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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 35, March 1999

US and Russia Cooperate on 'Millenium Bug' Nuclear Threat

In mid-February, US and Russian defence officials met in Moscow to discuss ways of cooperating to minimise any potentially destabilising effects caused by the 'millenium computer bug', or the 'Y2K (Year 2000) Transition'. The discussions were held against a backdrop of concern about the general health and comprehensiveness of Russia's early-warning systems (see last issue).

The American side was led by Edward Warner, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Threat Reduction. Warner provided journalists with an extensive briefing on the discussions in Washington on 25 February, extracts from which follow:

"We were in Moscow late last week [18-19 February]...for a meeting of something we call the Defense Consultative Group. That is a periodic meeting done about every six or eight months in which we take stock of and plot the course for our future cooperation between the ministries of defense...

We heard from the Russians in late November, early December, that they were interested in...talking with us about where we might do some concrete and specific US-Russian cooperation in meeting the challenge of the Year 2000. ... The [issue] that gets the biggest play...was a specific proposal that is related to our ongoing discussions about sharing early warning data. .... [A]t the [Moscow] summit last September, Presidents Yeltsin and Clinton agreed to at least move as soon as practicable to set up a system for sharing early warning data about long-range launches. And we had a follow-up to that commitment in early September [and]...a meeting of full size delegations...in early December on this matter. So we are engaged with the Russians on seeking to develop a system which itself has a number of pieces.

Number one, it's supposed to provide, once established, a steady flow of early warning data developed on both sides' early warning sensors that would flow to national command centres of the other side. They would drive a computer display of what these warning sensors are detecting. There was also a commitment at the summit to set up a jointly manned warning centre somewhere in Russia as part of this continuous sharing of early-warning data. Finally, there was discussion of a Russian-American initiative in the broader international community to set up a process for pre-launch notification of any long-range missile tests or space-launched vehicle launches...[under which] the US and Russia would lead the process of getting any nations from throughout the world who want to voluntarily join in this pre-launch notification regime. ...

Now, what we proposed with regard to Y2K is related but separate. We're not confident that this process of setting up the continuous sharing is going to bear fruit...by the time of the great transition... So we proposed to the Russians that we would invite them to come to a specially set up facility in the Colorado Springs area out near Space Command and that that facility would be manned jointly by Russian and American early warning launch specialists for a period from about the middle of December to perhaps the middle of January...and we would pump our early warning data into a set of displays at that location. ... [T]he Russians, at least at first staff level, raised the possibility that perhaps Russia could provide its data as well. There was no commitment made. ...

So that was put in front of the Russians. We have no response beyond the initial, unofficial response of staff officers who saw it and asked for further clarification. We have submitted that proposal in a letter to my counterpart, the First Deputy Chief of the Russian General Staff, and we will expect an answer. We offered to talk about it when we follow up in the broader early warning process in the middle of March. And we would most certainly at least propose that we look at this when the Russians come here. The Russians accepted our invitation...[for them to send] a team of specialists to the United states in the latter part of March..."

Also on 25 February, Vladimir Yakovlev, head of Russia's Strategic Rocket Forces told the Interfax news agency: "We have reached a preliminary agreement on this [early warning centre proposal] and consultations are now being carried on at a working group level... We have not yet decided on the question of where this centre will be located and the scope of its activity. It's [too] early now to speak of timetables of bringing this centre on line. But nonetheless, such terminals of the centre should be located on United States and Russian territory."

In an interview with Reuters in Moscow on 21 February, Warner sought to play down fears of any serious mishap: "I'm not of the opinion either on a day-to-day routine basis today or even at the time of Y2K that there is a high danger of the launch-on-false-warning kind of problem. Their system has long had multiple layers of command and control and authorization. ... Nevertheless, we certainly want to encourage them to look with particular care at [their] systems...because one wants both sides to continue to have effective systems they have confidence in."

On 2 March, Major-General Vladimir Dvorkin, head of the Russian Defence Ministry's Strategic Missile Research Department, also stressed that the situation was firmly under control. "I apologize in advance," he told reporters, "if I fail to justify hopes that there may be amongst you for an apocalypse if we do not solve this problem." However, in comments which now have grave import, Dvorkin added:

"The risk of making the wrong decision is higher when international tensions escalate... The risk of such mistakes, including those caused by the unresolved Y2K problem, would be eliminated if international tensions eased, especially in conflict regions such as Iraq and Yugoslavia."

On 8 March, Democratic Representative Ed Markey (Massachusetts) argued that the "Y2K issue" was a "perfect opportunity...to open the whole discussion" of permanently standing down both States' forces from alert status.

Editor's note: On 26 March, in response to NATO's bombing of Serbia, the Russian Defence Ministry announced it would be withdrawing from all Y2K projects with the US - see next issue for more details and reaction.

Reports: US military start Moscow talks on millenium bug, Reuters, 19 February; Washington, Moscow ponder Y2K nuclear danger, Reuters, 22 February; US, Russia ponder nuke danger of Y2K, Reuters, 22 February; Russia, US agree millenium early-warning center, Reuters, 26 February; Russia invited to missile facility, Associated Press, 26 February; Transcript - US invites Russians to monitor year-end early warning, United States Information Service, 1 March; Russian military upbeat on Y2K but not complacent, Reuters, 2 March; Russia weighs false warning danger, Associated Press, 2 March; Y2K nuclear stand-down urged, Associated Press, 9 March.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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