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US nuclear operations are coordinated using decades-old computers and 8-inch floppy disks

Wikimedia Commons/Michael Holley
US nuclear operations use nothing but the most cutting-edge technology . . . of 1974.
  • Corinne Purtill
By Corinne Purtill


Published This article is more than 2 years old.

The Strategic Automated Command and Control System transmits orders and coordinates information across the US nuclear missile system. It does so using technology that became obsolete during the Reagan administration.

The US Department of Defense system runs on IBM Series/1 computers introduced in 1974 and discontinued in 1988. It uses 8-inch floppy disks produced in the 1970s that hold 80 kilobytes of data each. A single one of the flash drives in the bottom of your desk drawer holds the equivalent of 3.2 million such disks’ worth of data.

Why has this Tron-era technology not been replaced?

“This system remains in use because, in short, it still works,” Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. James Brindle wrote in an email.

The nuclear operations system is only one of several astonishingly outdated computing systems still in use in government departments, according to a new report from the US Government Accountability Office.

The timekeeping system for Department of Veterans Affairs employees runs on a computing language written in the 1950s and 1960s. The system housing the Treasury Department’s Individual Master File—which, as it sounds, is the master record of all individual taxpayer data—is more than 50 years old and written in a “low-level computer code that is difficult to write and maintain,” according to the report.

Keeping these antiquated systems going is a drain on the government. The US government spends about 75% of its roughly $80 billion annual IT budget just repairing and maintaining existing systems. Parts and the expertise needed to maintain these aging systems are increasingly hard to come by. Over the last seven years, the amount spent on basic maintenance has gone up, while the amount spent on new technology has fallen.

Some of the systems are so old that vendors no longer support the product, the report noted, opening them to security risks. The departments of Commerce, Defense, Transportation, Health and Human Services, and Veterans’ Affairs all use Microsoft operating systems that the company abandoned more than a decade ago.

The report notes that Defense launched this year a $60 million replacement of the system scheduled to be finished in 2020. The floppy disks will be retired by the end of 2017.

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