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Y2K Problem Will Be Nuisance, Not Crisis

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 16, 1998 – Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre expects Year 2000 computer problems to be "nuisances, not crises," he said Oct. 14 at a Pentagon press meeting.

Hamre said DoD will have Year 2000 fixes in place for 95 percent of its more than 2,500 mission-critical systems by the end of the year. Testing of the fixes will begin in March 1999. All mission-critical computer systems will be Year 2000-compliant in time, he said.

The Year 2000 problem, nicknamed "Y2K" and "millennium bug," exists because the computer industry for decades saved expensive memory by using only the last two digits of years rather than all four -- 1998 would be written "98."

Memory is cheap today. "Two-digit" hardware systems and software programs are still widely used, however, and no one really knows what a lot of them will do on Jan. 1, 2000. It could be disastrous, for instance, if finance and accounting systems treat the "00" as "1900." Government and industry are scrambling for "compliance" -- assurance their systems will handle the year change correctly.

Hamre said the department is attacking the Y2K problem just as it would an enemy. "We know the time and place this enemy will attack," he said. "It has the capability to shut down our fuel system, command and control, logistics and resupply -- everything an enemy would go after.

"In July, we said to the chairman and the chiefs, 'This is a warfighter issue.' That galvanized the leadership. The technical guys had always been concerned and working hard on the issue, but this [move] got high-level interest, and we've made much progress."

The warfighters are in charge of certifying weapon and communications systems. The various undersecretaries of defense are in charge of certifying support systems. The warfighters and undersecretaries also must design tests to ensure the fixes work.

Hamre said it is tough to put an assessment together because the problem is so large and widespread. "We run a test in one place with one piece of equipment and it works well," he said. "We do it with a similar piece of equipment somewhere else and it fails miserably. Another example is we have 14 mission-critical systems in our intelligence field, but there are 300 separate projects associated with them."

DoD is "on a path to fixing the problem. We can't use the excuse that we can't defend the country [on Jan. 1, 2000] because our computers went down," Hamre said.

The department is slated to receive $1.1 billion from Congress as part of a supplemental aimed at correcting Year 2000 problems. DoD officials said the total cost for the problem will be around $1.9 billion, not including testing costs.

Hamre is not as confident about U.S. allies. "Some, like the United Kingdom, have an aggressive program," he said. "Australia, Canada are also with us. It falls off rather quickly after that."

He said some allies six months ago were still not really aware of the problem -- they didn't think it that big a deal, he surmised. "I think we're going to see some nasty surprises overseas," he said.

The United States is working with allies on the Year 2000 problem. Early warning systems and nuclear command and control in Russia are a concern, Hamre said. The U.S. military is working with Russian counterparts to keep early warning systems working and to maintain controls in the Russian nuclear surety program.

DoD is also working with U.S. firms to ensure DoD facilities will work after the deadline. "We're confident in the national telecommunications system," he said. "DoD works through the National Communications System to ensure changes are made and the system will work. Our industry partners have no sense of panic over Year 2000 problems in the continental United States. We can't say the same about providers overseas."

DoD and other federal agencies are working together on Year 2000 consequence-management plans -- what they must do and what other help they can render the nation if Y2K bugs cause problems. "We [DoD] don't know how widespread the problem will be," Hamre said. "We have the largest field-power-generating capability in the world. We can provide emergency drinking water. We can provide emergency communications." But even these capabilities would be overwhelmed if there were massive problems, he said.

"Obviously, we would have to set priorities," he continued. "The survival of the country is first -- our nuclear command and control -- this would have the first priority. Early warning is a priority to DoD as is the protection of the president of the United States and ongoing military operations. All these would be our priorities. What about public safety and health? How could we help? These are all questions that have to be answered."

Jan. 1, 1999, is the deadline for all systems to be Year 2000 compliant. "I wake up about once every five days thinking this problem is a lot worse than we think," Hamre said. "But I think we have put our arms around the problem. We will do the job of defending the United States of America on Jan. 1, 2000."

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