US Nuclear Weapons Computers Still Using Floppy Disks

Man sorting old computer systems for recycling
Government still depends on computers others are recycling. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

The programs that coordinate operations of the United States’ nuclear weapons still run on a 1970s-era computer system that uses 8-inch floppy disks, according to report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Specifically, the GAO found that the Department of Defense’s Strategic Automated Command and Control System, which “coordinates the operational functions of the United States' nuclear forces, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear bombers, and tanker support aircrafts,” still runs on an IBM Series/1 Computer, introduced in the mid-1970s that “uses 8-inch floppy disks.”

While the primary job of the system is no less than to “send and receive emergency action messages to nuclear forces,” the GAO reported that “replacement parts for the system are difficult to find because they are now obsolete.”

In March 2016, the Department of Defense kicked off a $60 million plan to replace its entire nuclear weapons control computer system by the end of fiscal year 2020. In addition, the agency told the GAO it is currently working to replace some related legacy systems and is hoping to have replaced those 8-inch floppy disks with secure digital memory cards by the end of fiscal year 2017.

Far from an Isolated Problem

Disturbing enough by itself, nuclear weapons control programs on 8-inch floppies is just one example of the increasingly serious obsolescence of the federal government’s computer technology described by the GAO.

“Agencies reported using several systems that have components that are, in some cases, at least 50 years old,” stated the report.

For example, all 12 of the agencies reviewed by the GAO reported that they were using computer operating systems and components that are no longer supported by the original manufacturers.

Folks struggling with Windows updates might enjoy knowing that in 2014, the departments of Commerce, Defense, Transportation, Health and Human Services, and the Veterans Administration were all still using 1980s and 1990s versions of Windows that have not been supported by Microsoft for over a decade.

Tried to Buy an 8-Inch Floppy Disk Drive Lately?

As a result, noted report, it has become so hard to find replacement parts for these often obsolete computer systems that about 75% of the government’s total fiscal year 2015 budget for information technology (IT) was spent on operations and maintenance, rather than development and modernization.

In raw numbers, the government spent $61.2 billion just to maintain the status quo on its more than 7,000 computer systems in fiscal year 2015, while spending only $19.2 billion to improve them.

In fact, noted the GAO, the government’s spending for maintenance of these old computer systems increased during fiscal years 2010 to 2017, forcing a $7.3 billion reduction in spending for “development, modernization, and enhancement activities” over the same 7 year period.

How Could this Impact You?

Aside from accidentally starting or failing to respond to a nuclear attack, problems with these aged government computers systems could cause some serious problems for many people. For example:

  • The Internal Revenue Service is using a 56-year-old IBM mainframe based computer program coded in assemble language, which the GAO calls “difficult to write and maintain,” to manage its individual master file, “the authoritative data source for individual taxpayers where accounts are updated, taxes are assessed, and refunds are generated.” While assembly language programmers are becoming rarer every day, the GAO reported that the IRS has no current plans to modernize the system.
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs runs its veterans Benefits Delivery Network, which “tracks claims filed by veterans for benefits, eligibility, and dates of death,” on a 53-year-old set of mainframe programs written in COBOL – “a programming language developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s.” While the VA told the GAO it has “general plans” to upgrade the system, it has no firm time frame for doing so.
  • Similarly, the Social Security Administration runs its Title II system, which does no less than determine Social Security retirement benefits eligibility and amounts, on 162 programs written 31 years ago in COBOL. While the Social Security Administration told the GAO it has “ongoing modernization efforts,” they are experiencing cost overruns and scheduling delays due to the “complexities of the legacy software.”
  • The Department of Justice’s SENTRY system, which the Federal Bureau of Prisons uses to track information on prison security and custody levels, inmate work and correctional program assignments, inmate release dates and other critical information about the inmate population, uses 35 year old programs written in COBOL and Java programming languages.

What the GAO Recommended

In its report, the GAO made 16 recommendations, one of which was for the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to set goals for government spending for computer system modernization projects and to issue guidelines on how the agencies should identify and prioritize legacy computer systems to be replaced. In addition, the GAO recommended that the agencies it reviewed take steps to address their “at-risk and obsolete” computer systems. Nine agencies agreed with the GAO’s recommendations, two agencies partially agreed, and two agencies declined to comment.