Army fears civil chaos from millennium bug


Huge deployment would deal with fallout from computer failures

Tuesday, October 27, 1998

Ottawa and Toronto -- JEFF SALLOT
in Ottawa
in Toronto

The Canadian Armed Forces have been ordered to spend the next 14 months preparing for what could be their biggest peacetime deployment -- tens of thousands of troops spread across the country and frigates standing by in major ports -- in case computer problems in 2000 bring civil chaos.

The army is studying everything from the number of flashlights and batteries it will need if power is out for weeks to whether military air-traffic-control field equipment should be set up at civilian airports.

Logistics officers are plotting where to position vehicles, fuel, tents, cots, ration packs and other supplies. Signals officers are trying to figure out how to keep high government officials in communication if commercial systems fail.

Rules for the use of force are being drafted should soldiers have to make arrests or back up police dealing with riots and looting.

As police, fire and other civilian emergency services make their own plans, military commanders have been told that meeting the threat of the Year 2000 bug is their highest priority and will be the focus of all training from January on. Equipment purchases that do not contribute to the effort are to be postponed.

No one knows whether a common programming flaw -- a seemingly small matter of dealing with dates beyond 1999 -- will cause cascading failure in the world's computer systems,knocking out in the dead of a Canadian winter machines that run everything from traffic lights to nuclear reactors.
It could turn out to be one of history's great anticlimaxes, but the armed forces are taking no chances.

The effort is called Operation Abacus, after an ancient Chinese bead-and-string calculator that needs no power and is not susceptible to glitches. A 24-page "warning order" was sent to military commanders, regional headquarters and reserve units across the country nearly two months ago.

"There is a potential for disruption of major infrastructure systems . . . that may require Canadian Forces support to civil authorities," the order begins. The commanders have been given until mid-November to come up with first drafts of plans that will be refined right up to Jan. 1, 2000.

The success of the operation depends on "public confidence in the government's ability to manage and provide leadership in dealing with the year 2000 problem," the order says.

Navy captains have been told their ships may have to be docked to serve as garrisons, power plants, field hospitals and soup kitchens.

On land, the official worst-case scenario would have 32,000 soldiers, including volunteer reservists, living and working in the field.

So far, the army says it has sought no cabinet order pressing weekend warriors into service. Rumours in reserve circles suggest the field force could reach more than 60,000, including many non-volunteers, if such an order were issued.

Such talk was not diminished by an article this month on the Year 2000 effort in the Maple Leaf, an official army magazine. Lieutenant-General Ray Crabbe, a just-retired deputy chief of defence staff, said soldiers need not worry about missing their 1999 Christmas holidays.

"As far as Christmas goes, I don't think you could deploy 60,000 troops away from their homes at Christmas, especially from a morale point of view," he was quoted as saying. "I'm not sure you can say the same thing for New Year's Eve."
Almost everyone knows about the problem by now.

Traditionally, most computers recorded years in two digits: "98" for 1998, "99" for 1999 and so on. When "00" arrives, some computers may think it is 1900 or some other base year.

Some may be uncertain of the year or even the day of the week. (Dec. 31, 1999, is a Friday; Jan. 1, 1900, was a Monday. That does not compute.) They may act strangely or shut down, paralyzing complex systems.

Or maybe not. The Year 2000 problem (Y2K for short) has been called both a death sentence for industrial civilization and a fraud perpetrated by computer types.

Whatever it is, billions of dollars and millions of hours of work will have been lavished on it before the end of next year. Greying, out-of-fashion mainframe programmers have found themselves commanding wages as high as $1,000 a day, at least temporarily, in the rush to fix countless lines of code.
If the troops are out in the cold, they will have plenty of company. Police forces have begun warning their staffs not to plan vacations around the turn of the year.

The RCMP's 16,000 officers have been told to book no time off from Dec. 27, 1999, to March 15, 2000, at least until the scope of the Y2K problem becomes clearer.

Toronto's 5,000 police officers have been given no-go dates of Dec. 27, 1999, to Jan. 9, 2000, and Vancouver's 1,150 officers have been given Dec. 29, 1999, to Jan. 14, 2000. Calgary police are considering the same dates as the RCMP, although no order has gone out.

Montreal's fire department says there will be a Y2K vacation ban but has announced no dates. The Toronto department has no special ban but says December and January have customarily been no-leave months because of extra fires associated with candles, fireplaces and space heaters, among other things.