More than 100 observers gathered at a Northern Virginia defense site recently to watch what the Pentagon billed as the world's largest year 2000 drill.
They were there to find the answer to one of those annoying millennium questions: What will happen if 1,000 computer systems are rolled over to a date in 2000?
The answer is, not a whole lot.
The event, at the Department of Defense Logistics Y2K Operations Center near Centreville in Fairfax County, was guaranteed to be a little short on drama, as the test involved logistics, not combat systems. There was no chance, for example, of missiles being launched at Luxembourg or anywhere else.
But as any soldier who has been in the field will tell you, it's the beans and bullets that will win a war.
"How we get orders from the foxhole to the factory, then deliver the parts back to the foxhole is a crucial element in our operations that absolutely must work," Defense Secretary William S. Cohen told reporters last week.
The Pentagon goes through a lot of beans and bullets. The 44 systems that were tested conduct about $80 billion of Defense Department business each year. If service members use it, shoot it, eat it or wear it, it's probably been ordered by the computers, according to Zach Goldstein, the Pentagon's director of logistics information systems.
The July 13 test linked more than 1,000 participants from all four services spread out at 22 sites across the United States and five Navy ships docked around Norfolk. "Our test was not a so-called inside the Beltway paper exercise," Cohen said.
The Y2K problem arises because computer software for many years did not specify the first two numbers when referring to years. It is feared that many computers will read 2000 as meaning 1900, causing widespread breakdowns.
For the recent test, technicians built a duplicate network and then rolled computer clocks forward to simulate the week following Feb. 28, 2000. There were only a few minor glitches, which officials said demonstrates that the Pentagon's $3.7 billion program to address the Y2K problem is succeeding.
"We feel very confident, based on what we've seen here and what we've demonstrated, that we've got a system that works and works well," said Roger Kallock, deputy undersecretary of defense for logistics.
It's nice to know that the beans and bullets will flow unhindered in 2000, but most people will take even greater comfort from knowing that U.S. nuclear weapons should be safe from Y2K mishaps, according to Pentagon officials.
"Fears of accidental nuclear launches are unfounded," Adm. Richard Mies, head of the U.S. Strategic Command, said at the Pentagon's Y2K briefing last week.
Audit Critical of NAVAIR
The Naval Aviation Systems Command, headquartered at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Southern Maryland, has been given a big, fat, figurative "F" for its inventory procedures by an internal Navy audit.
Among other things, NAVAIR spent $88 million from 1996 to 1998 ordering "items with no demand," according to the audit. The command has a 100-year supply of some materials, it reported.
The audit was written in June 1998 but only disclosed this month by the publication Defense Week.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who has been critical of Pentagon waste, said the military has failed to get a grip on its long-standing problem of inventory overstock. "No company could justify making purchases the way the Pentagon does," Harkin said in a statement.
Part of the problem at NAVAIR is that the command's centers at Pax River and elsewhere in the country each have maintained their own inventory, leading to unnecessary orders. Items needed by one center were sitting unused at another center, the audit found.
"There wasn't one central command system, and we're creating that now," said Sandy Miller, a spokeswoman for the command at Pax River. "We are making progress. It's a big project."
NAVAIR also has to figure out what to do with all the unneeded items. Some of the parts can be used by other commands or services, and other material will be sold to foreign military.
"It's time-consuming and costly to dispose of this stuff," Miller said.
HELP Gets Exactly That
Lisa Joles's phone at Quantico Marine Corps Base has been ringing off the hook in recent days, but she's still looking for more calls.
Joles, the wife of a staff sergeant based at Quantico, created an unofficial volunteer network two years ago called HELP, or Helping Enlisted Lives Prosper. The group attempts to assist Marines who are having difficulties making ends meet. These are primarily junior enlisted troops who have trouble supporting families on their salaries.
Many of the Marines and spouses who help out with the group were themselves beneficiaries of furniture and clothing when they first arrived at the base. "They in turn give it back," said Joles, who runs the group from her home on base. "They help us move furniture. They come out to volunteer."
A recent Washington Post article described the work being done by Joles's group, including their weekly routine of "trashing," or going through garbage left on the curb at the base and looking for items that could be given away to needy Marines. Even though the article did not list her telephone number, many readers tracked her down to offer items that they had planned to sell or throw out.
"They're just saying, we would rather give this to our soldiers," Joles said.
One anonymous company delivered a dozen beds to Joles's house.
So many people have offered furniture that Joles was driving around Northern Virginia last week in a rented truck, picking up beds, dressers and dining room tables offered by donors.
But Joles said more furniture donations are always welcome. "This stuff will be gone in no time," she said.
Joles can be reached at 703-630-0042.
Military Matters appears every other week. Steve Vogel can be reached at email@example.com via e-mail.