An independent research report issued this week undermines government reassurances that the world's nuclear weapons arsenal will not be disabled or accidentally triggered by Year 2000 failures.
The US government is so worried about the problem that it asked for Russian missile controllers to stand "right beside" their American colleagues when the clock ticks over to the next millennium to avoid "misunderstandings", the report says.
Published by academic pressure group the British American Security Information Council (Basic), the report - 'The bug in the bomb' - is the most detailed research yet into the defence millennium problem.
Focusing on the US Department of Defense (DoD), the report says: "There have been severe and recurring problems across the entire DoD Year 2000 remediation programme".
The dangers are intensified by "the Russian and American emphasis on 'launch on warning', which mandates immediate firing of weapons when enemy nuclear defences are detected".
According to a former Soviet satellite technician quoted in the report, in Russian missile defence systems "if the date is used somewhere to track an incoming missile and then the date shifts to 000000 for a brief moment, there is a division by zero - an extremely high value - that fools the system into thinking there is a high probability of a nuclear attack".
Basic said a copy of the report had already been sent to the Ministry of Defence and that a special report on the UK defence situation would follow soon.
A Ministry spokesman refused to comment on the operational status of the UK's nuclear defence weapons, but said a full Year 2000 appraisal and remedial program has been in force for some time.
The UK's nuclear weapons are based on American designed Trident missiles and command and control systems. "We expect the situation in the UK to be pretty similar to that in the US," the Basic spokesman said.
Colin Barker is associate editor of Computing.
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