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At the heart of C3I are computers. The biggest...

At the heart of C3I are computers. The biggest complex is called Wimex, short for Worldwide Military Command and Control System. It is a vast electronic brain that reads poetry and philosophy and regular updates from The New York Times. It also connects the far-flung outposts of U.S. strategic defense, furnishing data from satellites and perimeter radar and giving operational support to the North American Aerospace Defense Command or NORAD, the agency vested with warning the nation of impending nuclear attack.

Theoretically, men control this array of electronics grown increasingly complicated and ponderous; the NORAD computer complex today sits atop acres of shock-absorbing coils like a spring-mounted city.

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But because Wimex in some ways thinks faster and with greater clarity than any single individual, the machine is given broad discretionary powers. It can, for instance, order early stages of war preparedness, documents show. These are known as DefCon 5 and DefCon 4.

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War readiness is measured in DefCons or 'defense conditions,' scaled from 1 to 5. DefCon 1 ('troops deployed for combat') has never been called. DefCon 2 ('troops ready for combat') has been called only once, during the Cuban missile crisis.

Fortunately, neither the Soviets nor Americans have yet turned over the launching of missiles to computers. Wimex, however, can scramble waves of B-52s from their bases and summon missile-launch officers to their posts in underground silos and submarines. Its most sensitive data are transmitted to the airborne command posts that stay aloft 24 hours a day to coordinate possible retaliatory strikes.

Wimex not only thinks faster than people, it also makes mistakes faster.

In November 1979 it pulled a colossal blunder, details of which are still hard to come by. According to sources, a lieutenant colonel working at NORAD's headquarters was given access to the wrong machine and accidentally punched a war-games tape into a missile-warning component of Wimex. The system went nuts. It apparently did not, or could not, sort out the difference between war games and reality.

'It told the rest of us we were about to be hit by a mass raid, a huge 'bolt out of the blue' scenario,' says a congressional investigator. 'Compared to this raid, Pearl Harbor was a Sunday picnic.'

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NORAD's famous display map of the globe blazed with fireflies, each light representing where an enemy launch was supposed to have occurred. Missile launch flares were detected by Wimex from near the Soviet Sakhalin Peninsula to deep-sea submarine corridors along the U.S. coast.

Operating from a preprogrammed alert program known as Cocked Pistol, Wimex beamed radio signals to missile-firing crews around the world. Giant wailing Klaxons mustered pilots to their warplanes as Wimex showed waves of Soviet Backfire and Badger bombers descending on a defenseless continent. Civilian air traffic controllers were ordered to suspend flights and divert traffic in Washington and other cities to clear the way for expected military transports.

'(Wimex) was going to war,' says a scientist with the government's Office of Technology Assessment. 'And it came damn close to taking the country with it.'

Fortunately, there were clear indications the Soviets were not tinkering with Armageddon, including strangely peaceful radio traffic intercepted by the National Security Agency. Within hours, a technician shut down the panicked computer.

Latham and defense planners indicate the system has been rewired so that such errors cannot be duplicated. But with each fix, other breakdown-prone areas emerge.

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