The Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY.), February 23, 1999, FORUM Pg.06a

Reassuring the Russians

FOR ALL the scary talk these days about bioterrorism and about rogue nations developing long-range missiles, the biggest threat to the U. S. remains Russia's strategic nuclear arsenal. And the deterioration of Russia's military only adds to the danger.

So we were glad to read yesterday that our government is encouraging Russia to set up a joint missile-warning center to deal with possible false alarms due to computer error when the year 2000 arrives.

In the U. S., government and businesses have devoted considerable resources to fighting the Y2K bug. Russia, with its ailing economy, doesn't have such resources. The Russian Defense Ministry says it has the Y2K situation under control, at least when it comes to its missile systems, but the Yeltsin government evidently is interested in cooperating with the U. S.

But it's not just computers and the Y2K bug that military planners in Moscow and Washington have to worry about. As The Washington Post reported earlier this month, Russia's system for detecting missile launches is in serious disrepair. Several of its early-warning satellites have gone kaput and haven't been replaced. And the ground-based radar system that once ringed the Soviet Union has major gaps, as well - partly because some of the radar stations were in republics that are now independent countries.

Even when the Soviet system was fully operational, there were some close calls, including one in 1983 when a satellite interpreted the reflection of sunlight on a layer of clouds as an American missile launch. In 1995, a Norwegian research rocket was at first mistaken by the Russian military for a submarine-launched missile.

Helping the Russians prevent such mistakes just might be the best possible use of our defense dollars. And it wouldn't require us to build a single new weapon system.

Copyright 1999 The Courier-Journal
February 24, 1999