DUGWAY PROVING GROUND -- The Army conducted a major Y2K test at Dugway Proving Ground Thursday, setting computer clocks ahead to test a complex network of more than 7,000 computer systems.

Dugway has invested heavily to deal with the Y2K scare: Some new equipment purchases at the base will be delayed by a year or more because most of the $1.7 million spent on Y2K issues came out of the post's existing budget, said Dugway commander Col. John Como.Just after noon Thursday, technicians surrounded by computer screens in Dugway's Mission Control Center watched as the clocks counted down to zero and then began counting up again as if it were the first minutes of January 2000. Computers were then rebooted and the test repeated two more times to check leap year transitions from Feb. 28 to 29; and from Feb. 29 to March 1 in 2000.

"I think Dugway is ready for the year 2000," said John Rupp, the West Desert Test Center Y2K project director. "In 11 months and two weeks, we'll find out for sure."

Dugway's test is one of hundreds being conducted around the globe on land, in the air and on the high seas by Department of Defense units.

Dugway exposes military hardware -- everything from tanks to gas masks and other protective clothing -- to chemical and biological agents and simulants to see how well the equipment will shield soldiers from the agents. Laboratories and test chambers also test devices used on the battlefield to detect the presence of chemical and biological agents.

"Are we ready? I believe we are," Como said. Would this be the last test before the new year? Officials at the base said testing will be repeated during the year as an added margin of safety.

Nobody gets fired if a failure is discovered now, said Jerry Steelman, chief of the Chemical Test Division. "The whole purpose of this thing is to find out where your vulnerabilities are."

Dugway spent $1.7 million over the past two years assessing 7,229 computer systems at the post for Y2K bugs. Companies that sold the equipment to the Army helped with some of the fixes, "But not all of our vendors were forthcoming," Como said. Some were unprepared to guarantee their hardware or software would survive the date change.

Only 44 of the 7,229 components checked did not need to be modified or replaced. Many of the systems that did not need fixing are in a seldom-used fungus testing laboratory. "Fungus doesn't care what the date is," Como said. Some computers in that lab may generate reports with the wrong date when the century changes, but those dates can be changed by hand.

Thursday's test included security systems, e-mail servers, Dugway's Web server and computer systems that operate equipment that test chemical and biological weapons. The telephone system was the only component not checked Thursday, and that is because Dugway couldn't get the right contractor scheduled into the test.

An identical phone system at the White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico already passed muster, Como said. Besides, if the phone system failed, "Sometimes not getting calls from higher headquarter might be a blessing," the base commander quipped.

Testing is Dugway's mission. So even Thursday's test had a test. Tuesday, the post conducted a dry run before going through the paces with a room full of reporters and VIPs.

"We did this the other day because I didn't want to stand up here and say it was going to work and then it didn't," Como said. "But if we had a failure today, we would know that we had from now until the end of the year to correct it.

"What scares us most is what we don't know," Como continued. "We've done everything we can to identify the things we work with every day that have a computer system in them."

Dugway's labs are expected to be idle on the real 2000 rollover because of the holidays. But tests have not been scheduled away from normal work periods because of Y2K concerns. Military components that send equipment to Dugway for testing have work scheduled into 2001.