DoD Ever More Confident Y2K Bug Won't Bite Overseas
By Paul Stone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 30, 1999 The U.S. Senate's special committee investigating the Year 2000 problem recently released its 100-day report proclaiming the millennium bug will cause little more than isolated, minor inconveniences in the United States when Dec. 31 turns into Jan. 1, 2000.
That's good news if you're a service or family member at a stateside installation. But what if you're overseas in Europe, the Middle East or the Far East? Does the same level of confidence exist in Germany, Kuwait or Korea?
Yes and no.
"We can't say it's going to be as good as in the United States, but we're not predicting disaster either," said Peter Verga, deputy to the undersecretary of defense for policy support. Verga is one of the Pentagon's senior troubleshooters for overseas issues regarding Y2K. As such, he has been monitoring Y2K progress throughout the major overseas commands during the past two years.
Y2K issues are just as important overseas, not just because of warfighting missions, but because most U.S. installations are highly dependent on host nations for such critical services as electricity, fuel, water and telecommunications. Commanders can fix their own systems, but can't control what goes on outside the fence, Verga explained.
"I think we're confident enough to say that in areas with large numbers of military family members, Y2K overseas will be no more severe than a major snow or ice storm," Verga said. "There may be temporary or extended power outages here and there. There may be problems with water supplies on a temporary basis. And there could be some transportation problems related to power outages. But we no longer see these as problems that will severely impact either service or family members, regardless of whether they live on or off the installation."
The Year 2000 problem, nicknamed "Y2K," refers to a past computer industry practice of writing years with just two digits -- 1999 would be "99." Because of this digital shorthand, some computer systems on Jan. 1, 2000, might treat "00" as "1900" or just shut down. Almost any computer system may be vulnerable and needs to be checked and then, if necessary, fixed to handle the year change or replaced. A computer system that recognizes the year 2000 correctly is called "compliant."
Many of the 130 key foreign installations already meet U.S. standards of assurance that essential services will remain intact during the Year 2000 transition. Verga said that number is expected to rise rapidly during the final three months of this year as efforts intensify to collect information from host governments. There are 300 U.S. overseas installations worldwide.
"All the reports coming in now have a positive trend," Verga said. "As we get closer and closer we're getting better information indicating most services in most areas are going to be OK."
But it hasn't always been that way. Verga said DoD went through several frustrating months during which host nations or local officials were reluctant to or unable to provide U.S. commanders with reliable information on their systems' abilities to handle the Year 2000 date change.
"Nobody likes to put themselves on report. So when local commanders began asking questions of local service providers, they kept hearing that everything was OK, even though they suspected otherwise," Verga said.
The turnaround, Verga said, came when DoD and the State Department co-chaired an international interagency group specifically designed to work with host nations and to compile realistic assessments of their Y2K status in areas critical to DoD operations. The interagency group then formed teams to visit embassy personnel, local officials and service providers in assigned regions.
"That's worked out quite well," Verga said. "We've been able to fill in a lot of the blanks. In many cases, the information we needed was unknown." Those unknowns, he explained, were of particular concern.
"For planning purposes, if you know it's bad, you can plan for it being bad," Verga said. "If you know it's good, you can plan for that. Unknowns are the worst of all because you don't know which way to go, and that forces you into worst-case situations."
(State Department consular advisories now include Y2K information for 172 nations. The information is current and will be updated throughout the Y2K watch period. To obtain information on a particular nation, go to http://travel.state.gov and follow directions on the site.)
While confident that on a "command-by-command basis everyone is in good shape," Verga said DoD is focusing heavily on overseas Y2K preparations and will continue to do so throughout the rest of the year. Pentagon briefings are conducted monthly on overseas Y2K preparedness, and in mid-October decisions will be made on pre-positioning emergency equipment at locations where commanders are still uncertain about continued services.
Verga said items that might be pre-positioned would include such items as water purification systems, additional generators or bottled water. But he emphasized that there hasn't been "a big hue and cry for extra equipment."
"My own feeling is that not a lot of that is going to be necessary," Verga said. "Military bases and units are generally pretty self-sufficient for the basics and often have backup systems in place."
Nor, he emphasized, are the potential problems associated with Y2K new to overseas countries. "There may indeed be minor to moderate interruptions of services, but in many cases those occur anyway," Verga said. "Electricity fails in many countries regularly. Computer networks fail regularly as well. In many areas of the world their systems are not as reliable as those in the United States, so we've become accustomed to intermittent outages."
Regardless of the extent of Y2K failures, Verga said, DoD will be able to carry out its warfighting mission and take care of service and family members wherever they are stationed.
"The real message is that we're getting the appropriate information, we're making the appropriate plans, and should it turn out a command in a particular region has a problem, it will be responded to appropriately," he said.