8-Inch Floppy Disks Still Running U.S. Nukes: Program Uses 1970s IBM Computer Tech

The U.S. nuclear program still uses eight-inch floppy disks and 40-year-old IBM computer tech, according to a report by the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO).

GAO found that the Pentagon still has such old IT infrastructure that it still uses a 1970s-era IBM Series/1 computer system that requires “eight-inch floppy disks” to coordinate America’s nuclear and ballistic missiles. The disks, which can hold around 80kb each, were already becoming obsolete during the late 70s, and were soon replaced by less floppy 3.5 to 5.25-inch disks, before being completely replaced by the compact disc (CD) by the 1990s.

Yet the system is still being used for the operational functions for the U.S. nuclear program, and the GSO report says Washington spends upwards of $60 billion dollars a year operating and maintaining this incredibly obsolete tech.

According to The Register, the GAO report stated that the U.S. Department of Defense’s Strategic Automated Command and Control System (SACCS) “[c]oordinates the operational functions of the United States’ nuclear forces, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear bombers, and tanker support aircrafts. This system runs on an IBM Series/1 computer — a 1970s computing system — and uses 8-inch floppy disks,” though it added that the DOD “plans to update [SACCS’s] data storage solutions, port expansion processors, portable terminals, and desktop terminals by the end of fiscal year 2017.”

In general, the watchdog reports criticized federal IT investment as spending billions on outdated and obsolete technology and keeping important systems tied to 16-bit computers and decades-old hardware that is no longer supported. To put the use of eight-inch floppies into perspective, the average modern flash drive can hold the equivalent of about 3.2 million floppy disks.

Use of horrifically outdated technology by federal departments didn’t stop at the DOD, however. GAO also noted that the Treasury Department still calculates tax returns on a 56-year-old IBM mainframe with programs written in assembly code. Even worse, unlike the DOD, the Treasury says it has no plans to update its 1950s-era systems. Department of Commerce weather alert systems still use Fortran, and the core system used Windows Server 2003, which is no longer supported by Microsoft. An eight-year-old IBM System z10 mainframe using COBOL was found in use at the Department of Homeland Security for some of its personnel systems, and the Department of Justice was found still using archaic tech for its database on prison inmates.

CNN noted the difficulty in making meaningful changes in Washington and updating government computer systems.

“Bringing government departments into the 21st century has proven difficult across the board. Megan Smith, the current U.S. Chief Technology Officer, told the New York Times in 2015 of the ‘culture shock’ experienced by the tech-savvy Obama campaign when they took control of a White House still dependent on floppy disks and Blackberrys.”

While the government’s reliance on old technology may seem laughable, SC Magazine spoke with IT security veteran at Barracuda Networks VP Wieland Alge, who argued that the real risk was updating the systems and causing incidents, or opening up the whole system to “modern vulnerabilities.”

“At first glance, it’s easy to make fun of the Pentagon for relying on 1970’s technology. If you look a bit closer, you’ll actually see that many other large organisations are running similar legacy systems. The Pentagon has by all accounts been running a bulletproof, isolated system, which certainly appears to have been doing its job to full satisfaction. Even today, we see many industrial environments using a similar set up. Sure, the industrial world isn’t run on floppy disks, but there is still a lot of 1990’s and early 2000’s technology used to control plants and steer machines.”

The Office for Management and Budget has recently started an initiative to encourage government bodies to update their long-standing systems and bring them into the 21st century.

“However, until this policy is finalized and fully executed, the government runs the risk of maintaining systems that have outlived their effectiveness,” said GAO, according to MarketWatch.

GAO made 800 recommendations to the OMB and multiple government bodies to update their systems, but as of late last year only 32 percent of those have been implemented.

[AP Photo/Adam Butler, File]