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U.S. asks Russia to join in missile-alert system; Move designed to reduce risk of Y2K computer bug setting off false warnings


MOSCOW -- The United States has urged Russia to set up a joint missile-warning center before the end of the year to reduce the risk that the year 2000 computer problem might trigger a false nuclear alert.

The proposal was made in talks last week between U.S. and Russian defense officials, a senior Pentagon official said yesterday.

It is part of a broader effort to prevent the millennium bug from disrupting Russian systems used to warn of enemy attack and to maintain control over the nation's vast nuclear arsenal.

"The Russians responded with interest," the official, Edward Warner, an assistant secretary of defense, said in an interview.

As the year 2000 approaches, experts around the world have been concerned about computer breakdowns that might occur if software misinterprets the year 2000 as the year 1900.

The problem has received substantially less attention in Russia than in the West. It remains a worry for military specialists, who fear that computer problems might disrupt radar and command systems on which the Russians depend to retaliate against a nuclear attack.

Pentagon officials say the danger of an accidental nuclear war is minimal, even if the millennium bug is not fully eradicated. A sober-minded military leadership and a general awareness of the year 2000 problem, they say, should be sufficient to prevent the Russians from inadvertently firing their nuclear missiles.

"The impression that either side has a fully computerized system is false," Warner said.

Still, the Pentagon does not want to take any chances. Even before the year 2000 problem arose, experts had been concerned that miscalculation might lead the two sides to stumble into a nuclear war. In 1995, for example, the Russian military initially misinterpreted the launching of a Norwegian scientific rocket as a possible submarine missile attack.

The proposal that Pentagon officials presented last week is a variant of a plan on which the two sides agreed when President Clinton met with President Boris Yeltsin in September, but it has yet to be carried out.

During their summit meeting, they signed an accord under which the United States and Russia would instantly share data about the launching of ballistic missiles and space payloads.

It was a major step toward cooperation between the former adversaries. But the very easing of tensions that made the agreement possible also seemed to detract from the urgency of carrying it out -- at least, for the Russians, who have been preoccupied with political and economic crisis.

The Pentagon still hopes to carry out the September accord. But fearful that the agreement may not be carried out before January 2000, it is now urging that it be put into effect on a temporary basis, if necessary.

Pub Date: 2/22/99

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