Y2K and Accidental Nuclear War?

Several thousand nuclear weapons in Russia and U.S.A., and several hundred in four other nuclear weapon states are still on full alert, with warning systems and some aspects of their launch and control systems run by computers. The world has survived all the false alarms and computer malfunctions in 40 years with this disaster waiting to happen, by a combination of luck and good management.

Little change has been made since the Cold War ended, despite statements by U.S. and Russian presidents about “de-targetting”. Bruce Blair of the Brookings Institute referred in testimony to U.S. Congress to: “…the serious false alarm in January 1995, triggered by the firing of a Norwegian scientific rocket, which for the first time in Russian history triggered a strategic alert of their LOW [launch on warning] forces, an emergency nuclear decision conference involving their President and other national command authorities, and the activation of their famous nuclear suitcases.”

From 1 January 2000 the operation of all computer systems with a 2- digit year in it anywhere, will be uncertain. Expert “fixes” cannot be certain to work under every combination of circumstances. Could there be a malfunction that could trigger an accidental nuclear war? No expert can guarantee that there could not. Satellite navigation for cruise missiles and intercontinental rockets is one example where a date input is required. Could a test rocket flight, or a cruise missile launched by the U.S. military against terrorists, land in quite the wrong place — or appear to a computer-operated early warning system as if it were going to?

I know of no way of estimating whether the increased risk will be large or small, but it must be an increase. My interest in this matter is not so much the actual increase of the risk — there has been an unacceptable risk of accidental war throughout the nuclear deterrence era — as that this threat could become the trigger which makes governments of the nuclear powers listen to the concerns of their citizens, and abolish the risk.

The way to make the risk zero is to remove all warheads from their delivery systems. Computers can issue warnings or even command a launch, but they cannot bolt warheads back in position, and that gives everybody time to stop and think. A major degree of “de- alerting” would go some way towards achieving the same result. These things can be done quickly, and are verifiable. Fixing all possible computer bugs is going to take much longer than the 15 months that are left, or however long they may have been working on it, and can never be guaranteed.

We need an international campaign based on well-informed statements. The question was discussed by SfP Board last week, and we plan to talk to Pugwash for a start. Physicians for Global Survival will discuss it with International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War and affiliates in many countries.

To make the NWS governments change policies needs a strong public and NGO movement. For a start we need a powerful statement by respected computer experts. David Parnas, former SfP president, has given a private opinion that there is a real problem, with no guaranteed computer solution. Are there other computer experts in SfP, or colleagues of readers of this note, who would be willing to correspond with me or SfP Board on this matter? Please contact the Science for Peace Board at sfp@physics.utoronto.ca or Dr. Alan Phillips at aphil@icom.ca.

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