Launch Nuclear Attack? Insert Disk Seven

By: Jonathan Strickland

Launch Nuclear Attack? Insert Disk Seven HowStuffWorks
Launch Nuclear Attack? Insert Disk Seven HowStuffWorks

The U.S. Government Accountability Office issued an alarming report on May 25, 2016. They found that several important government agencies depend upon outdated or even obsolete technology. The Treasury Department, for example, uses computer systems that are 56 years old and has no firm plans to upgrade them. But the section that got the most media attention focused on the Department of Defense.

It turns out the DoD systems dedicated to the operational functions of U.S. nuclear forces run on computers that still rely on eight-inch floppy disks. In fact, an IBM Series/1 computer provides the technological brainpower behind this infrastructure. That computer debuted in 1976.


Worse yet, the DoD reported that the age of its nuclear force systems is 53 years. That means these systems were brand spanking new when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. These are the same systems that coordinate the functions of stuff like intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear bombers. Compare that to the average life span of a consumer PC, which is between three and five years. The DoD's computers are positively ancient in comparison.

The report also found that more than 75 percent of the IT budget for these agencies went to operational and maintenance costs. In other words, rather than spending the money to upgrade systems, these departments had to spend increasingly large amounts to keep existing infrastructure working.

As the technology ages, it becomes harder to maintain and replace parts. Most companies don't find it profitable to produce outdated equipment. On top of that, the software and computer languages on these systems are also out of date. Getting support is difficult or even impossible. So what gives?

The main problem is that you can't just go out and buy an off-the-shelf solution for agencies like the Department of Defense. These systems are very specific. It's a huge endeavor to upgrade technology when the programming is so particular. It could mean having to rebuild the entire software side from the ground up, including using newer computer languages. This ends up being more secure and reliable, but it requires a large investment of time and money.

That being said, the DoD plans on having its data storage and terminal systems upgraded by the end of fiscal year 2017. That should come as something of a comfort to those who know that magnetic storage — like floppy disks have — degrades over time.

It's important to remember that it's not just government agencies that struggle with a balance between supporting legacy systems and staying current with technology. Many older companies still have obsolete machines tucked away in data centers just to run old versions of software for particular projects. But when it comes to handling a nation's federal finances or nuclear forces, an upgrade seems like a good idea.