|By Linda D.
American Forces Press Service BRUSSELS, Belgium -- No one really knows what will happen after the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31, 1999. How will the Defense Department's 30,000 computer systems react as Jan. 1, 2000, begins ticking? Computer glitches could affect the military's pay, supplies, equipment and, consequently, overall readiness. Pentagon officials are now preparing for what Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre calls "the El Nino of cyberspace." Department computer experts are tackling what's become known as the Year 2000 problem, or "Y2K." Experts say reaching the year 2000 may cause everything from microwave ovens to DoD's nuclear command and control systems to go haywire. Automated data processing programmers for decades saved expensive memory by using only the last two digits of years -- 1998 would be written "98." In 2000, then, when computers see "00," they may not know whether it's 2000 or 1900. So as the digital date goes from "99" to "00," computers may go seriously out of whack, causing a passel of problems. Think about it -- computers today are involved in every aspect of modern life. They're in cars, planes, furnaces, air-conditioning units. Government agencies and private companies use computers to process pay, health benefits, life insurance and other vital information. Digital transmissions are the basis for countless transactions. What will happen if computer data is no longer reliable? Or if computer programs simply quit running? Some credit cards with expiration dates beyond 1999 are already being kicked back at checkout counters. So what's being done to prevent future computer chaos? As much as possible, according to the Pentagon's deputy secretary. Computer experts throughout government and private industry are working overtime, Hamre said, during a recent interview with the American Forces Press Service during a trip to Vienna. DoD, in particular, is justifiably concerned and heavily motivated to deal with Y2K, Hamre said. The military has more than 25,000 computer systems, of which about 3,000 are deemed "mission critical." "If they do not function," Hamre said, "there will be a serious loss of some capability in the department." Losing an accounting system, for example, may not seem crucial, he said, but "if it's a payroll system and you can't pay the troops, that's a lot more serious." So far, defense officials have fixed about a third of the mission-critical systems, Hamre reported. Another 800 are in the process of being replaced. "We still have about 1,200 systems that are crucial to our operations that are not yet fixed, and we have only 18 months left." About $1.9 billion is allocated to fix the military's computers, Hamre said. One of the hardest problems is finding programmers. "There are startling stories of American companies hiring programmers from Ireland and flying them back and forth on weekends so they can see their families," he said. "We [the United States] actually changed our immigration laws to allow 90,000 computer experts to immigrate to the United States this year." The deputy secretary said he is confident the department will be able to keep its operations going. Special task forces are working on critical areas such as financial transactions and air traffic control safety issues, he said. "We have a dedicated task force working to ensure all systems required for nuclear command and control are secure," Hamre noted. "Everything from the early warning satellites down to the custodial codes required for fusing and arming. That will all be OK." Fixing the computers takes time, however, Hamre pointed out. "In the old days programmers worked out their own idiosyncratic ways of doing shorthand," he explained. "Everyone had their own style. We didn't really start developing consistent styles for programming until the '70s and '80s. In one program, it may refer to dates with a letter designator -- date equals the letter 'e.' Any time it sees the letter 'e,' it goes back and looks at a date calculation. That will vary from one program to the next." It's not difficult to change the programs, Hamre said, but it's tedious. "This is very much journeymen's work," he said. "It's going through that original computer code and looking at every line and finding if it has a date in it and changing it. It doesn't take sophisticated programming skills, but it's tedious and it's easy to miss things." In the months ahead, defense officials will do everything they can to correct the department's computers, Hamre said. But he admits he foresees some awkward moments due to what he calls "the embedded chip problem." "Most of what runs these computer systems are little computer chips on a circuit board," he said. "Until several years ago, most of these chips were not built to be year 2000 compliant. The problem is, none of us knows where all these chips are." Sometimes the manufacturer doesn't even know where all the chips came from, Hamre said. "You can have a modern tape recorder or a digital microwave oven and it probably has one of these chips in it. You're not going to know until Jan. 1, 2000. They could fail in unpredictable ways." Embedded chips could cause problems throughout the department in the numerous off-the-shelf products bought in the last five to eight years, Hamre said. "We're going to have some surprises that we can't predict right now." Pentagon leaders are also concerned about how Y2K will affect Russia's defenses. Like the United States, Russia's early warning system uses a series of electronic-based radar and satellite systems to monitor the world to know if missiles are launched. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russians left places where they had radar. They now have holes in their early warning systems, Hamre said, and, "They're nervous about having good visibility. From everything we can see, they haven't really tackled the year 2000 problem." The United States wants to set up a joint early warning center to share information should the Russian systems fail, Hamre said. "If the Russians go blank on Jan. 1, in the year 2000, they're going to be sitting right next to Americans who are looking at their systems and saying, 'Don't worry, you can look at ours.' "We think it's very important for them not to feel apprehensive about the safety and long-term viability of their nuclear forces. We want them to feel confident they can command and control their nuclear forces," Hamre said.