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Viewpoint: E2a Is Worse Than Y2k

By Les Earnest

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 43 No. 7, Pages 27-28

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The Y2K computer problem was good for bottled water sales, but the two-digit year bug had about the same impact as the overly hyped non-appearance of Comet Kahoutek in 1973. What did you expect from a shrinking acronym? As you may recall, when serious discussions of this problem began several years ago it was called the "Year 2000" bug, which quickly shrank to "Y2000," then "Y2K." It finally went "Poof!" and essentially disappeared.

While that was going on, a more insidious threat has been developing almost unnoticed. I'm talking about an Ever-Expanding Acronym (E2A). Based on observations of the last 45 years we can predict what the U.S. military-industrial establishment will be doing in Y3K if it doesn't self-destruct in the meantime. Unfortunately the picture isn't pretty.

This line of development began in the mid-1950s when a tortured acronym was assigned to a project called SAGE, (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment). This alleged manned bomber defense system was a technological marvel that integrated radar systems with computers operating in real time that were supposed to direct manned interceptors and ground-to-air missiles against any invading bombers.

However, SAGE was an operational fraud in that it worked only in peacetime demonstrations and would have disintegrated under a real bomber attack that employed radar jamming, not to mention the ballistic missiles that were developed before SAGE was fully deployed. The real threat it was intended to deal with was the concurrent development by the U.S. Army of a competing air defense system called NIKE. Somehow, nobody figured out that SAGE was a fraudnot the U.S. Congress or the media and certainly not the taxpayers. They were successfully hoodwinked by collaborators from MIT and the Air Force, with help from IBM, RAND, and its spinoff, SDC.

Nevertheless, the elegant lifestyle that SAGE provided for generals in the Air Defense Command soon induced envy in the Strategic Air Command inasmuch as a number of SAGE computer facilities were placed at SAC bases. Not to be outdone, General Curtis Lemay initiated development of his own computerized system, called the SAC Control System. Given that transistorized computers had become practical just after SAGE was developed, SAC managed to one-up the Air Defense Command by purchasing a more reliable (though equally useless) system.

When the full name of SAC's system was written out as "Strategic Air Command Control System," the chance juxtaposition of the middle words "Command Control" somehow took on mystical meaning in the Pentagon and elsewhere, convincing senior officers that they had discovered a new paradigm that would transform warfare. They set up new organizations devoted to developing additional "Command-control systems," sometimes affectionately called "C2."

The development of C2 systems became a major growth industry even though they were nearly all operationally inferior to the manual systems that they were supposed to replace. The focus of those running these development programs was on spending all funds allocated to them within each fiscal year, so that they would qualify for an increase the following year. Nobody was expected to meet any particular performance objectives inasmuch as everyone knew that computerizing their command functions would improve performance(!).

By the early 1960s there was a World Wide Military Command Control System (WWMCCS) being developed for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who could not afford to be out-computerized by their subordinate military units. By the 1970s a new generic term was created for systems of this type, namely "command-control-communications" or "C3."

Nobody was expected to meet any particular performance objectives inasmuch as everyone knew that computerizing their command functions would improve performance.

Though the military intelligence community had developed their own useless C3 systems from the beginning and had been subject to even less congressional scrutiny than others by virtue of getting some of their projects funded under the "black budget," they felt left out of the mainstream until the Pentagon coined the term "command-control-communications-intelligence systems" or "C3I," which I believe came into vogue in the 1980s. A major C3I project of that era was the Strategic Defense Initiative or "Star Wars" and managed to surpass all of its predecessors by expending several billion dollars without producing anything tangible, courtesy of President Reagan's rampant imagination and reportedly the bogus advice of Edward Teller.

Last year the government announced the next version of their ever-expanding acronym, as reported in the electronic newsletter Edupage on March 23, 1999:

  • Trench Warfare in the Information Age
  • The National Research Council has issued a report warning that military forces are not giving sufficiently serious attention to their command, control, communications, computers and intelligence systems (known as C4I). "The rate at which information systems are being relied on outstrips the rate at which they are being protected. The time needed to develop and deploy effective defenses in cyberspace is much longer than the time required to develop and mount an attack." Military analyst Kenneth Allard says, "Twenty-first century combat is the war of the databases, in which information flows must go from the foxhole to the White House and back down again."

It is interesting to note that even though computers have been a central element of the E2A systems from the beginning, the word "computer" was not incorporated into the generic name until more than 40 years after this line of development began. The fact that it is now included suggests that computers have somehow become respectable, even though most modern C4I systems appear to be about as useless as their ancient predecessors.

Based on growth history, the next augmentation should have been at least a decade away, but the terms "surveillance" and "reconnaissance" were appended by the end of 1999 so that the acronym became C4ISR (see the official government Web site at www.disa.mil/D8/html/c4isr.html). This rapid mutation suggests that the Pentagon may have been under some kind of environmental stress, perhaps from Y2K computer problem concerns or from ozone depletion in the upper atmosphere. I'm not sure whether the "S" and "R" were added sequentially or all at once, but there appears to have been some careful planning in view of the fact that they avoided the deadly "IRS" letter sequence.

While it appears that the augmentation rate is increasing, we can make a conservative estimate of future developments by using linear projection. Given that the acronym has grown from C2 to C4ISR over the last 40 years, the mean augmentation interval has been 40/5 = 8 years, which means we can expect at least 125 augmentations during the next millennium. While it is clear that there may be additional letter mutations, in order to fix ideas let us suppose that from now on just terms beginning with C, I, S, and R are inserted with even distribution, with the next step being, say, the insertion of "Internet." On that basis, by Y3K these systems will be called C35I33S32R32.

Writing out the full name and explaining it will substantially increase the documentation required for these projects, which will further enlarge the taxpayers' burden. However, these projects will ensure full employment for our nation, so that our descendants and their corporate employers can look forward to an increasingly prosperous future as long as nobody attacks us with real weapons. But if anything goes wrong with this projection, the Y2K computer problem will look like a picnic by comparison.

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Les Earnest ([email protected]) is a senior research computer scientist emeritus at Stanford University.

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