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U.S. Military Wages War on New Enemy: Y2K

Technology: With reliance on 1.5 million computers, defense operations worldwide could be vulnerable. But officials say they're making progress.

April 02, 1999|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even as U.S. military forces lead the NATO offensive against Slobodan Milosevic, they are also preparing to do battle with another dangerous foe: the Y2K bug lurking in the computers that run much of the military's high-tech weaponry.

Government agencies large and small are struggling to avert the Y2K computer problem, but nowhere are the stakes higher and the situation more technologically daunting than at the Department of Defense.

With personnel, equipment and facilities spread over 660 locations around the globe, the Defense Department uses 1.5 million computers and 28,000 computer systems--some of which date from the computer equivalent of the Pleistocene era and are highly bug-vulnerable.

Everything from nuclear weapons to the reservation system for tee times at base golf courses is dependent on computers.

One reason the U.S. has become the world's most powerful military force has been its ability to harness computers to collect and disseminate mountains of information and to ensure that firepower can be directed swiftly and accurately.

But critics both inside and outside the Pentagon worry that the Defense Department's success with computers is also a potential Achilles' heel, and that the Y2K bug could become the chance of a lifetime for an adversary to land a sucker punch on U.S. forces or allies and thus win a victory of enormous propaganda value.

Under this nightmare scenario, the Y2K bug lashes out on New Year's Eve and "blinds" a portion of the military's computers, and suddenly, U.S. warplanes, Tomahawk missiles, early warning devices, surveillance systems and information-needy combat troops become useless.

To ensure that this does not happen, the Department of Defense is hip-deep in an unprecedented, $3-billion computer repair and replacement program.

After a sluggish beginning, the military's assault on the enemy lurking in its computers has begun to gain ground--but not enough to satisfy critics in Congress and a private-industry watchdog group.

To get his bureaucratic troops moving, an exasperated Defense Secretary William Cohen last year issued an unusually blunt order declaring Y2K a threat to national security.

"This isn't just a computer-geek issue; this is a war-fighting issue, and I'm holding you responsible for it," Cohen told his top deputies.

With Cohen's boot to the backside for motivation, military forces are spending much of this year in mock-warfare Y2K exercises, including the first at-sea Y2K test for a naval battle group, staged off Southern California.

"Saddam Hussein and the others have to realize that there is no good time to attack, no window, no opportunity, no hole in which the Navy is not prepared to respond, and Y2K doesn't change that," said Capt. Timothy Traverso, the top Y2K bug-chaser for the Navy's Pacific Fleet.

Traverso's upbeat assessment came at the end of the Y2K drill for the aircraft carrier Constellation and 13 ships that constitute its battle group, a force that may be patrolling the Persian Gulf next December and enforcing the no-fly zone in Iraq.

During a 14-day Y2K readiness test, the ships' computerized clocks were repeatedly rolled ahead to the Dec. 31 witching hour--in what is called a "midnight crossing." The goal was to test the numerous patch jobs Traverso has ordered in the 160-plus systems in the battle group that are vulnerable to Y2K.

Navy brass wanted to assess the battle group's ability "in a Y2K environment" to detect hostile ships and aircraft; launch and retrieve F-14 Tomcats, F-18 Hornets and other warplanes; and fire a full range of computer-controlled weapons, including Tomahawks.

To create a "stressed environment," a general alarm was sounded during one phase of the test, sending 5,000-plus sailors aboard the Constellation scurrying to battle stations. Traverso judged the exercise a success, although some systems remain to be tested before the battle group deploys in June.

"It was like herding a soccer field full of cats at the beginning, trying to figure out all the systems," said Mark Boose, the civilian expert hired to direct and assess the effort. "I think we've got 'em corralled now, though."

Congressional critics, such as Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Long Beach), want to believe Pentagon officials when they say that "mission-critical" systems will be repaired with time to spare. But Horn and others say more tests and more proof will be needed before they are satisfied.

As late as November, Horn, chairman of the House subcommittee on government management, information and technology, graded the military's Y2K performance as worthy of only a D-minus. In February he upgraded that to a C-minus.

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