technologically as well as politically? For East Asians who might just be emerging from the worst of their economic crisis, it may be hard to remember ``Don't Panic''. 

(The writer is Director of Studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London)