WASHINGTON -- When midnight strikes on Dec. 31, U.S. and Russian military officers will be sitting side-by-side at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, trying to ensure that the gremlins of Y2K don't spur an accidental launch of nuclear weapons.
They hope to dispel fears that a year 2000 computer glitch will blind Russia's early-warning system or send the false signal that Washington has launched a missile, leading to the ultimate nightmare: a decision by Moscow to counterattack.
Experts for both nations say they are confident there is no serious threat of a Y2K-related missile launch. But to guard against even the remote possibility, the Center for Year 2000 Strategic Stability at Peterson will use information from U.S. satellites and ground-based sensors fed through computers that are clear of any Y2K bugs.
Any uncertainties or misunderstandings detected in Moscow would be resolved by the Russians hunched over computer terminals in a windowless second-floor room in Colorado Springs.
"If something pops up on a Russian screen in Moscow, that could be validated at Peterson," said Maj. Perry Nouis, a spokesman for the Air Force Space Command, which is running the center.
Still, some members of Congress and nuclear weapons experts want U.S. and Russian officers to go further, with one critic calling the much-vaunted center a "Band-Aid" approach. These critics contend that the only sure way to prevent a mistaken nuclear exchange is to "de-alert" thousands of nuclear missiles -- which can be fired in minutes -- by removing warheads or the keys used by officers to initiate a launch.
"Maintaining hair-trigger readiness for nuclear confrontation is unjustifiable in today's world," said Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat. "The potential for a missile launch due to misinterpretation of warning systems may well be higher on Jan. 1, 2000, than at any other time since the start of the Cold War."
Last week, Helen Caldicott and 10 other anti-nuclear activists took out a full-page ad in the New York Times in which they pressed for the United States to de-alert the estimated 2,000 nuclear weapons that can be fired in minutes. Such action, they said, is "the only sure way" to prevent a mistaken nuclear attack.
"I think Y2K is another in a long list of reasons why we should not maintain our nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert," said Bruce G. Blair, a nuclear weapons expert at the Brookings Institution.
Blair has long pressed for a missile de-alert, fearing that a coup or even a low-level Russian officer could precipitate a nuclear exchange.
In the early 1990s, Blair said, President George Bush de-alerted hundreds of B-52 bombers, as well as 450 of 1,000 Minuteman missiles, while Russian President Mikhail S. Gorbachev made similar moves.
But the United States still has 2,400 land- and sea-based nuclear warheads poised for immediate launch out of its 6,000-warhead inventory, Blair noted, and Russia has a comparable number set to launch in minutes.
Power of 100,000 Hiroshimas
The estimated 5,000 hair-trigger missiles from both sides have the blast power of 100,000 of the atomic bombs that hit Hiroshima, Blair added.
"They could be fired almost immediately to targets halfway around the planet," he said. "We shouldn't have to be worrying about these things 10 years after the Cold War. We should be able to relax a little bit."
Last year a government-wide study recommended against any further effort to de-alert the nuclear force. Those who took part in the study said they feared that the United States' immediate ability to launch nuclear weapons could be dangerously delayed by weeks or even months.
"These things are very, very tedious processes," said a senior Pentagon official involved in the talks. Further de-alerting could leave America's nuclear forces vulnerable to a surprise attack, the official said, noting that the once hair-trigger B-52s now take 24 to 48 hours to achieve alert status.
Warheads removed from Minuteman missiles could take weeks or months to be made ready for launch.
And despite the end of the Cold War, officials based their decision against further de-alerting on uncertainty in Russia, he said, such as the possible "re-emergence of a hostile Russian leadership."
They also foresaw difficulties in verifying whether Russians would abide by a de-alert status and the fear of a "race to realert" should a crisis occur, the official said.
What emerged from the study was a decision for "shared early-warning" data between the United States and Russia, a move that will begin in December and continue through January, the Pentagon official said. A permanent U.S. and Russian center is expected to open in Moscow in 2001.
In addition, the United States has agreed to notify Russia before it launches any rocket, even one bearing a satellite into space.
Both the senior defense official and Blair say they doubt there will be any misinformation or false alarm caused by Russia's early-warning system, even if it is infected by a Y2K bug that causes a computer to misinterpret the last two zeros to mean the year 1900. More likely, they say, computers would simply shut down and offer no data.
But Blair says that even if the computers "go black," it could be disconcerting to Russian leaders who have the ability to launch missiles within minutes.
'Accident waiting to happen'
In 1995, Russia's early-warning system registered a false alarm after Norway launched a scientific rocket. Moscow could not be sure whether the launch came from U.S. or British submarines operating in the area, Blair said.
That peaceful rocket "activated President Yeltsin's nuclear briefcase," Sen. Richard G. Lugar, an Indiana Republican, said at a Senate hearing last month.
The problem was finally recognized after about eight minutes, Blair said. He noted that the Russians have a 10-minute window between a possible enemy rocket launch and a decision on whether to launch a counterattack.
"The real culprit is not Y2K but rather the hair trigger on U.S. and Russian forces," Blair said. "The high combat readiness of these arsenals, particularly Russia's, is an accident waiting to happen."
But the senior defense official said he was confident that the sharing of the early-warning data and the notification of any U.S. missile launches are enough to prevent any mistaken nuclear exchanges.
"We think we're taking the steps needed to deal with the potential problem," he said.